Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD): Why is My Child so Clumsy?

Developmental coordination disorder (DCD) is a condition that lasts a lifetime, and can make children appear to be clumsy. Children with DCD have trouble learning motor skills and coordinating the way they move. They might have trouble tying their shoes and buttoning buttons. In school, they may have trouble with writing, drawing, and sports. DCD is also known as dyspraxia and sensory-based motor disorder (SBMD).

Children with DCD may be late with developmental milestones such as crawling, walking, feeding themselves, and getting dressed without help. At first, a parent or a pediatrician may not see these delays as a sign of a condition. DCD may not be diagnosed until a child is five years old, or older.

While DCD affects both boys and girls, it is 3-4 times more common in boys. The condition seems to run in families. Experts think that at least 5 percent of children have DCD. The main treatment for DCD is occupational therapy (OT). If you think your child may have DCD, you should speak to your child’s doctor.

A child with DCD will not outgrow the condition, since it is a lifelong condition. Once diagnosed, however, a child with DCD can learn how to cope with the condition. Children can also do a great deal to improve their motor skills.

Is DCD a Learning Disability?

DCD isn’t thought of as a specific learning disability like dyslexia or dyscalculia. Experts think of it as a neurodevelopmental disorder, like ADHD. DCD often comes with or is comorbid with other issues or disabilities. Since the symptoms of various conditions can look the same or overlap, DCD may be confused with something else or misdiagnosed.

A child with DCD will not outgrow the condition, since it is a lifelong condition. Once diagnosed, however, a child can learn how to cope with the condition. A great deal can also be done to improve motor skills.

DCD Signs and Symptoms

DCD makes life a struggle both inside and outside of the classroom. In school, children with the condition may have trouble organizing their books, notebooks, pens, pencils, and erasers. They can have trouble taking notes or copying from the blackboard.

Outside the classroom, children may have trouble tying their shoes, pouring a bowl or cereal, or brushing their teeth. As DCD affects their balance, they may find it hard to sit on chair without constantly squirming. This can make eating difficult and messy.

DCD means that the skills that we call on to help us move, don’t work right. These movement skills include:

  • Fine motor skills
  • Gross motor skills
  • Motor planning
  • Coordinating movement (coordination)

When motor skills don’t work as they should, there may be problems with everyday life. Your child may find it hard to:

  • Keep his/her balance
  • Quickly change the way he or she is moving to avoid bumping into things or getting hurt
  • Get his/her body to move the right way
  • Learn new ways to move
  • Predict what will happen when s/he moves this way or that
  • Figure out and solve motor tasks (like buttoning a button)

Just Clumsy?

Most of us learn from experience. A child with DCD may not learn the right way to move from past mistakes. All of us have clumsy moments. We may misjudge how close a hand is to a glass a milk and knock it over. But after we clean up the mess and pour a fresh glass of milk, there are no more accidents. A child with DCD, on the other hand, may knock that glass of milk over again and again.

Children with DCD have trouble figuring out the order of how they must move to do a task. This is called sequencing. Trouble with sequencing can make it difficult to put one foot in front of the other when walking, for instance. That means that children with DCD may bump into other people, fall a lot, or drop things they are holding as they walk.

Kids don’t all learn to crawl, walk, and get dressed at exactly the same time. Some do these things earlier, and some later. That makes it hard to spot a problem like DCD. A parent or a pediatrician may think these delays are just normal for the child. They may think a child will outgrow being clumsy.

Once a child is in preschool, and the issues persist, it may become easier to see there is a real problem. That means that it is usually not until preschool that a child with DCD is diagnosed and given treatment. At that point, parents can look back and realize they were seeing the signs and symptoms of a real condition in their child, all along.

Signs and Symptoms by Age

Here are some signs of DCD in children, according to age:


  • Finds it hard to hold and use spoons and forks
  • Finds it hard to throw a ball
  • Doesn’t realize he or she is playing too roughly
  • Is always bumping into other kids
  • Squirms in his/her seat
  • Can’t seem to sit upright
  • Falls off of chairs

Kindergarten through Second Grade:

  • Finds it hard to hold and use crayons, pencils, and scissors
  • Can’t write letters the right way
  • Can’t seem to get the spacing right between letters
  • Going up and down the stairs is difficult
  • Always bumping into people
  • Still finds it hard to get dressed or brush his/her teeth

Third through Seventh Grade:

  • Needs more time to write than the other kids
  • It’s hard to cut up his/her food
  • Still finds it hard to tie shoes or button buttons, so getting dressed is hard
  • Math is difficult because s/he finds it difficult to line up the columns of numbers the right way

Eighth through Twelfth Grade:

  • Finds it hard to type and text
  • Has trouble with visual spatial tasks, for instance understanding how to work with shapes in geometry class.
  • Finds it a daily challenge to open the latch on his/her school locker
  • It’s hard to learn how to drive

DCD or something else?

It’s usual for children with DCD to also have learning disabilities or attention difficulties. The most common problem seen together with DCD is ADHD. Experts think that half of all children with DCD have ADHD, too.

Sometimes DCD seems to be something different. Kids with the condition have trouble sitting still or sitting up straight. They may squirm in their seats in an effort to keep their balance. Even a teacher with lots of experience may see the squirming and decide the child has ADHD. Or the child may have both DCD and ADHD, but the squirming and clumsiness can make the experts miss the DCD part of the problem.

To confuse things further, other issues can make children fidget or squirm. Sensory processing issues can cause these behaviors. A label inside a shirt collar can drive a kid with sensory processing problems to squirm and fidget every bit as much as a child with DCD, trying to sit still in his/her chair.

But DCD can just look like other issues. For example, because of balance problems, these kids often have trouble sitting upright or sitting still. They may move around a lot to keep their bodies up.

Conditions with similar symptoms

There are many issues that can come with DCD or be confused with the condition, including:

Because DCD may be confused with or come along with other conditions, it’s important for a child to have a full evaluation. That way, if a child has other issues, these too will be diagnosed and treated.

DCD Risk Factors

We don’t know what causes DCD. We do know some of the risk factors, including:

  • Male gender
  • Small for size at birth
  • Born early, before the 37th week
  • Low birth weight
  • Family history of DCD
  • Maternal alcohol or drug use during pregnancy

Evaluating your child

If you suspect your child may have DCD, see your child’s doctor. Your child’s pediatrician may be able to diagnose the condition. Or the pediatrician may work with other experts, for instance, a developmental behavioral pediatrician, a pediatric neurologist or a child psychologist, to evaluate and diagnose the problem.

The most common ages to evaluate for DCD are 5 and 6. Evaluators will look at motor and cognitive skills. They’ll ask questions about other factors that could be having an impact, too, in school and home life. They’ll also want to know whether your child has hit certain milestones in development and when symptoms began.

Evaluating children for DCD calls for assessing how your child moves. Here are some of the movement skills that evaluators will seek to assess:

  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Fine motor control
  • Motor planning
  • Range of motion
  • Strength

The evaluators will want to see how well your child moves by having him do things like cut out paper shapes with a scissors, or string beads. Your child may be asked to draw different shapes or color a picture, to see how well s/he stays within the lines. These tasks show a child’s visual perception skills.

