Demystifying Learning Disabilities: Educating Yourself and Others
Parent Leader Marcie Lipsitt for staying online to answer additional questions.
Please scroll down to the bottom of this page to view the questions and the expert's answers.
Parents of children with learning disabilities (LD) and children and adults with LD still face huge misunderstanding about what learning disabilities are…and what they’re not. When you hear an uneducated remark from a neighbor, colleague, coach, relative, or even from someone at the grocery store, how do you deal with it?
Join NCLD’s Parent Leader, Marcie Lipsitt, in discussing how to:
- Deal with people who misunderstand what a learning disability is
- Help a child respond to uneducated (and hurtful) remarks
- Explain LD in order to reduce stigma
- Deal with family members who simply don’t get it
- Respond to someone who thinks that LD = autism, AD/HD, or mental retardation
Read more about Marcie Lipsitt
Your question is always one of my favorites to answer. Whenever I run across a teacher; general education or otherwise, who believe that providing a child with an IEP or Section 504 Plan is an "advantage," I ask that teacher the following question. "Do you think that a child wearing glasses or hearing aids; having cochlear implants, a cane, wheelchair or walker; or being assisted by a guide dog, has been given an advantage against a healthy, neuro-typical child?" ... The answer is always, "Of course not." I then go on to add, "Then why do you feel that a child with a learning disability, and in need of accommodations that are allowed and required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, are an advantage?
You need to understand that accommodations such as, extended time on tests, quizzes and assignments, simply act to aid in allowing my child to receive a meaningful education, and to reach his/her potential, just as we want all children to do." Sometimes it is really as simple as pointing out the eye-glasses on the face of the teacher questioning accommodations; that have either been requested, or are already in an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 Plan.
If a child has been diagnosed with dyslexia, then it is absolutely appropriate to refer to as such. However, dyslexia is only one of a number of specific learning disabilities. If a child has been identified for special education programs and services under the IDEA 2004 and has dyslexia, it will not be "identified" as dyslexia but will be identified in the IEP under the eligibility of a "Specific Learning Disability" or "Learning Disability."
You can then describe the dyslexia in the child's "Present Level of Academic Achievement and Functional Performance" (referred to as the "PLAAFP") as dyslexia, and carefully describe how the dyslexia impacts your child's ability to make progress in the general education grade level curriculum.
It is painful to listen to a child talk about being teased or ostracized for any reason, but especially a child with a learning disability who may not yet understand or have the skills necessary to navigate social interactions in a classroom, or during nonacademic and extra-curricular activities. The middle-school years can be especially difficult.
Thankfully, there is growing awareness of the need to teach all school-age children how to problem solve collaboratively and build their social skills. You might find very helpful information by going to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY and then read, Social Skills and Academic Achievement by Kathlyn M. Steedly, Ph.D., Amanda Schwartz, Ph.D., Michael Levin, M.A., & Stephen D. Luke, Ed.D. You may also find additional information by going to SocialThinking.com; the brainchild of Michelle Garcia Winner, or the GrayCenter.org, where you can learn about Carol Gray’s “social stories.”
You may find that all too often adults in the work place are unfamiliar with the Americans with Disabilities Act 2008 and Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and you will need to share the US. Department of Justice's ADA website. You may also try to stay current by reading and sharing the Disability Rights Online News.
In addition, it is vital to remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act 2008 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 work hand-in-hand to assure that adults with disabilities are prepared for success in the workplace, along with protecting and advocating for their rights once they are employed. You will find additional information at the Pacer Center website.
I find that the best way to address people that are ignorant of people with learning disabilities or "issues" of any kind is to educate. The more clearly you can help those around you, or your loved one with a learning disability, is to educate, educate, educate. Arm yourself with websites such as, LD.org, LDonline.org, FriendsofQuinn.com, Pacer.org and the many others, and send the information necessary to those around you in your family, community or work place. I always say that "disability does not equate inability" and I educate until I am heard, or have tired out the listener. And then I begin anew!
Autistic Spectrum Disorders are recognized as “separate” neurodevelopmental disorders by far beyond the National Center for Learning Disabilities. ASD and LDs are recognized as separate disorders by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Autism Society of America, Autism Speaks, the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs and Rehabilitative Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and so many more.
Frankly, I share your concerns about the views of our public education system as they pertain to the misconception that a child with an ASD cannot learn or reach grade level and go on to a post-secondary education and the global workforce. I honestly believe that the Autism movement at a grassroots, national and international level has gone astray in its quest for health care and health insurance and forgotten about the “education” of these children. I represent parents in Michigan as a parent advocate.
