October is Learning Disabilities Month

I was asked to write this article by Elizabeth Scamahorn, who is the learning and literacy specialist at Island School. She is also a board member of the Hawaii branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Learning disabilities are the invisible disabilities. They’re not visible if you look at the child. That can make things difficult for the child, because they are expected to act as everyone else does, but their perceptual equipment is not functioning in the same way.

There is government funding for children with learning disabilities as a result of IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Their official definition of learning disabilities is:

“Specific learning disability” is defined as follows:

The term “specific learning disability” means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

Disorders included. Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.

Disorders not included. Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

What this means is that the individual has the physical equipment working all right, (except for the brain injury or dysfunction) but that there is an inability to perceive it, or express it the way others do. Perception occurs as a brain function. Our brains organize data for us all the time. From infancy we recognize the voices of our family. We know our mama’s smell and feel. Without the ability to organize the data, the world becomes one big sensual bombardment.

An example of a disability is auditory figure ground discrimination. Most of us can hear one person’s voice stand out in a group with others talking around us. People with this disability have a hard time doing so. Their ears are receiving the sounds perfectly, but can’t perceive (organize) that one specific sound to stand out from another. It would be difficult to be in a classroom and listen for the teacher’s voice with others talking all the time.

Dyslexia is the general term used for people who have difficulty reading. Reading is a complicated process. A person has to focus on a page with written symbols, recall the sounds of those symbols in order and figure out the word, know what the word means, know grammar and how the words work together, figure out the idea and make images of what’s being read. Then they are compared to old ideas and are stored somewhere in the brain. If there’s a discussion to follow, they have to retrieve the information, organize the words into thoughts that are relevant. Anywhere along the line a child might have difficulty in a process.

The good news is that most people with learning disabilities are average or above average in intelligence. Their brains compensate. They discovered that my North Carolina neighbor’s son had dyslexia when he was in the third grade. He was so bright he had compensated up until then. Ms Scamahorn stated that dyslexics’ brain scans show that they work from the back of their brains, in their visual cortex more than the average person.

She also stated that because of HIDA, the Hawaii branch of the International Dyslexia Association, all students at the University of Hawaii who are there to learn how to teach reading will be required to take a course in Multi Sensory Learning (MSL). The philosophy behind MSL is that children with learning disabilities learn best if as many of their senses are involved as possible. When I got my masters in Learning Disabilities we were taught to teach the weak areas through the strengths.

Kids might learn the shape and sound of S together while tracing the S on a sandpaper S, or in an s-grooved block while making the ssssssssssss sound.

Childrens’ brains are very open, and learning occurs at an extraordinary pace in the first six years. The internet is full of information. A great interactive reading website is www.starfall.com. I used it when I was teaching, and used it as a reward! Kids loved it. The sooner you get help for your children if you suspect something, the sooner you will figure out where the difficulties are, and be able to compensate.

Children with dysgraphia have difficulty writing. My daughter had a friend with dysgraphia. He was the “smartest” boy in her class, but when he had to write something it looked like a chicken walked over his paper. It was so frustrating for him. Today, a child could type out his answer on a computer, print it, and trace over it if that was required for him to do.

Sometimes dysgraphia occurs because it is hard to recall the sounds that make the words that they want to write. Again, technology can come to the rescue. There are programs that will write what you say. It would benefit that child to print it, and trace it again, since it is his/her own words, and there will be the mental association. Notice how we are combining the senses of sound, vision and touch to learn the spelling and physical structure of the words.

Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder are not considered actual disabilities, but make it very difficult for a child to focus on typical schoolwork or sit still for very long. There is a part of our brain that is supposed to monitor our behavior, so that we don’t do or say everything that comes to our mind. Due to a chemical imbalance, ADHD people act out most impulses. It makes it really hard to concentrate. They don’t like it either. I’ve worked with children who would tell me when their parents forgot to give them their medicine, so we could go to the office, call the parent, and give from the emergency prescription bottle there. Then I could see how the medicine slowly affected the child, and made learning easier for them.

Many of us don’t like to medicate children, and there are side effects of taking this medicine. In Finland there are about as many diagnoses of ADHD as in the US, and they don’t medicate as much. But a child will need a lot of extra help, focus, and organizational training to stay on tasks in a typical classroom without it. By puberty many children outgrow it, or have compensated successfully.

I have worked with parents who had shame about having a child with special needs, and wouldn’t admit that their child had difficulty. They didn’t want them to get the negative attention. Sadly, they won’t always get the help either, and the other students will think of the child as “dumb” or stupid maybe. Learning disabled kids can do the work. It just takes a little longer. It’s not the parents’ fault, the child’s fault or the teacher’s fault if a child has a learning disability. Get them the help they need as early as possible.

Ms Scamahorn asked me to share one of the many tips for parents and families with dyslexia from the Hawaii International Dyslexia Association. “Say I love you every day. Often children with dyslexia or learning disabilities are singled out daily. Many are laughed at for making mistakes or being stupid. Those three words of comfort should come from those who love them unconditionally.”

Don’t allow your child to be defined by his or her diagnosis. Jay Leno, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Charles Schwab, Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Terry Bradshaw, Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, Keira Knightly, Orlando Bloom, Winston Churchill, Tom Cruise, General George Patton, Walt Disney, and hundreds more have or had learning disabilities. They all made important contributions to our lives. We all have a gift, and it is our task to find it.


Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at aatkinson@haleopio.org


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