Therapy for DCD

The main treatment for DCD is occupational therapy (OT). An occupational therapist will work with your child to improve movement and motor skills. In order to improve handwriting skills, for instance, the occupational therapist may have your child practice tracing letters. A child who struggles with tying shoelaces, can practice on a lacing board.

Children with DCD who have an IEP or a 504 plan, may be able to receive OT for free in school. You may be able to get OT covered through your insurance plan. You can also hire a private occupational therapist.

Some children with DCD also need to work with a physical therapist. Physical therapy can help improve balance and strengthen muscle tone.

In school, children with DCD may need accommodations to manage their schoolwork. They may need extra time for tests or written work, because writing is difficult. Assistive technology for instance speech-to-text tools that can take dictation, can also be a big help in getting a child with DCD through school. The teacher may be willing to let your child use these accommodations in the classroom. Otherwise, your child can receive formal accommodations with an IEP or 504 plan.

Love and Support

The most important thing you can do for your child with DCD is to offer support and understanding for the challenges your child will confront every day. Advocating for your child is part of that. You may have to explain that your child didn’t mean to bump into his friend yet again, or that your child has trouble sitting still, because he has DCD. When you mention DCD, you can expect to be met with blank stares—sometimes even from your child’s teachers. (You can always tell people that Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe also has DCD—to Google it!)

Daniel Radcliffe
Actor Daniel Radcliffe has DCD, photo credit: Joella Marano [CC BY-SA 2.0 (]
Children with DCD, like children with any other disorder or condition, can suffer from self-esteem issues. Your support and understanding go a long way toward helping your child overcome these feelings of not being good enough. Work on building up your child with sincere praise for real efforts. Notice any improvement in your child’s motor skills and let him/her know you noticed! Give your child opportunities to practice motor skills at home.

Help your child break down difficult tasks into smaller parts and offer lots of practice on a regular basis. Find ways to change tasks so they become easier. You might, for instance, use special grips for pencils and pens that make them easier to hold. With occupational therapy, physical therapy, help at home, and accommodations in and out of the classroom, your child is bound to improve his or her motor skills to some degree.

David Branson, Daniel Radcliffe, and photographer David Bailey all have DCD
Left to right: David Branson, Daniel Radcliffe, David Bailey (photo credits: Joella Marano, David Shankbone, Ben Broomfield, via Wikimedia Commons)

Be patient and always remember that it’s not easy to live with DCD. Encourage your child however you can and always be ready with your sympathy and understanding. Remind your child that many great and successful people have DCD. (In addition to actor Daniel Radcliffe, there’s entrepreneur Richard Branson and photographer David Bailey—imagine having to hold that camera still!) Most of all, let your child know your love is there to be counted on, no matter what happens today or any other day, in or out of the classroom.

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Dyscalculia: Does Your Child Have Trouble With Numbers?

Dyscalculia is what we call it when a child has trouble understanding, learning, and using numbers. Children with dyscalculia may have trouble reading and writing numbers, or using them to make sums. They may also find it hard to remember strings of numbers, for instance, a telephone number. As a learning difficulty, dyscalculia is a lot like dyslexia, but with numbers instead of letters, words, reading, and writing.

Many children think of math as their least favorite subject. They may struggle with assignments. In dyscalculia, however, a child’s troubles with math go beyond simple frustration. When a child has a serious, long-lasting problem with even basic math, it may be a sign of dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is not very common. While there are no exact statistics available, experts think that anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of all elementary school children have dyscalculia. Both boys and girls can have dyscalculia in equal numbers.

Is Dyscalculia a Disability?

Dyscalculia is a learning disability or disorder. But some people prefer to call dyscalculia a learning “difference” or “difficulty.” These words don’t feel as much like a negative or hurtful label.

It’s important to know that dyscalculia is not the only learning difficulty that causes problems with math. Other learning problems that can make math a challenge include ADHD, dyslexia, and visual or auditory processing disorders. Then again, a child can have more than one learning difficulty. A child may, for example, have both dyscalculia and ADHD, or dyslexia and a visual processing disorder.

Trouble with math may lead to testing for dyscalculia. But math is just one challenge for people with the learning difficulty. Dyscalculia affects everyday life and it doesn’t go away. A person with dyscalculia may, for instance, always find it hard to follow a recipe, remember a phone number, or read a map. It’s good to know there are strategies to help children develop the skills they need to live a normal, happy life.

Math frustration boy with dyscalculia


Children with dyscalculia may struggle with math in many different ways. A child with dyscalculia may not understand amounts or the difference between largest and smallest. The child may not see the numeral 3 is the same as the word three. The plus sign may not mean anything to the child or may not seem different than the multiplication sign. Some call these skills number sense.

It makes sense that children with poor number sense skills will also have trouble with math. The child with dyscalculia may understand the logic behind a math problem. He may, for example, understand that he is to take an apple and put it next to another apple and that this is called “adding.” But he doesn’t see one apple and think “one,” so he cannot tell you that one plus one equals two. He may also find it difficult to understand that two apples are more than one apple.

Children with dyscalculia have trouble with their working memory. The working memory is the part of your memory that keeps items you need in the short term for the work you are doing. A child with dyscalculia may not be able to work through a math problem with multiple steps. It can be hard to hold the numbers in mind as the child completes each step.

Girl Struggles with Math Dyscalculia


Dyscalculia can cause different problems in different children. That means the symptoms of one child with dyscalculia may be different from those of another child with the learning difference. It’s a good idea to write down what you see as you observe your child. Sharing your notes with the child’s doctor or teacher can help them find the best way to work with or get help for your child.

Signs of dyscalculia can be seen in a preschooler, but may be difficult to spot. After all, lots of children have a difficult time learning basic concepts like numbers and math. As the child becomes older, however, it becomes clear that there is a real problem that isn’t going away with time.

Common Signs of Dyscalculia

Here are some common signs of dyscalculia, according to age:


  • Learning to count is hard. The child skips numbers or says them out of order, long after friends are able to say their numbers in the proper order.
  • Has trouble organizing toys according to size or pointing to the largest or smallest item in a storybook, when asked to do so.
  • Find it difficult to understand the connection between written numbers and what they mean. (Doesn’t understand that “3” means three.)
  • Doesn’t really understand what it means to count. If you ask her for 3 blocks, she will give you an armload instead of counting them out.

Grade School

  • Learning and remembering basic math is difficult, for instance 2+3=5.
  • Can’t remember the names of basic math symbols and finds it a challenge to remember how to use them, too.
  • Counts on fingers, instead of remembering basic math like 2+2=4.
  • Finds it a challenge to understand ideas like greater than and less than.
  • Finds even a visual-spatial representation of numbers, for instance number lines, hard to understand.

Middle School

  • Has trouble understanding place value.
  • Finds it difficult to write numbers clearly.
  • Has trouble lining up or placing numbers in the right column.
  • Struggles with fractions.
  • Measuring ingredients for even a simple recipe is a challenge.
  • Keeping score during sports games is tough.

High School

  • Has trouble using math concepts with money, for example, estimating the total cost of items he wants to purchase, counting out exact change, or calculating the waiter’s tip in a restaurant.
  • Finds it hard to understand graphs, charts, and maps.
  • Struggles with using a measuring cup or measuring spoons.
  • Can’t see another way to do a math problem. For instance, 6-1 is the same as 2+3.

