Wednesday, May 15, 2013


A few months ago our son Ben was diagnosed with a learning disability.

This, of course, didn't come out of the blue.  Since Ben had his first evaluation in preschool, we've known he has struggled with letters and sounds--and even before that, when I tried to teach him my "favorite subject" when he was two or three years old--I could see that it wasn't clicking.

Over the years we have heard "boys develop these skills later," and "Ben just needs more practice," and "Ben has such a positive attitude toward learning--we have no doubt that he will catch up." But despite time and practice, the academic basics have not "stuck."

This has caused all of us a lot of pain.  Finally, though, this year Ben had a teacher who listened to my concerns and agreed that we needed to get to the bottom of what was keeping Ben from progressing academically.  Miss G helped push to have Ben evaluated in a psychoeducational assessment, something we could have done privately at a large expense--but that can also be done through the school if the student is a high enough priority.

Anyone who knows Ben knows he is smart and very creative, as well as sweet and good-natured, so we were not at all surprised to learn that his IQ was above average and that he showed talents in innovative thinking.

We were a little surprised to hear that Ben lacked efficiency in his working memory--a concept I was unfamiliar with at the time.  This inability to hold onto information while completing a task, though, is common in people with dyslexia (which I'd thought Ben had) and also ADHD.

So ... over the past little while I've been reading all I can on these topics.

I have come across a concept referred to as "neurodiversity," which basically means that people who are normally thought of as having learning disabilities also have talents that are unique to their types of brains--and that we should focus on these differences and the benefits they can bring.

I know most people hear that and think of political correctness, and phrases like "differently abled," which are sometimes used to sugar coat reality.  The more I read, though, the more I have to re-evaluate my long-held belief that reading and writing are the most important things in academics or even life.

Let me explain.

Ben loves stories and will sit and listen to me or Jason read for literally hours.  He understands what he hears and can make personal connections to the stories or think up his own creative solutions to characters' problems.

In school, though, reading and comprehension are tested by having a student read and then write about the reading.  A student like Ben may take much longer to do the reading, and then write a simplistic response that doesn't come close to reflecting what he understood.

The school's solution to this is to have someone read the passage to Ben (if it is long), and then to have Ben discuss his response with his teacher or dictate it to a scribe.

At first my reaction to these adaptations was very negative.  I felt that Ben was not developing essential skills and not being held to a high enough standard.  

But my way of thinking is slowly changing as I read about dyslexia and neurodiversity.  Changes to the way learning is measured can help to make an academic assessment more meaningful and accurate.  It's true that the emphasis is not on what I have always thought was most important (reading and writing), but it is on what is likely going to be most important for Ben: ideas.

Ben's teachers often tell us that he comes up with incredibly creative ideas--that he is good at "out of the box" thinking and can come up with solutions to problems they have never heard from students before.  This is one of Ben's many talents, and it happens to be one that is common in people with dyslexia.

Since Ben's psychoeducational assessment, several people have advised me that the best thing we can do for children is to identify their strengths, as well as their interests and passions, and give them the support they need to develop them. 

Of course we can also help our kids work on difficult areas (we've just invested in a 4-month online "brain training" program to help Ben improve his working memory and reading skills), but I have become convinced that if we spend most of our time on the stuff kids hate and are not naturally good at, we could actually be ignoring their potential for something even greater.

This is a huge change in my way of thinking.

It means, though, that we can approach learning in a much more positive way--looking at what is there, rather than what isn't, and allowing for the help Ben needs to actually learn and communicate what he knows.

It also means that we can let go of things like summer school!

Hopefully this will be the start of better things for our Ben. . . .