Get a Read on Learning Disabilities
By Amy Landsman
“Originally, we weren’t quite sure why he was having such difficulty,” recalls
Charlotte Albro of Bel Air.
The trouble started in preschool. Albro’s son, Conor, wasn’t keeping up with
the other children, and he couldn’t sit still. Plus, he got teased because he
had difficulty interacting with the other kids.
Conor’s problems continued in kindergarten, so the Albros took him to a
behavioral psychologist who diagnosed him with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Other concerns then surfaced.
“Developmentally, he was behind in his reading,” says Albro. “He couldn’t
spell. He had difficulty writing. He was not at grade level, and we knew that
was a problem.”
This led the Albros to take him to a neuropsychologist for additional testing.
This time, Conor was diagnosed with having a learning disability (LD).
According to the nonprofit National Center for Learning Disabilities, an LD
is “a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive,
process, store, and respond to information. The term ‘learning disability’ is
used to describe the seemingly unexplained difficulty a person of at least
average intelligence has in acquiring basic skills.”
Kids with LDs can be very smart, but, because their brains are wired
differently, it can be difficult for them to learn without extra support both
at home and in school. Simply urging a child with an LD to buckle down and try
harder won’t solve the problem.
Dyslexia is probably the best-known learning disability, but it isn’t the only
one. There are LDs associated with math calculation and problem-solving as well
as with skills involving handwriting, written expression, and reading
comprehension. It is also not unusual for kids with a learning disability, such
as Conor Albros, to have ADHD or some other co-existing condition.
Testing 1, 2, 3
If a child is having difficulty in school, there are warning flags
indicating learning disabilities that families and teachers should be aware of.
For instance, perhaps a preschooler has trouble forming letters, coloring, or
using scissors. Maybe an elementary school student takes an hour to complete a
10-minute homework assignment.
A youngster with an LD might also have poor penmanship or struggle to learn
math facts. And all of these hypothetical children probably lag behind their
The only way to confirm if a particular child has an LD is to have him or her
take a battery of tests, generally referred to as a psycho-educational
evaluation. The earlier the child is tested and his or her LD is identified,
“Most of the time, you can see early signs emerging as young as kindergarten
and first grade,” says Dr. Caitlin Joy, director of psychological testing
services at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Baltimore. “But a lot of kids
tend to be diagnosed closer to second or third grade because of the
[expected] developmental variability in picking up some of those early skills.
The earlier that we’re able to pick up on it, the earlier the child can get
intervention and the better the outcome.”
A psychologist or neuropsychologist can administer a psycho-educational
evaluation in private practice, but these tests can also be conducted in a
hospital setting, such as at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, or at the
child’s public school.
Depending on the exact type of testing needed, private testing can cost
anywhere from $1,200 to $3,000, with many insurance plans covering at least
part of the cost. While public schools will assess students, including those
attending private school, at no charge, the wait for such an evaluation can be
longer than it is through a private practice or in a hospital setting.
Typically, the testing takes a few hours, depending on the age of the child.
“Usually you start out with an IQ test, which is a measure of what we think the
child’s capability is and how he or she will do in school,” says Dr. Kenneth
Gelfand, director of Outpatient Psychology Services at Mt. Washington Pediatric
Gelfand warns that parents should not focus on their child’s result on the IQ
test alone, however. The psycho-educational evaluation, taken as a whole, is
intended to provide a comprehensive picture of where the child stands in a
variety of areas.
“IQ really isn’t a measure of how smart you are,” Gelfand explains. “It’s a
“We’re looking at, generally, an entire array of abilities, trying to get a
sense of the child,” he continues. “IQ definitely does not correlate to how
capable the child is in a number of areas. But it does measure a lot of skills
that are very important for success in life. So, it’s important that parents
understand the rationale for the evaluation rather than one specific score.”
Adds Joy: “We also give [children] academic tests to target specific areas,
including reading, mathematics, written language—these types of things.
We also test memory and attention and look at social, emotional, and behavioral
In addition to conducting this sort of testing, the person administering
the evaluation also often asks the child's parents and teacher to fill out questionnaires about the
child’s behavior and abilities. After the testing, the evaluator also typically
reviews the scores with the family to explain the diagnosis and offer specific
recommendations on the best strategies to help support the child. There is, in
fact, a wide range of services available for kids with learning disabilities,
everything from shortened assignments, to extended time for test-taking, to
intensive special education services.
Many of these kids also participate in speech and language therapy to
improve their processing and language-interpretation skills. Lesley Wofford, a
speech pathologist at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, explains why.
“For example,” she says, “somebody might hear the instructions at school, ‘Go
get a book and sit at your desk to read.’ They’ve heard that, but they’ve only
processed and interpreted ‘Sit at your desk.’ So, they’re missing a big chunk
of the instructions.”
The Good News
But, in the end, while kids with learning disabilities may have to work
harder to keep up with their peers, the good news is that, with support, they
can shine just as brightly.
Take Conor Albro, for instance.
After a frustrating kindergarten year, his parents transferred him to The
Highlands School in Bel Air, an independent, nonprofit, co-educational school
serving kids in grades k-8 with language differences as well as ADHD. Currently
11 years old and in his fifth year at The Highlands School, Conor is doing very
well, his mom reports.
“It’s amazing when you look at all the famous people who have dyslexia, ADHD,
and learning differences,” she says, citing Bill Gates and Albert Einstein as
two famous examples.
Then, very proudly, she adds, “We’ve seen huge growth in Conor.” BC
Amy Landsman is regular contributor to Baltimore’s
Child and author of the monthly special
needs column, Your Special Child.
For More Information
For more information about learning disabilities, visit the National Center
for Learning Disabilities website, www.ncld.org.
© Baltimore’s Child Inc. October 2010