By Michael Ahrens
When parents are advised or when they discover through observation that their child does not seem to develop as expected and have their anxiety confirmed through diagnosis, the news may be traumatic and seem at first to threaten to engulf the family with insurmountable future obstacles. Fortunately much has changed in the last thirty years. Discrimination against and subsequent institutionalization of children has become an unacceptable option.
The term Learning Disability (LD) covers a large number of causes and symptoms. There are some well-known disabilities like Down's syndrome and Autism. There are many different treatments and outcomes. Learning Disabilities can be difficult to diagnose, let alone pinpoint the cause. There are no known cures. It is very important to note that a child with a learning disability can learn. The disability usually affects certain specific and often limited areas of a child's development. (In fact, rarely are learning disabilities so severe that they impair a person's future of living a happy, fulfilling life.) A diagnosis (confirmation) of a LD should be made by an appropriate "expert", and for young children a good starting point for help is the family physician.
What is known to help? Health and educational professionals do make the point that since no one really knows what causes learning disabilities, it doesn't help parents to keep looking backward to search for the reasons of the "problem" but to focus on how to reduce the learning difficulties for their child and how to enhance the opportunities for successful learning. Although it is important to have a proper diagnosis it is more important to have a plan of action of what to do for and with your child.
The United States National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states: "Even though a learning disability doesn't disappear, given the right types of educational experiences, people have a remarkable ability to learn. The brain's flexibility to learn new skills is probably greatest in young children and may diminish somewhat after puberty. This is why early intervention is so important." In the United States (and in many other countries) laws such as PL94-142 (the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975) now supports many initiatives to develop support programs for children with learning delays.
It is therefore generally agreed that young children who have a learning "disability" or "problem" are best catered for by what is termed an "early intervention approach". Many people still do not have access to resources, either because of lack of financial or structured "governmental" support or because of geographic isolation. There are many families that live miles away from the nearest early childhood service let alone a professional support service for children with disabilities.
One of the avenues to offer support to families is to provide access to a knowledge base of what to do and when and how. Whereas early intervention teams may be more readily available within urban environments, such support services are less readily available in rural parts of countries.
Early intervention strategies focus on the knowledge that all children learn through the same developmental sequences, but their speed of learning will be different. Physiological disabilities are also more readily addressed through either technology or augmentative methods of learning.
The key issues for parents will remain the need to access information quickly and cheaply. The "power" to intervene must be available to the young babies first teachers, their parents. The logical tools will be the computer and the internet. The worldwide web is the ideal forum to empower parents, to provide access to expertise and to provide an instant tool to measure a child's developmental progress, and or to determine any additional resources or specialist help.
What parents need is the ability to provide their own "quality assurance", through measuring their inputs and their outputs. Families therefore will be able to change the future for their child with a disability, and will substantially enhance our collective knowledge about early intervention programs.
Michael G. Ahrens is a parent, teacher, researcher, writer, and program developer associated with http://www.mylittlesteps.com, a powerful online parenting tool that ensures learning is fun, interactive and a worthwhile experience for both the parent and the child, irrespective of the child's abilities.