Dyscalculia isn’t just about the problems it causes in school. Having a numbers difficulty also affects everyday life. Getting to an appointment on time is difficult because time is based on numbers. You might accidentally schedule overlapping events, and have to miss out on a promised lunch with a friend.

Dyscalculia gets in the way of figuring out how much time you need to set aside for tasks. This, in turn, can affect your approach to setting up work projects. If you miscalculate how much time you need to complete a project, you end up missing deadlines. In the home, dyscalculia can make it a chore just figuring out how to time dinner so that all the food is ready and on the table at the same time, at the right temperature.

Dyscalculia Comes with Other Issues

Learning difficulties like dyscalculia often come with other such issues. When someone has more than one learning difficulty, the issues are said to be comorbid. Dyscalculia is often comorbid with dyslexia and/or ADHD. Some 43-65 percent of children with math issues also have reading issues. ADHD can make it difficult to pay attention when doing math and may play a part in a child’s math errors.

A child with dyscalculia may be weak in executive function skills, which have to do with working memory, flexible thinking, impulse control, planning, and organization. It is also common for children with dyscalculia to have math anxiety. Math anxiety makes children so afraid of poor results on a math test that their nervousness leads to exactly the poor performance they fear.

Some learning difficulties have symptoms that are similar to the symptoms of dyscalculia. This can make diagnosis difficult. It might look like a child only has dyscalculia, when the child actually has more than one learning disability or difficulty. Or, the child’s dyscalculia may be altogether missed or misdiagnosed as something else.

Girl with math anxiety dyscalculia

If you suspect your child may have dyscalculia, it’s best to have a full evaluation. A full evaluation can reveal whether your child has more than one learning issue. A proper diagnosis will help you know what type of support and therapies your child needs. Most schools will test your child for free.


If your child has ADHD, for example, it may be suggested that your child have her math skills reevaluated after getting the symptoms of ADHD under control. The treatment for ADHD may be all your child needs to fix her math issues. This may suggest the problem was never dyscalculia in the first place. It was all about an attention difficulty, and paying attention to detail.

If your child is tested at school, and found to have dyscalculia, it should be possible for the school to get her the help she needs. She may need tutoring or special classes in math. The school may give your child accommodations to make learning easier. An accommodation may be to have your child answer math questions orally instead of having to write them out. Or your child may be allowed to use a calculator in the classroom or do fewer math homework problems.

Causes of Dyscalculia

Sometimes dyscalculia is the result of a genetic disorder. Genetic disorders that may cause dyscalculia include fragile X syndrome, Gerstmann’s syndrome, and Turner’s syndrome. For other children, poor math skills just seem to run in the family.

Sometimes outside, environmental factors can cause dyscalculia. Fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, can lead to dyscalculia. Premature babies and low birth weight babies may later turn out to have dyscalculia.

Helping Children with Dyscalculia

Here are some strategies that can be used in the classroom and at home to help strengthen numbers and math skills:

  • Use real objects to help your child connect numbers to items. You can have your child use an abacus. Or have your child sort buttons by size or color. Once the buttons are in piles, you can have the child tell you which piles are larger and which are smaller. This kind of practice can help to improve your child’s number sense.
  • Give numbers a form by having your child draw pictures of items, or move objects around to show addition and subtraction.
  • Have your child use graph paper for working with numbers and math. This helps keep numbers neat and easier to read.
  • When working on a math problem, cover the rest of the math sheet with a piece of paper. This helps your child focus on the problem at hand.
  • Play board games that build number and math skills
  • Talk up your child’s abilities, to combat low self-esteem caused by poor math skills

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Is Dyslexia a Gift?

Is Dyslexia a gift? Or is it a curse? Is it a learning disability or a learning difference? It all depends on whom you ask. But dyslexia sure does make it difficult to read. Dyslexia, in fact, is defined as an unexpected reading difficulty that occurs without relation to intelligence, age, motivation, or education.

How could that be a good thing? It makes it hard to read. It comes out of the blue. How can one learn anything without having the knack of fluent reading, let alone attain a high school diploma? How is someone who find it difficult to read going to get through school and get a job?

It is often said that the first three years of school are spent learning to read. After that, students read to learn. Students with dyslexia find it difficult to read, so of course they’re going to find it difficult to learn, right? On the face of it, it sure looks as though dyslexia is a curse, rather than a gift.

Gift of Dyslexia: Superior Understanding

So far, we’re talking facts. Except that there’s another set of talking points on dyslexia that appears to contradict these facts. These alternative arguments say that people with dyslexia just have a different way of learning, that of course people with dyslexia are going to fail if you teach them the way you teach more typical students. This line of thinking holds that people with dyslexia have a superior way of learning and understanding, if only you teach according to their abilities and gifts.

Judy Packhem, a reading specialist, owner and consultant at Shaping Readers explains, “Dyslexia is a neurological disorder that is characterized by problems with phonological processing skills. In layman’s terms, dyslexics have trouble with accurate and fluent word reading, spelling and decoding (sounding out words). Functional MRIs show a difference between the brains of dyslexics and non-dyslexics. Simply put, the wiring in the brain for reading processes is different. But while their reading skills are lacking, dyslexics excel in other areas.”

If you’re a parent of a child with dyslexia, by now, you’re wondering: what are these “other areas” at which people with dyslexia “excel?” According to Packhem, people with dyslexia are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, which is why some 35% of all entrepreneurs have dyslexia. Packhem recites the usual list of geniuses said to have dyslexia, including Albert Einstein, Steven Spielber, and Bill Gates on her list.

Can Kids With Dyslexia See It As A Gift?

All fine and good. But how do you help children with dyslexia to see their difficulty as a gift? Because if you fail at making them see this, they’re going to feel inferior to their peers who have no trouble whatsoever when it comes to making sense of text. From Packhem’s point of view, the relief that comes with diagnosis solves that problem. “Once diagnosed, dyslexics are often relieved to learn that there is an explanation for their reading difficulty and that they aren’t ‘dumb,’” says Packhem. “They know that having dyslexia means they need to learn in a different way. With the right treatment, dyslexics are able to learn to read. It requires intervention that is multisensory, explicit, language-based, and emotionally sound.”

As far as Packhem is concerned, the gold standard for the effective treatment of dyslexia is the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) approach. “O-G succeeds where traditional teaching does not in that it is able to create new neural pathways in the brain for reading,” says Packhem, who has a master’s degree in reading and literacy and is a certified dyslexia therapist.

But what, exactly, does it mean to “think out of the box?” What does it mean, in practical terms, to learn in a “different” way? For Arvin Vohra, founder of the Vohra Method of study, and author of Lies, Damned Lies, and College Admissions, and The Equation for Excellence: How to Make Your Child Excel at Math, it’s about a difference in vision, in how people with dyslexia see things. “Students with dyslexia often treat letters as three dimensional objects. Just as we consider a pen rotated to still be a pen, they often see a b and a d to be the same thing. This poses a challenge in initial stages of reading, but thanks to the work of many educational innovators, a challenge most students can overcome. But the positive benefits of dyslexia are huge! Students who have that 3 dimensional reading facility have a huge advantage in advanced math, as well as in non-academic areas like sculpture and sport,” says Vohra.

