* Warning signs

Without doubt, early intervention is key to identifying dyslexia and providing the specialized instruction that creates new neural pathways. This spelling test is the work of a second grader who is struggling mightily. She has had ‘guided reading’ out the wazoo but nothing to address her phonological and phonetic weaknesses. She would certainly qualify as twice exceptional, with abundant signs of above average intelligence and desperate signs of being in distress.

Certainly, there is much more evidence of her disability than this test, but an analysis of her errors is quite telling. Sadly, by the time she may receive support, her self-confidence and behavior will likely be in the tank.

I have had limited success convincing parents who are in strongly emotional denial that their child has a disability. In my 49 years of teaching, I’ve noticed that even if they support appropriate interventions, it is hard for them to accept a special education label. And without that label, such students are not usually going to receive the help they need. Public schools receive funds for special ed teachers because those students qualify under state and federal guidelines.

What to do?

  • Wait. Many parents have accepted this ‘loss’ after a few more years of agonizing over it. Educational struggles truly are a matter of grieving for most families, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Sometimes parents admit to having similar struggles at school or refer to relatives with a similar profile.
  • Work to reduce stigmatization. The more we routinely show students and parents that everyone has learning differences, the less likely they are to freak out.
  • Provide info about and cool examples of brain-friendly teaching in back-to-school events and teacher conferences. Learning challenges are no fun but they are not the end of the world.
  • Don’t gloss over significant signs of struggle just because there is push- back from classroom teachers or parents. Collect data and do your best to provide the right kind of support, even if the label is incorrect (or, more ‘politically correct’).

* Christopher and me: medication for ADHD?

In this ongoing series about my intervention with Christopher, a nephew on the autism spectrum, this post is about his attention struggles and whether medication is a good option for him.  Christopher’s teachers have struggled with his distractibility and certainly want to recommend medication.  Been there, done that, with some kids.  Public schools cannot and should not require parents to put kids on medication, but very often, teachers are the ones who can see how attention problems affect daily learning.

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My dearest widower caught this episode of Christopher and I playing with a pencil during a brain break.

Although kids on the spectrum can have attention disorders and are sometimes treated with medication, I don’t believe medication is the way to go for this youngster.  First, Christopher did not receive early and effective intervention.  We don’t know how far he can go with adequate support.  He began kindergarten at six years old and finally received social skills support in second grade, for one 30 minute session a week.  Parental denial was a primary factor in that delay, which stalled his progress and minimized and/or eliminated the potential benefits of school and family coordination.

Second, Christopher’s attention problems are reduced with positive behavior interventions and adequate academic support.  He is an active learner in our sessions and is eager to please.  I do provide times for him to act “silly,” which in his case means laughing and talking rapidly about his interests.  Some of those interests, like getting a shot, reflect his anxiety about life.  He worries about many things and given the tremendous upheaval in his life this year, those uncertainties are reasonable.  We play through his worries, which seems to act like a pressure valve.  Christopher will escalate into a wild thing if I don’t intervene at all, but I want him to see that he can “come back” with minimal support.  Without other kids, it is easy for us to openly explore issues which affect his social standing, such as picking his nose and sucking his fingers.

Third, Christopher is at risk for losing weight on stimulant medications.  He is already underweight and eats a very restricted diet by choice.  He is gradually broadening his range of acceptable foods now that his environment has stabilized, but I don’t think he can afford to lose even 5 pounds.

Bottom line:  We need to give Christopher the time to benefit from other interventions before considering medication.