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Solving the Puzzle of
Learning Disorders

Sharon L. Wenger, M.Ed.

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For over 100 years educators, scientists, parents and students alike have been puzzled by the confusing picture presented by children and adults with learning disorders. You may see before you a bright, expressive individual, even gifted in many ways, but will get a completely different picture if you happen to witness their tortured attempts at reading and/or writing.

Despite the obvious problems such students experience, until quite recently there was no scientific proof that learning disabilities existed. This gave rise, in the public school system at least, to a convoluted "recipe" which defined learning disabilities in a round-about fashion, requiring identification of a "significant discrepancy" and a "processing disorder," for example.

Although most school systems are still using this outmoded model of identification, there now exist more exact methods, and treatment options are much improved. In the case of dyslexia, for instance, not only do we know precisely how the dyslexic individual's brain works differently, we have also identified the primary deficit underlying the problem, specifically phonemic awareness. This weakness can be detected relatively early in a child's school career, allowing specific, timely intervention that may prevent a relatively minor issue from becoming a lifelong handicap.

Non-verbal learning disabilities are another type of learning issue that have come to the forefront in recent years. The brain research on dyslexia, which mostly involved the left, language-oriented side of the brain, led some researchers to wonder what would be the result if there were a similar weakness on the right, picture-oriented side of the brain. Sure enough, they found that some children do have weaknesses in that type of thinking, and because of their tendency to over-rely on their verbal skills, which are usually strong, this came to be called a "non-verbal" learning disability. All the research isn't in yet on what is the primary deficit in non-verbal learning disabilities, but it may have to do with visual and spatial processing, which seem to underlie many of the weaknesses this type of learning problem usually entails. Non-verbal Learning Disabilities are also believed to lie at the mild end of the Autism Spectrum, similar and perhaps indistinguishable from Asperger's Syndrome.

There is a high degree of overlap between both the classic disabilities and the newer non-verbal learning disabilities with what is now being called Executive Function Disorders, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, with or without hyperactivity. The area of the brain affected here seems to be the planning center in the forebrain, which can be pictured as a little "executive" who decides what to pay attention to, what goals to work toward and how, etc. It has long been noted that Ritalin and other stimulants affect children with this disorder in exactly the opposite way it affects normal functioning people, i.e. it calms then down rather than hyping them up, and now we know more about why. It seems that these drugs help to "perk up" the executive, who has a tendency in these individuals to "sleep on the job," or go on vacation entirely, thus leaving them very disorganized, unable to focus, distracted by every new stimulus that enters the picture. Other new treatments are being constantly explored, and many, such as PACE and SAMONAS, show great promise, but it must be said that, at least at the present time, medication is the only method that has clear and unequivocal research support in the treatment of these disorders.

Thus, many of the pieces to the puzzle of dyslexia and other learning disabilities are falling into place, holding out real hope to families and individuals struggling with these often heartbreaking challenges. A closer tie between researchers and practitioners is one of the key elements in these ongoing developments, and is also one of the goals and the impetus behind this website.

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