Dyslexia: Gift and Curse

Phil Weaver, of the Learning Success System, doesn’t necessarily agree. “Dyslexia is a gift and a curse. You have chosen a very controversial subject. We deal with that statement every day and know well how emotional people can get around that simple phrase.”

Weaver suggests that you can’t define dyslexia according to a single standard. “The exact definition of dyslexia is wildly disputed. So before saying dyslexia is a gift it would be good to know how the term is being used.

“Many schools and professionals will use the term ‘specific learning disability,’ instead. Sometimes this term is used to circumvent providing necessary programs and other times simply to be more descriptive. In fact, all this vagary of speech is one of the main problems in the space.

“Dyslexia can refer to phonological dyslexia, visual dyslexia, or kinesthetic dyslexia. Phonological dyslexia is a problem with language, which could be either a problem deciphering sounds or a problem with abstractions. Visual dyslexia could be a problem with the eyes which could be treated with visual therapy, or it might be Irlen syndrome*, or a difficulty with visual mental skills such as visual memory, visual discrimination, or visual closure. Kinesthetic dyslexia describes problems with directionality and proprioception. Or, to confuse things even more, any possible combination of any of those, which is actually more likely,” says Weaver.

Children With Dyslexia Need Help Not Battles

“There is a large faction that will claim that only phonological dyslexia is true dyslexia. And they get quite defensive if anyone says otherwise. All of this is ridiculous. These children need help and endless battles are fought over definitions.

“With all of that in mind,” says Weaver, “if we can just go with a basic assumption of some specific learning disability. This means that a child (or adult) has a problem with a specific learning skill, in this case reading, but is otherwise intelligent.”

Building on this idea, Weaver suggests that once we stipulate dyslexia as a difficulty with perception or mental function, we can speak about compensation, which is what people do when they have any sort of deficit. For students with dyslexia, says Weaver, compensation is often seen in the area of social skills. “Students with dyslexia may develop some amazing social skills in the interest of hiding their problem,” says Weaver, who suggests that compensation occurs with a student’s thinking skills (cognition), as well. “When we think we use our internal visual, auditory, and spatial skills. These all work together in such a way that we really don’t notice them. And we all use these skills a bit differently. When one skill is weak, the others will become stronger to compensate.”

In summary, says Weaver, there are an infinite number of ways in which the “gifts” of dyslexia display themselves. “You will hear a lot of generalizations such as ‘dyslexics are visual thinkers.’ The truth is that some dyslexics are amazing visual thinkers. Others may actually have a weakness in that area and that is the cause of their dyslexia. These generalizations all sprout from specific subjective experiences.

All Kinds of Dyslexics

“You’ll also hear many claims of dyslexics being highly intelligent. The reality is that dyslexics span the full range of intelligence. No specific gift of intelligence comes with dyslexia. There are highly intelligent dyslexics. Dyslexics of average intelligence. And there are dyslexics of low intelligence,” says Weaver.

Weaver cautions that while some students with dyslexia do develop their gifts, others never get past the issue of low self-esteem. The low self-esteem comes from feeling inferior to their neurotypical classmates, who have no trouble reading. “If they don’t get past the typical self-esteem issues caused by the disability then it is unlikely those gifts will help much. Some get past it by intentionally developing self-esteem. Others do well by constantly proving themselves.

“For dyslexics to not feel “less than” the neurotypical I think it is important for them to realize that there truly is no “neurotypical.” We all think differently. Some are easier to fit into a box and learn in the standard ways. This just means that their neurological differences are not so obvious,” says Weaver.

Concrete Example Of Dyslexia As Gift: John Crossman, CEO

For John Crossman, however, a 46-year-old man with dyslexia who is CEO of Crossman & Company, the difference is indeed obvious. “I consider dyslexia a gift in that it pushed me (without knowing it) to sharpen my skills as a public speaker. I can now write a speech in my head and deliver it without every writing down a note. I give a speech about once a month and almost never use notes.”

Weaver suggests that what Crossman sees as a gift is part and parcel of learning to cope with dyslexia. “In the context of dyslexics realizing that they have a fantastic opportunity for having very pronounced skills that they can maximize and profit from, talking about dyslexia as a gift is quite healthy. With that realization must come the acceptance that those gifts emerged from a difficulty. With that healthy acceptance, a dyslexic can strive to both maximize the gift, and work to overcome the difficulty,” says Weaver.

Referring to the plasticity of the brain, that the brain can grow connections, improve, and change, Weaver comments, “We are not forced to live with the same brain we were born with. We can change it if we want to. To what extent no one knows. But we can only start with a healthy look at where we are at any given moment.”

*Irlen syndrome is a controversial topic. Some of the studies conducted on Irlen syndrome were in some ways faulty, and it is disputed whether or not the syndrome actually exists.  For more information, see:

How Does the Brain Learn?

How does the brain learn and truly absorb the information it receives? The brain learns through a process of Sequencing: putting information into the right order; Abstraction: making sense of that information; and Organization: using the information to form thoughts. When the brain completes these three steps of processing information, this is called Integration.

The term “integration” is a way of saying the brain has learned something. This may be input from the classroom, or input from life. A child can learn how to add and subtract in the classroom. The child can also learn through life experience that touching a hot stove can burn the skin and cause pain. No matter the source of the information, once it is input and integrated, the brain understands the information it has been fed.

How does the brain, this remarkable organ, take in the information it receives, make sense of it, and use it to create and do incredible things? And what happens when something goes wrong along the way? Is there a way to assist the brain in understanding and absorbing information?

Answering these questions begins with knowing how the brain learns, or the steps we take in processing information. The three steps of the brain’s unique learning formula (sequencing, abstraction, and organization), also provide clues where there are learning difficulties. These clues can ensure we offer children with learning problems the right kind of help.

How Does the Brain Learn: Sequencing

What kind of problems might be spotted as the child learns information? A child might, for example, have a problem with sequencing. If the child has a consistent weakness in this area, a learning difficulty or disability might be suspected. A child may have trouble learning to count, for instance. This might suggest the child has trouble sequencing numbers: putting them in order.

Confirmation that the difficulty has to do with sequencing might come when the child then has trouble learning the correct order of the letters of the alphabet, or the months of the year. When one looks at all the difficulties the child has, and sees they are about placing information into the correct order, two things become clear:

  • The child’s brain has a problem with processing information
  • The specific neurological (brain) problem is sequencing: putting information in order.

How Does the Brain Learn: Abstraction

Once the brain has the information sorted into the right sequence, it’s time to understand the meaning of the information (abstraction). Most children with learning difficulties have no serious problem with this part of learning. Abstraction is about things like understanding symbols (for example, a stop sign), or the meaning of a word (sit, eat, sleep). These are basic brain tasks. A child with a serious problem in the area of abstraction wouldn’t have a learning disability or difficulty, but an intellectual disability.

How Does the Brain Work: the brain does abstract thinking in the chemistry lab

There can, however, be minor problems with abstraction. A person who doesn’t “get” jokes, and doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor, may have a problem with abstraction. A person who doesn’t understand puns or idioms may be having problems with abstraction. Call this person a “pig” and he won’t understand that the word “pig” is not just an animal, but an insult. These types of abstraction issues are exceptions to the rule.