I fight tirelessly for children on this vast spectrum that we refer to as an ASD to receive Equal opportunities for a meaningful, free appropriate public education. I push hard for thorough evaluations that can include a neuropsychological or psycho-educational assessment to thoroughly evaluate the patterns of learning; both strengths and weaknesses, and along with the executive functions, auditory and visual processing speeds and memory functions. Far too often both parents and educators focus only on social, behavioral and communication when it pertains to a child receiving special education programs and services under the eligibility of an ASD. I fight tirelessly to see children with an ASD treated as “1” and not as an “every” or “all.” A child diagnosed with an ASD can also have LDs. A child with ASD can have superior and gifted IQs, just as a child with a LD.
We need to stop pitting children with ASD against children with LDs, or any other disability and recognize each and every child for whoever he or she is, and more importantly, can and wants to be. This is a critically necessary conversation that cannot be put quieted.
There are a number of neuropsychiatric disorders that can look or act like ADHD with and without hyperactivity. I talk endlessly (some would say ad nauseum) about the need to change the evaluation criteria for the diagnosis of ADHD. Any child suspected of having ADHD should have a thorough Neuropsychological evaluation; along with IQ, Achievement, Speech & Language and Occupational Therapy (including a “sensory profile”), and in some cases a referral for a Neurological evaluation.
The symptoms of ADHD are only a part of what we refer to as the “executive functions.” It is superficial to identify ADHD by having parents and teachers fill-out ratings scales that do not fully evaluate a child’s neurocognitive profile. When I am contacted by the parent of a child either diagnosed with, or suspected of having ADHD and struggling in school with academics, social skills or emotional/behavioral symptoms, my first question is to ask “who” and “how” and “when” was the child evaluated.
The majority of the time I begin my advocacy for the kiddos suspected of, or diagnosed with ADHD, is to have them thoroughly evaluated through their schools or private clinicians. Regarding the medication; if your child has ADHD and the Vyvanse does not appear to be having therapeutic benefits, you might consider a consultation with a pediatric psychiatrist, or go back to your child’s pediatrician and discuss trials of other medications. There are many medications that can be used to treat and reduce ADHD symptoms.
Dyslexia is considered a "medical" and not an "educational" diagnosis. Dyslexia can also be referred to as a Reading Disorder or a Learning Disability for educational purposes. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV and now in its 5th revision) is published by the American Psychiatric Association.
The DSM-IV is the most widely accepted common language and criteria for the medical diagnosis of LDs and used by clinical psychologists nationwide. In fact the ACT Board requires a DSM-IV diagnosis of a LD as a part of their criteria to consider a student for extended time on the ACT college entrance exam. However, this is also a double-edge or educational-two-timing sword, as our Federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) does not recognize the “medical” or DSM-IV diagnosis of a LD. In fact, the medical diagnosis of LDs could not be further from the educational criteria set forth in IDEA 2004.
The rules and regulations that guide how our states and school districts identify children with specific learning disabilities has become a dangerous educational-free-for-all. Unfortunately, parents must become more diligent and knowledgeable than ever if they suspect their child has a learning disability, and should be identified for special education programs and services under IDEA 2004 or a Section 504 Plan.
The social challenges and struggles for children and adults with LDS are too often ignored and are in large measure a part of the same neurocognitive deficits that also interfere with academic learning. I believe that the best way to help children diagnosed with a LD is to thoroughly evaluate not only through IQ and Achievement testing but also their "executive functions, processing speeds, working memory and language processing." Many children with LDs also need and will benefit from social skills training.
Michelle Garcia Winner and Carol Gray, and along with NICHCY.org, are just several of the websites that will provide information on social thinking and social skills.
My son is 21 years old. Still, I remember as if it was yesterday how he spoke in full sentences at a year, and drew letters and numbers on the shower door at the age of eighteen months. He was my “chatty Charlie” as I lovingly referred to him. I also remember the concern of his pre-school teachers when Andrew was unable to follow even a one-step instruction; zip-up his coat, button his shirt or hop, skip and jump. I remember how any paper-pencil-crayon activity caused anxiety and irritability; not to mention the glaring fine motor issues present in his every workbook or page of coloring. And I remember my concerns about his social, emotional and academic learning stemming back to his early toddler years; the “red flags,” as I have always referred to them.
