In the past 25 years, the number of children labeled as "learning disabled" has jumped by over 150 percent. Nearly one in ten children meets the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. And prescriptions for powerful behavior-controlling pills like anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and stimulants are doled out to patients as young as 2 years old.
So what gives? Has the number of special needs kids in the general population skyrocketed? Or are doctors over-diagnosing children at an alarming rate? "It's a huge combination of issues," says Brock Eide, M.D., M.A., a leading learning specialist and physician who, with his wife, Fernette Eide, M.D., penned the book The Mislabeled Child (Hyperion). The two doctors run the Eide Neurolearning Clinic in Edmonds, Washington, which specializes in the evaluation and care of children with school and learning challenges. "When we talk to veteran teachers and those who've worked with kids for a long time, it's hard to escape the conclusion that they're seeing different behaviors than they did a generation ago. The rise in learning disabilities isn't just someone's fantasy, but it's difficult to get to the root causes."
There are lots of theories out there. Environmental causes. Too many preservatives in our food. Early overuse of electronics and television. "A large number of kids we see with autism spectrum disorder had difficulties around birth or early life," Brock Eide says. "In earlier days, they might not have made it, but with modern medicine being what it is, they do." Another possible contributor to special needs? Parenting. "We call it No Deprivation Syndrome," Brock Eide says. "These are kids with parents who never set limits and so they are less prepared for the structured setting of school than other children are."
That often leads to a label like "attention deficit disorder" or "hyperactive." Strangely, teachers are the first individuals to suggest an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in nearly 60 percent of cases, although they are not trained to do so. And even when doctors slap on the ADHD label, over half do it without ever having formally tested the child's attention capabilities. "There's an excessive tendency to apply biological and psychological labels rather than view them as challenges kids face growing up – challenges like self-discipline, self-control, or a variance in learning style, information processing, or how individual children learn best," Brock Eide says.
Fernette Eide agrees. "In the medical community," she says, "we're looking for what's wrong and what the problems are. We look at the struggles and advise on a plan of next steps. But children are a complex mix of things. Medical practices aren't set up to look for what's going well. And yet, our feeling is that a lot of how the brain works is that it corrects itself. It compensates. And so it's often true that striking gifts sit next to disability. You don't often have to look far to see the positives next to the negatives."
For example, children with dyslexia are often also extremely gifted, the Eides say. In fact, that's why dyslexia is so often misdiagnosed. "The kids present in ways in which no one would suspect a learning disability. They're often early readers who read at, or above, grade level. But they have significant problems in written output, spelling, and often math." Studies have shown that the average IQ of a child with dyslexia is higher than that of the regular population. And it's just these smarts that get them into trouble.
"They stretch the boundaries," Brock Eide says. "When they read, they can't just automatically match sounds and letters, so they use contextual cues and problem solving and no one may realize there's a problem."
In fact, dyslexic children often become creative adults – they're used to solving problems on the fly and end up as engineers, scientists – "some of the world's greatest contributors and thinkers," Brock Eide says. It comes back again to labels – a flaw in the standard way of looking at learning disorders in children. Difficulties in school are often because a child processes information differently than his peers, rather than because there's a problem with learning or attention. Some take information in best through hearing it, some through seeing it, and some through doing. "Nobody is globally food in all areas," Brock Eide says. The most important thing you can do for your child is to recognize how he or she learns.
That, and to set them up for victory. All kids need parental support. But when a child spends his whole school day being frustrated and feeling like he's not smart, he needs parents who can tip the balance in the other direction – emphasizing his strengths and focusing on his gifts. "We sometimes see gravely disabled kids, but we've never seen a case where something couldn't be found to bolster learning," Brock Eide says. What they have seen, are children who've been chronically put in situations where they can't succeed. "These kids are often put through chronic stress, repeated failure, and situations they're incapable of dealing with, early in life and they develop negative responses because of it. These problems become well established and children sometimes exhibit them when the underlying neurological processing is no longer a problem." Long after the learning problem falls away, the negative patterns can remain if the feeling of being unworthy is still there.
As a parent, it's tempting to focus on the label. But labels are broad. And they tend to point to the problem and never the little gifts that may accompany it. "In all of these areas, time is on your side," Brock Eide says. "ADHD is compounded by problems with frontal executive function and that falls away dramatically in the teen years. And children with autism spectrum disorders have severe difficulties multitasking and with complex interaction of functions. But there's an exponential development of these skills in the second decade. Time is on the side of the child."
They just have to have the confidence to get there. And parents have to have the patience to make the journey as smooth as possible. "Find the treasures in your child and learn how to develop them in positive ways," Fernette Eide urges. Because you are uniquely suited to see the jewels that might be hiding just beneath the surface.