How Does the Brain Learn: Organization

When we think of organization difficulties, it’s easy to imagine a child with a messy room. The child can never find anything. Nothing has a specific place. The child loses things, forgets to bring important items to school, mislays homework, text books, notebooks. These issues may extend to time management. The child is always late and can never turn in assignments on time.

Each of these scenarios: messy room; losing things; forgetfulness; time management issues, have to do with different pathways in the brain. Learning creates new brain pathways. When we call on these brain pathways, electrical impulses light up and activate those parts of the brain.

In some children, the wiring gets crossed or tangled. In other children, the brain pathways may be damaged. Since the circuit in the brain is interrupted, the information never gets to where it is sent, at least not in the form it was intended. Sometimes only part of the information is sent. This leads to incomplete or flawed information processing.

tangled wires

When such processing problems repeat on a regular basis and interfere with the child’s learning, it is time to think whether the child might have a learning difficulty or disability. This is where an evaluation is both necessary and helpful. A thorough evaluation can help pinpoint subtle issues in brain functioning. This can tell parents and educators where the failure is occurring within the three-step procedure of information processing.

That doesn’t mean an exact diagnosis is easy to obtain. A child who calls a fork, a “korf,” may have a problem, but it is difficult to say what the problem might be. It could be the child has a problem with sequencing, verbal output, or auditory processing. The mispronunciation may be about integrating any or all of the these processing areas into one solid whole. For this reason, the child must be assessed in all of these areas.

How Does the Brain Learn: Basic Skills

Whether the problem is sequencing, abstraction, organization, or something else, If a child’s brain has a problem processing information, the child may find it difficult to learn even basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. When neurological (brain) processing interferes with reading, for instance, the child will be said to have dyslexia. When a processing problem interferes with learning to write, we call it dysgraphia. A problem with processing numbers is called dyscalculia. These are just three examples of learning difficulties that are labeled according to the specific skill sets affected by neurological processing problems.

Learning difficulties are not limited to basic skills. Sometimes processing problems interfere with a child’s higher level skills. Higher level skills include managing time, organization, and abstract thinking. Here too, a learning difficulty is recognized according to the specific processing issue.

How Does the Brain Learn: Four Areas of Processing

A child’s processing problem may have to do with taking in information (input); or it may be about making sense of information (integration). For another child, the difficulty may be storing information and retrieving it for later use (memory). In some cases, a child may have no trouble taking in information, making sense of it, and remembering it, but can’t use this information to form words, write, draw, or gesture (output). It is in one or more of these four basic areas that children diagnosed with learning difficulties will be found to have a processing problem.

Input Output sockets

When the brain receives information, this is called input. Sometimes input is visual, or information we understand with our eyes. Sometimes input is auditory, or information we understand with our ears.

How Does the Brain Learn: Visual Input

A difficulty with visual input doesn’t mean, for instance someone who has a vision problem, such as near or far-sightedness. A visual input problem has to do with the way the brain understands what is seen. If the brain sees letters in reverse, for example, this might be a visual input processing problem.

Let’s say a child has trouble with the mechanics of catching a ball. In order to catch the ball, the eyes have to focus on the ball. This is called figure-ground. At the same time, the brain must be able to pinpoint the position of the ball and its path (depth perception). This helps the body understand where and when to move. Finally, the body must obey the brain’s commands, to stretch out the hands and actually catch the ball as it arrives. If the child misjudges the speed of the ball, or how far it must travel, or if the brain doesn’t issue the right commands to the arms and hands, the child may very well fail to catch the ball.

These are just two examples of visual processing problems. In one example, the visual processing problem leads to letter reversals. In the other example, visual processing problems quite literally lead to dropping the ball. There are many other ways we might see the effects of visual processing problems.

How Does the Brain Learn: Auditory Input

Just as a visual processing problem isn’t about being near or far-sighted, a difficulty with auditory input doesn’t mean that someone is, for example, hearing challenged. An auditory processing problem has to do with the way the brain understands what is heard. A child who has an auditory processing problem, may, for instance, be unable to understand how the words too, two, and to are not the same word. This can lead to confusion when the child hears these words in spoken sentences.

In another example of an auditory input processing problem, the child might need more time to understand what is heard. Because of this, the child misses some of what you say because the speed of your speech is too quick for his understanding. This is called an “auditory lag.”

Children can have both visual and auditory processing problems. This might make it difficult for a child to make sense of what is happening when the child receives visual and auditory information at the same time. An example of this could be the student who sees writing on a blackboard while listening to an explanation of those words.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Integration

Once input is complete, through visual and/or auditory means, it’s time for the three-step integration process. The brain must put all the information into the right order (sequencing). The brain must be able to understand how to use the information (abstraction). Last of all, the brain must take each piece of information and add it to the whole to make a complete thought. This type of organization of information is the final step in integration. It is what makes integration complete.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Memory

At this point, learning is still not complete. Will the brain hold onto the memory for tomorrow’s French test (short-term memory or working memory), or will the child remember that French phrase ten years later (long-term memory) when she visits France as an exchange student? Like abstraction, it is unlikely that your child would have a serious long-term memory disability. Such a problem would not be a learning difficulty, but rather an intellectual disability.

A short-term memory disability, on the other hand, is a real phenomenon. You see it with the child who spends hours memorizing the names of countries on a map for geography class and then forgets everything during the test the next morning. By the same token, the teacher may be very patient in the classroom, explaining how to divide fractions. But when the child pulls out her math homework that night, she cannot remember how to do the work.

How Does the Brain Learn:  Output

The final step in learning is actual using the information. This is called output. Output may be verbal, by way of spoken words or language, or motor, which is by way of muscle activity. Motor output includes drawing, writing, and pointing, for example. A child with issues in these areas might have a language disability or a motor disability.

There are two types of language we use to communicate: spontaneous language and demand language. Spontaneous language is where you begin a conversation. You’ve chosen the topic, and had time to think about what you’re going to say. Most children have no problem here.

In demand language, however, someone might ask you a question. You haven’t chosen the subject, thought about your response, or organized your thoughts. You’ve got this split-second to answer the question. For the child with a language disability, this is a tongue-tying situation. The child may ask you to repeat the question, or simply answer, “What?” or “I don’t know.” Some children will respond but the response won’t make any sense—won’t seem to relate to the question.

Child draws outline with colored pen

In motor disabilities, the child may have a problem using the large muscle groups. This is known as a gross motor disability. For other children, it’s hard to perform tasks that requires using many muscles to work together at once. This is called a fine motor disability.

A child with gross motor disabilities may always be tripping over her own feet. She might fall a lot, spill her milk, bump into things, and drop things often. The child will find it hard to learn how to swim or ride a bike.

A child with a fine motor disability may have trouble writing or speaking. The child who has trouble speaking because of a fine motor disability may find it difficult to coordinate all the parts of the mouth, tongue, throat, and face used in speech. Writing, on the other hand, requires coordinating the use of many muscles in the hand at the same time. Children with handwriting problems may write slowly, or have messy handwriting. The child may even find that the writing hand, when writing, develops a cramp.

This should be considered a very broad overview of a complicated subject. For more information, follow the links for deeper reading. If you suspect your child has an information processing problem or learning disability, it’s important to have the child evaluated.