Andrew had his first Audiology and Psychological evaluations at the age of 4 1/2. He had his first Neuropsychological, Occupational Therapy and Speech & Language evaluations at 5 years of age. I believed that only by understanding everything about Andrew’s brain functioning could my husband and I provide the necessary early interventions. As a parent advocate I am a firm believer in trusting a parent’s instincts; partnering with teachers as early as “Mom-Tot” and then investigating any concerns about a child’s emotional, social, behavioral, cognitive and academic growth. As the saying goes; “better safe than sorry.” I tend toward the preachy side when it applies to a child’s right to receive all of the tools and resources necessary to become a maximally productive adult. Parents can always find information at KidSource.com; Learning Disabilities Association of America; LD.org; HealthyChildren.org or Google your state’s resources for children.
Speak from your heart and then share your knowledge about your son's learning disabilities. Your son’s friends, coaches, teachers and family will benefit greatly from learning about his learning profile; along with his patterns of strengths and weaknesses. The information you provide will benefit not only your son but the many children and adults that will cross paths with all that you educate.
I began my journey as an advocate for children when I was in my middle school years and trying to understand my sister’s learning disabilities, brother’s ADHD and father’s manic depression. I recently turned 51 and can honestly tell you that I have felt like “Waldo” on a search for information for most of my life. My son was diagnosed at the age of 5 with an early onset of Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, NLD, LDs and a host of other medical problems that began when he was less than one-year.
Like you, I also believed in educating my friends, family and everyone in Andrew’s social and educational stratosphere. To this day I have found that learning about Andrew’s myriad of medical, psychiatric and learning; disorders, deficits and challenges was the best way to educate friends, family, educators and countless children. Signing up for e-newsletters on websites such as LD.org, The Learning Disabilities Association of America, LD Online, FriendsofQuinn,com, NICHCY.org, Interdys.org and ED.gov are just a few of the countless resources available to educate people of all ages about learning disabilities. You can always try Google.com or Dogpile.com and then ask a question specific to learning disabilities. You will wish you could morph yourself into ten people, and then assign each one some reading and research! You and especially your son, will benefit from all who you educate.
With some humor and a bit of a groan, I will say that your question would be well served by its own one-hour “NCLD Talks!” Frankly, it deserves serious discussion at policy roundtables within the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs and Rehabilitative Services, the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the DSM-V Task Force, Study Group, Work Group and Board of Trustees…And leading research and advocacy organizations such as, NCLD, LDA, CHADD, AACAP, NLDA, Autism Society of America, Autism Speaks, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, International Dyslexia Association, COPAA and the countless organizations and stakeholders that I have failed to mention.
I’m sorry to appear long-winded, but this is an important discussion that receives far too little attention or resolution. That being said, I will offer my personal thoughts, or “3 cents,” on why the LD label should not be a “spectrum” that includes AD/HD, Speech and Language disorders, Asperger Syndrome; Central Auditory Processing disorder or executive functioning deficits. I will confuse my response by saying that I am in the camp that would include AD/HD, executive functioning deficits and CAPD under the LD umbrella of diagnoses; as all have a direct impact on a child’s ability to learn to read, write, understand math and develop higher level thinking skills. And all speak to the neurocognitive underpinnings of LDs.
I do not believe that a child is better served by referring to Asperger Syndrome or a speech and language delay as a learning disability and simply because not all children or adults with learning disabilities have social and communication deficits. In addition, a child can be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome “and” a LD…Just as a child can be diagnosed with a Speech and Language disorder and a LD. If we are ever to truly embrace the “I” in a child’s IEP (individualized education program), then we must be diligent in how we evaluate and diagnose a child with suspected special needs. Social, emotional, academic, and language and behavioral learning are educational equals. A child with Asperger Syndrome who has deficits in social thinking will need evidence based instruction in social skills, just as a student with dyslexia will need evidence based instruction in reading. Frankly, the “students” that I believe are too often left in special education “limbo” are those diagnosed with a Nonverbal Learning Disorder. IDEA 2004 does not recognize NLD as a LD or Other Health Impairment (OHI). In many states including Michigan, our special education rules do not identify a child with NLD and these students are really struggling. They are often found ineligible under a LD or OHI due to the narrow minded eligibility criteria used by many school districts. Their deficits in social thinking and social skills too often go ignored; leaving many of these children feeling isolated and ostracized.
As we complete the latest revision of the DSM-V and move into the next reauthorization of IDEA 2004, the time is “now” for stakeholders to consider the gray and murky lines that divide LDs from AD/HD, EFDs, CAPD and NLD. Parents must also be better educated to drive the special education programs and services necessary, to provide meaningful educational benefit to their children with Asperger Syndrome, a Speech and Language Impairment, AD/HD, LDs, or any combination of the aforementioned.