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Science is Sheepish: Spirituality Makes Us Healthier, Happier People

All along, the majority position of Psychiatry has been that Psychiatry has nothing to do with religion and spirituality. Religious beliefs and practices have long been thought to have a pathological basis, and psychiatrists over a century have understood them in this light. Religion was considered as a symptom of mental illness. Jean Charcot and Sigmund Freud linked religion with neurosis. DSM3 portrayed religion negatively by suggesting that religious and spiritual experiences are examples of psychopathology. But recent research reports strongly suggest that to many patients, religion and spirituality are resources that help them to cope with the stresses in life, including those of their illness. Many psychiatrists now believe that religion and spirituality are important in the life of their patients.

The above is the introduction to a study published in 2008 on the subject of Spirituality and Mental Health. The semi-apologetic nature of this lead in to a rigorous scientific study underscores the irony of scientists encountering the spirit and religion as therapeutic and beneficial to their patients.

Here is the thing: science doesn’t like to acknowledge the existence of a higher power. Science likes to acknowledge nice, hard, provable facts. Which is why it may be an irksome thing for scientists to acknowledge the absolute fact that spirituality and religion can have a positive impact on health, both physical and mental.

And so, when forced to acknowledge the benefits of belief, they, the scientists, must remain detached and apologetic, explaining that while religion is a crock, if it helps their patients, it’s no skin off their teeth. But for the rest of us, those of us who are regular people, we are quite happy to acknowledge that striving to be spiritual people makes us better. We don’t care who says we’re being silly or imagining things. We believe what we believe.

And it makes us well. Makes us better people.

Yes. Everyone knows, for instance, that 12 step programs help people get sober. One of the reasons these programs work is that acknowledging a Higher Power is at the core of all of these programs, beginning with the mother of them all: Alcoholics Anonymous. That is what really sets apart 12-step programs from other types of substance abuse treatments and makes them work.

And this can be proven. In a study of teens aged 14-18, for instance, increased spirituality concurrent with receiving treatment for substance abuse was found to improve the likelihood that the participants would achieve abstinence, increase positive social behaviors, and lessen narcissistic behavior. One-third of the teens in this particular study entered this program for substance abuse as self-declared agnostics or atheists. Two-thirds of them were subsequently discharged claiming a spiritual identity.

What about mental health, quality of life, happiness? There too, it can be proven that having a spiritual side makes everything better. Scientists studied 320 children and found that strong spiritual beliefs were a strong predictor of greater happiness. In fact, the researchers found that it was possible to attribute up to 27% of the difference in happiness levels to spirituality.

But here’s a study that will really make your head spin: scientists found that people with a family history of deep spiritual ties were at a lower risk for depression. The reason? They had a relatively thicker cortex, the region of the brain found to be thinner in those with depression. In other words, if your mom believes in God (and maybe your grandmother before her), you’re less likely to become depressed. A family history of spirituality actually changes the physical contours of the brain! Mind-blowing (well, let’s hope not!).

By Patric Hagmann [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons
The funny thing is, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, or what you believe in. It’s all good from the standpoint of your mental health. Dan Cohen, an assistant teaching professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri says that’s because it’s more about spirituality acting as a personality trait. In the study he authored, no matter what faith the participants: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant, the more spiritual they were, the better their mental health. The more spiritual participants had lower levels of neuroticism and tended to be more outgoing.

“Our prior research shows that the mental health of people recovering from different medical conditions, such as cancer, stroke, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, appears to be related significantly to positive spiritual beliefs and especially congregational support and spiritual interventions,” said Cohen. “Spiritual beliefs may be a coping device to help individuals deal emotionally with stress.

Cohen thinks that being a spiritual person aids mental health by reducing self-centeredness and by helping people see they are a part of a much larger whole. Forgiveness is also part of the dynamic, as it is a central theme for all the major religions. Being able to forgive means being able to let go of blame and recrimination after an accident or during serious illness.

With all of this evidence that having a spiritual life is healthy, there’s a tendency to sneer at the religious, to see them as immature or even a bit weird. Those who embrace spirituality, however, couldn’t care less what others think. Hunger Games actress Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, spoke about her spiritual life in a 2012 interview with Marie Claire, “In the South it’s very normal. It would be weird for me to go to sleep without praying,” said Lawrence.

Meanwhile, Jim Gaffigan, of Comedy Central, expressed the belief that, “When we were kids it didn’t matter if someone was religious, it just mattered if they were annoying.

Could it be Gaffigan longs to return to that time when no one cared what you believed as long as you didn’t foist it on others? It’s not difficult to empathize. No one likes to have a belief foisted on them.

Oprah Winfrey said it well in a talk she gave at Stanford University on spiritual practice, “I’m not telling you what to believe or who to believe, or what to call it,” said Winfrey. “But there is no full life, no fulfilled or meaningful, sustainably joyful life without a connection to the spirit.”

Rabbi Avi Davidowitz is Camp Rabbi at TheZone, Oorah’s summer camp facility. Oorah, of course, is a Kars4Kids affiliate charity, with the latter funding many of Oorah’s programs. At TheZone, Rabbi  D., as he is known to the campers, sees daily evidence of the power of spirituality and the interplay between religious development and personal growth.

Spirituality: Elisheva E.

One day, Rabbi D. was approached by a girl at the beginning of his lesson. She asked if she could tell her personal story to the assembled campers and Rabbi D., of course, gave his consent. “We were spellbound as Elisheva E. spoke about her reading disability and how she pined to pray the shmoneh esrei prayer, also known as the Silent Benediction just once in her life. This young girl said it took her 45 minutes to say shmoneh esrei. She wanted to stop when almost all the other campers had already gone on to their activities, but her camper partner, Alana L. who also struggles with reading from the prayer book, stood there next to her as if she too were still praying, and with this friendship and encouragement, Elisheva kept going until she finished.”

The two of them stayed at it until they both were able to read through the entire prayer.  Rabbi D. remarked that, “They spoke to us about never giving up: if we keep trying, Hashem (God) will help us out.”

This aptly illustrates the power of belief and spirituality: the idea that a difficulty can be conquered if you believe in God and if you try hard enough. It also shows how belief in God led to empathy between two individuals, both struggling with difficulties, one in the past, one in the present.

Spirituality: The Donation

Another striking Oorah story that shows how belief helps children strive to be better comes from Rabbi Avraham Krawiec, who served as Director of TheZone for many years.  “A girl just back from a camp outing walked over to me, telling me that she had to speak with me. She became emotional and said, ‘I just won some money in a raffle and I want to give back to Oorah knowing how much you do for my family.'”

Rabbi Krawiec was torn. On the one hand, he didn’t want to take her money, at the same time, he didn’t want to take away her right to a good deed, either, and that is what made him accept her modest donation of $15

As Rabbi Krawiec put it, “It was only $15 but it was the best $15 donation I ever received.”

Here a child has learned the value of charity, a central belief of Judaism. Her spiritual development has led her to the concept of paying it forward and helping others. As a result, the girl is growing up to be a kind person—someone who will surely be an asset to any community lucky enough to include her as a future adult!

Spirituality: Delayed Gratification

Belief in the tenets of religion can also teach us about self-control and delaying gratification for a higher purpose. Aryeh, a TeenZone division head at TheZone, kept in touch with one camper calling him just after the Rosh Hashana holiday to see how he was doing. As it turns out, the boy was not doing well at all.