I have borrowed this definition of Autism directly from AutismSpeaks.org.
"What is Autism? Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). The other pervasive developmental disorders are PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified), Asperger's Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Many parents and professionals refer to this group as Autism Spectrum Disorders." Autism is not a learning disability. Although a person with an ASD can also have a LD. You may also find AutismSpeaks.org or AutismSociety.org very helpful.
I am not sure what you are referring to when you say that your have a child with LD "who is with a service that has lots of autistic people." Are you referring to a special education program or classroom; or to an agency in your community? If you are referring to a special education classroom or program, then I suggest you request an "individualized education team meeting" ("IEPT") and review your child's special education programs and services. If your child is in a special education classroom that is often referred to as a "Resource" room or "Cross-categorical" classroom, there can be children with a broad range of disabilities and special needs.
A child with a LD should be receiving specialized instruction to address the specific nature of the learning disabilities and their impact on the child's progress with the grade level curriculum; while being educated with same-age peers. Children with LDs should be educated primarily in general education classes with pull-out for individual or small group instruction. If your child is picking up the behaviors of children with ASD you need to request a meeting with this “service” whether it is in a school or community setting. Your child needs to be mainstreamed with same-age peers for the positive benefits of social, emotional and behavioral learning.
Your daughter might really benefit from "social stories" or "social scripts" that can be found at SocialThinking.com or TheGrayCenter.org" and the work of Michelle Garcia Winner and Carol Gray. She may also enjoy visiting FriendsofQuinn.com. Friends of Quinn is a website that has been designed primarily for young adults with LDs. This website was started by Quinn Bradlee. Quinn is a young man in his late twenties with VCFS (Velo-Cardio-Facial syndrome) and LDs. He has also written a memoir, A Different Life, which shares his struggles of growing up with LDs. You might also consider identifying family members and friends who may be more sensitive to your daughter and educate them about her LDs and how they impact her social and communication skills.
There are a number of educators who can assist students in building self-advocacy skills. A social worker, school psychologist, special education teacher and sometimes a school counselor or principal, can make the best connection to a student with LDs and then help that student learn to advocate for his/her educational needs. Ideally, you want to identify an "educator" that your child respects, looks up to, or likes to be around.
If your child has an IEP you can include several individuals (not by name but by title, such as a social worker or special education teacher) under the "Supplementary Aids, Services and Personnel" that your child can access for help with building self-advocacy skills. I often work with the IEPT to write at least one "Annual Goal" with a minimum of "2 Short Term Objectives" to ensure that a student is building and practicing advocacy skills, along with collaborative problem solving. You can also build instruction in advocacy skills into a “Behavior Intervention Plan” (“BIP”) and then document the BIP under the Supplementary Aids, Services and Personnel in the IEP.
If your son has an IEP or Section 504 Plan that includes “additional time on tests, quizzes and assignments” under the “Supplementary Aids, Services and Personnel,” you will then be able to share this documentation with your son’s coach. You might also consider discussing your concern with your son’s special education teacher (If he has one.), counselor or school principal and allowing one of them to talk with this coach.
You can try to explain that children and adults with a learning disability are typically of "at least" an average IQ and many have high average, superior and gifted levels of intelligence. A learning disability does not equate inability or a lack of intelligence.
Thank you for your question and concern about the feelings of your students. I find that honesty is always the best policy with children. I would establish a relationship with your students that allows you to understand their level of knowledge about their LDs.
Students who don't understand their LDs or how they can impact their ability to learn need to be educated and then taught to advocate for themselves. So as a teacher you have the opportunity to educate your students to understand how they learn...what are their patterns of strengths and weaknesses? You should also share your passion for teaching and why you have chosen to work with students who have LDs. At the end of the day, I find that children have a lot to say, and we simply need to listen.
Unfortunately, you are correct when you say that a reading disability receive more attention than a math disability. I usually refer to dyscalculia (a learning disability in math) as the Cinderella of LDs. While there is growing focus on evidence based instruction in mathematics it is slow and barely out of the gate as it applies to teacher training and then implementation in the classroom.
If a student is diagnosed with dyscalculia it is important to understand the deficits across a number of domains…through standardized achievement testing, curriculum based assessments and a student’s daily work. It is also important to rule out (or rule in) a reading disability when a student is struggling with mathematics. A student may have no actual disability in math calculation or problem solving but may have a very real reading disability and can't read the math book.