He’d wanted to observe the holiday with orthodox rigor, but could not stop himself from using his mobile phone, a no-no for the orthodox. The camper begged Aryeh to help him come up with a plan so he wouldn’t repeat the error on the upcoming Yom Kippur holiday, when phones are similarly off-limits for the very religious.

The boy intuited that his phone was coming between him and his relationship to the Divine. The phone was not in the spirit of the Ten Days of Repentance when we look back over the year past, to see where and when we failed to stop ourselves from doing things we wanted to do in the moment, instead of pushing to come closer to God. After discussing with Aryeh various ways he might keep himself from using the phone on the holiday, he got a brainstorm idea: he’d mail his phone to Aryeh!

Well, this plan certainly worked. Aryeh’s phone rang right after the holiday, and the boy’s voice was filled with joy. He’d done it. Observed Yom Kippur from start to finish, as it was meant to be observed. He’d felt nothing but holiness all that day.

Is it any wonder that the following summer, on the very last day of camp at TheZone, as the buses were already beginning to leave, that the boy went over to Aryeh and asked him to remind him to mail his phone to him for safe-keeping over the Rosh Hashana holiday?

Here was a boy who had learned that contrary to everything he’d always thought, it is quite possible to delay gratification, to patiently endure whatever trials and tribulations come our way, and come out all the stronger for it! Here was a boy who had learned that being a believing Jew on Rosh Hashanah meant putting away the phone and looking into his own heart instead of a screen.

The scientists may not like it, but there it is: being in touch with our spiritual side makes us better, healthier people, kids or adults.

And that’s a fact.

It makes us strive to achieve the seemingly unachievable and well, it makes us happier, too

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New Dyslexia Law May Lead to Early Identification and Treatment for Virginia Schoolchildren

A new dyslexia law has got Virginia educators and dyslexia advocates mighty pleased and excited. The new legislation, just signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe, calls for teachers to undergo training in dyslexia awareness. Teachers will have to take a single one-hour online course in order to qualify for or renew a license to teach.

Can a brief one-hour virtual lesson for teachers make a difference in the classroom?

Dyslexia experts say yes. Because that one lesson won’t make teachers experts in dyslexia, a reading difficulty affecting one in every five children. That lesson will, however, help teachers spot signs of dyslexia in their students. More to the point, the course will guide teachers in ensuring those children have the support and assistance they need to succeed in the classroom.

New Dyslexia Law: Effective July 2017

The new dyslexia law takes effect beginning with the 2017-2018 school year. Dyslexia experts say the law is important because the earlier children are identified as having dyslexia, the sooner they can begin treatment. The earlier children receive treatment for dyslexia, the more likely it is they will learn to manage their difficulties and go on to read and learn.

Because teachers have not been educated to spot reading difficulties in their pupils, some children with dyslexia fall through the cracks. Some children fake their way through school and life pretending they can read. As adults, they may never find adequate employment.

Why would a person pretend to be literate? It’s a societal thing. We take pride in academic accomplishment. Not being able to read, in that light, can feel shameful.

Which is a shame, because there’s no shame in having dyslexia, a common disability. And there are ways for children with dyslexia to excel in school. They just need to receive help and support.

An Unexpected Difficulty

Dyslexia is defined as an “unexpected difficulty,” which means that people with dyslexia are of normal intelligence. That is why we fail so many children with dyslexia. It’s why these children are not diagnosed and treated.

Teachers look at the student with dyslexia and see a child of normal intelligence, not learning to read. That teacher may think, “This child is not trying hard enough,” or even, “This child is lazy. The teacher may even reprimand the student, or give a negative report to the child’s parents. This leads to shame and feelings of failure in these children. Sometimes the effects of all this last a lifetime.

The new dyslexia law should change all that for the children of Virginia. From next year on, a teacher who sees a bright child struggling to read, will understand the child has a reading disability and needs extra help. The accusations of laziness will be a thing of the past, and so will the shame. There will still be calls home to parents: calls that explain and advise, rather than accuse.

There is nothing shameful about having a brain difference, which is how many experts see dyslexia. The brain simply sees things a different way which makes it difficult to translate symbols into sound. The new dyslexia law will do a great deal to change educators’ perceptions of students who struggle to read. This will, in turn, do a great deal to help children with dyslexia feel good about themselves. Freed from any sense of shame, children with reading difficulties will  now feel encouraged to do what they need to do to get ahead in school and in life.

The new dyslexia law is a beautiful thing, almost a miracle. Let’s hope the idea of educating teachers in dyslexia awareness spreads and grows so no child ever has to feel shame for being different in Virginia or anywhere else.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

Dyslexia: This is What it Looks Like

Dyslexia: This is What it Looks LikeDyslexia is so common that one in every five American children has this reading difficulty. Some believe that worldwide, as many as one in four people have dyslexia. And still, so many people have no idea what it’s like to live with this reading difficulty.

Parents may have no inkling their kids have it. They might think their kids just aren’t trying hard enough. Teachers may think their students with dyslexia are lazy. Worst of all, when students with dyslexia get called on to read in class, their classmates laugh at them.

Widell’s Dyslexia Simulation

Now Victor Widell has created a code you can download as a gif file that shows us exactly what it’s like to have dyslexia—or at least ONE type of dyslexia. The truth is, dyslexia is simply a wastebasket term for all sorts of reading difficulties. Some people with dyslexia see letters in reverse. Some of them see only a part of the letters, with bits and pieces missing. And some see the words and letters jumping around on the page.  Those are just a few examples of the different ways someone might experience dyslexia.

Still, Widell’s brilliant code gives us a taste of dyslexia—an idea of what a struggle it would be to go through life with a reading disability. And that’s important, considering that one in four people in the world probably have a reading issue.

This is What it's Like to Have Dyslexia

Time To Get Smart

Isn’t it time we got smart about dyslexia and stopped assuming people who have trouble reading just aren’t very smart?

By the way, the idea of simulating a disability is not new. You can see a video clip HERE that shows what it’s like to have autism and experience sensory overload. These simulations are fabulous because they help us develop empathy. And there’s probably nothing as important as that.

Helping my Child Find a Ramp to Reading

Helping my Child Find a Ramp to Reading
Julya (Jules) Johnson with her son (courtesy)

When I was a kid, I loved to read! You’d often find me snuggled into a chair with Sweet Valley High, Goosebumps, or the Baby-sitters Club. I knew my kids would be the same!

Only, they weren’t.

My eldest, my 4th grade son, has severe dyslexia. After many years of reading therapy and interventions, he can read—but it’s slow and labored. It’s certainly not fun. It’s HARD. In fact, he’s been known to yell out in frustration, “I wish reading were never invented!”

Yet, he loves stories. When I read to him, his eyes light up and he absorbs every single word. When I get to the end of a chapter, he says “More, more, more!” and I read until my voice cracks. It’s heartbreaking to my momma heart because I know he has a desire to consume these beautiful and fascinating books independently!

Here’s the thing about dyslexia—it’s an UNEXPECTED struggle with reading. Kids who have dyslexia have average to even superior IQ levels. They can fully comprehend text at grade level or above when they hear it. Every sign points to the fact that they should be able to read easily, but it doesn’t happen that way.

We discovered our ramp to reading—audiobooks.