This is a great question. I am the parent of a 21 year old with LDs. Andrew began seeing a private tutor at the age of 4 ½ and with the goal of working on strengthening his executive functions (attention, focus, planning, initiating, organizing and regulating emotion) to become as independent a learner as possible. In addition, the focus on reading, written expression and math was always to work from where his skills were and not to work on homework that was above his skills set.
Frankly, I struggled more and more as Andrew entered the upper elementary and middle school years to keep his tutors focused on building his higher level thinking skills; reading comprehension, written expression and mathematics...and not to become an accomplice to completing homework assignments. This was tough. While his tutors were absolutely well intentioned and cared about Andrew, they too often did not understand the need to build his academic skills and thought that their job was to help him complete his homework. I refer to this is as the “Fake A/B Syndrome.” I work to educate all of my parents about the role of a tutor with children that have LDs.
What are the signs?
This can be a difficult discussion when you suspect that an adult has an undiagnosed LD or you feel that you may have a LD.
www.ldonline.org can be a wonderful resource along with LD.org and below are some of the symptoms that they suggest might indicate a LD in an adult.
- Continues to spell incorrectly,
- frequently spells the same word differently in a single piece of <writing
- Avoids reading and writing tasks
- Trouble summarizing
- Trouble with open-ended questions on tests
- Weak memory skills
- Difficulty adjusting to new settings
- Works slowly
- Poor grasp of abstract concepts
- Either pays too little attention to details or focuses on them too much
- Misreads information
In addition, adults with undiagnosed LD may avoid reading a menu in a restaurant or avoid social situations that require reading or writing...for example, playing board games that require spelling and navigating words.
It is never too late for an adult to be evaluated for a LD and to receive evidence based instruction to raise his/her proficiency levels in reading, writing and mathematics. As tired as this might sound...reading opens up the world for children and adults and brings increased quality of life and opportunities in the workplace.
A slow processing speed can feel like an enormous problem in the workplace or with friends and family. You might consider educating those around you about your slow processing speed. The more you can make those around you aware of your need for more time to process information and provide the answers, the better you will feel when it takes you longer to respond. By educating those around you about your slow processing speed and its impact on your ability to receive information and answer questions, the more you will be helping countless adults who struggle and suffer with the same challenge.
By the age of ten I began teaching him about his executive functions and especially because he has fairly severe deficits across all of the executive functions and I wanted him to understand that “starting a homework assignment; understanding how to complete a project and remembering a lot of information for a test, would be daunting for him and require accommodations from his teachers throughout his years in school. I will forever believe that children must learn to be their own advocates but that they learn this by watching their parents or caregivers advocate on their behalf. I also believe in including advocacy skills in an IEP under the Annual Goals and Short Term Objectives. I like to make certain that a child that needs to learn advocacy skills is being taught and has the opportunity to practice and hone skills that will be tested throughout a lifetime. A child with a LD must understand and then feel very capable of educating those around him/her. It is also helpful to send kids to websites such as LD.org, Learning Disabilities Association of America, LD Online and to Google for websites and blogs designed for children and teens with LDs.
All you have to do is look to Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill or Whoopi Goldberg, or Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, and the list of wonderfully intelligent, productive, creative and successful adults with LDs, has, does and will, go on and on and on. Having a LD is a lifelong challenge but it does not have to ever stop a child from reaching and achieving his/her dream. And then as always, you can guide students to books and websites, LD.org, Learning Disabiltiies Association of America, CHADD.org, Nonverbal Learning Disorders Association, LD Online, that explain learning disabilities. Some students will greatly benefit from All Kinds of Minds and Lost at School.com.
For adults, the Job Accommodation Network a free consulting service of the US Dept. of Labor can be very helpful. Got to
The PACER Centers provide services to children age 14 -21; "Transition PACER provides information, resources, and technical assistance to parents of young adults, 14 through 21, with disabilities and the professionals who work with them on transition related topics, such as; post secondary options, housing, employment, and recreation.
Also see Transition Parent Briefs developed by PACER in collaboration with other national technical assistance centers." The link to the transition portion of the PACER website -- I think you will find some wonderful information for young adults as they transition to post secondary or seek employment. Thank you for the information on the Job Accommodation Network!
For decades I have collected what I refer to as an "educational toolbox" that I can use to assist parents. I will forever believe that there is something of value to be learned every day :-).
Today's Parent Talk has concluded. Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful questions and special thanks to our expert, Marcie Lipsitt, for sharing her time and expertise with us today.
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