Watching my son struggle was heartbreaking, but my perspective completely changed after reading The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, by Ben Foss. Ben is also severely dyslexic, like my son.  In his book, Ben says, “The key to my happiness occurred when I stopped trying to change my brain and started changing the context around me. Focusing on eye-reading overlooks the real goals of education, which are learning, independent thinking, and mastering the ability to make new connections in the world of ideas.”

Ben is a big believer in assistive technology, specifically what he has coined as “ear-reading” otherwise known as audiobooks.  Since that day, I’ve come to fully embrace assistive technology, and how it does help to level the playing field for my son! He does stay up all night reading now—ear-reading the fabulous books brought to him by the volunteer readers of Learning Ally, a national non-profit that serves people with print disabilities.

An audiobook can serve as a ramp to reading for children with dyslexia. (courtesy)
An audiobook can serve as a ramp to reading for children with dyslexia. (courtesy)

Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t “given up” on eye-reading. He still gets his tutoring and still practices, but we have found this fabulous ramp into the world of literature! We’ve embraced his dyslexia, and we are forever thankful. He gets so excited knowing he can easily read what his friends read now, and he stays up late reading books—just like I did as a child!

Audiobooks aren’t only good for self-confidence. Here are three additional ways I’ve discovered that audiobooks help children who struggle to read:

1) Access to Vocabulary

A 1998 study found that children’s books contain 50 percent more rare words than conversations between college-educated adults! Children who don’t read as often are missing out on all of that wonderful vocabulary. That will show up as a deficit once they reach high school and beyond, whether on SAT tests or in college application essays.

2) Boosting Comprehension Skills

It’s often said that those who read live 1,000 different lives, and it’s true! Books take you into a whole other world, where you can learn about different cultures, times and backgrounds. All of this helps children boost their comprehension.

3) Demonstrating Proper Fluency

Whether children are reading along in a paperback book or use the VOICEtext feature (where text is highlighted in sync with the audio), proper fluency and intonation is demonstrated by human-narrated audiobooks. That repeated exposure greatly helps in the long run.

Jules Johnson's son has found his ramp to reading! (courtesy)
Jules Johnson’s son has found his ramp to reading! (courtesy)

Keep in mind, many kids who struggle to read may have a notion that they “hate reading,” so some may resist any form of reading (even audiobooks) at first.  However, many kids get hooked after trying several different audiobooks of different genres. They have to find what they like. Play around with the audio reading speed and onscreen text options. With technology today, the options are endless!

Nonverbal Learning Disorder: Is This What Your Child Has?

Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NLD) or (NVLD), also called Nonverbal Learning Disability, is a brain-based developmental difficulty with nonverbal skills. The term that describes this deficit is confusing, because one might think NLD describes a child who is “nonverbal” and therefore has trouble with words. Actually, children with NLD are exceptionally verbal, in fact, more verbal than most.

Kids with nonverbal learning disorder are often bright enough to be considered gifted, especially in the early years. At a young age, their amazing vocabularies easily outstrip those of their peers and they memorize and rattle off facts in a flash. They learn to read early, too.

The problems that come with nonverbal learning disorder may begin in preschool. Kids with NLD have trouble interacting with the other kids. They have trouble mastering basic self-help skills (like getting dressed on their own). They’re clumsy, always bumping into things, spilling their drinks, and always missing the ball in a game of catch. In general, they just can’t seem to adapt or fit in. They don’t make friends. They don’t seem to get the point of pictures or puzzles. At this point, the parents, who always thought their child exceptionally smart (and they are right!), begin to understand that something is wrong, though the alarm bells aren’t yet going off.

Puzzles don't make sense to children with NLD.
Puzzles don’t make sense to children with NLD.

More or less, these children muddle along, somehow pulling through third grade with only a few hiccups.  They do okay in class, except for anything having to do with their fine motor skills, for instance hand writing/penmanship. Math can be a problem. Symbols for addition and subtraction may be missed by children with nonverbal learning disorder—it’s as if they just don’t see them. Still, they  pass first grade into second grade and on into third grade.

It’s in the fourth grade that things really begin to fall apart. In the first three grades, children are learning to read. After that, kids are reading to learn. They’re also expected to be somewhat independent in the way they handle learning tasks.

But kids with nonverbal learning disorder can pick up on names of places and dates in their reading and still miss the main idea of the story. Kids with NLD get lost on their way to school or from classroom to classroom. They forget to do their homework. They’re often unprepared for class; find it very hard to follow instructions; have a terrible time with math; can’t deal with understanding how to color in the countries on maps; can’t write stories or compose essays; often misunderstand their teachers and classmates; and as a result of all this, are filled with anxiety outside the home and angry inside the home (is it any wonder?).

Which color is which country? Why is green different than blue? NLD makes geography difficult.
Which color is which country? Why is green different than blue? NLD makes geography difficult.

Because their verbal skills are so good, and because they are so obviously bright, teachers may make judgments about children with NLD, and decide they are refusing to cooperate, or that they are lazy, or maybe rude. And of course, none of this is true. As a matter of fact, children with NLD tend to be focused on the goal, honest to a fault, and hardworking, too. They’re not lazy or uncooperative and they’re not impolite: they have NLD.

Nonverbal Learning Disorder Is Controversial

NLD is not mentioned in the latest issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM V. NLD is also not listed as a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), though children with NLD may still be eligible to receive special education services. Experts have found that there is less activity in the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain in children thought to have NLD. Until today, NLD remains a controversial diagnosis, but when the symptoms fit your child, you know it’s real.

Because NLD fails to receive official recognition as a disability or disorder, it’s not as well known as other disabilities related to language, for instance, dyslexia.

Signs of Nonverbal Learning Disorder

Some signs of NLD:

  • Excellent recall—they remember everything they hear
  • Poor visual memory—they don’t remember the things they see
  • Good at reading
  • Very poor math skills
  • Excellent verbal expression and reasoning skills
  • Difficulties with written expression
  • Poor handwriting
  • Spatial awareness difficulties, for instance problems with estimating size, shape, distance, and poor sense of direction
  • Inability to correctly read facial expressions or hand gestures, tones of voice, and social cues

Because the focus on learning in the early elementary school years is on reading, NLD can easily—and often does—go unnoticed and undiagnosed. Reading ability is the sole indication used by educators to gauge academic success. And since NLD children read well, no one pays much attention to their other, very real difficulties.

Main Characteristics of Nonverbal Learning Disorder

Here are the main characteristics of NLD:

  • Sense of touch/feeling is distorted, especially on the left side of the body
  • Poor coordination, especially as it relates to the left side of the body
  • Visual-spatial planning difficulties (may misjudge the distance to an object he sees and as a result, may collide with that object)
  • Pronounced difficulty in adapting to new or complex situations
  • Falls back on learned rote behaviors (sometimes inappropriate) in new situations
  • Cannot interpret social cues, has poor social judgment, fumbles social interactions
  • Poor perception of time
  • Large vocabulary
  • Counts on language for building relationships, for gathering information, and for relieving anxiety
  • Poor arithmetic skills, poor understanding of scientific principles and theories
  • Early childhood attention and hyperactivity issues (often confused with ADHD) followed by later social withdrawal and isolation
  • Intelligence tests will show high verbal IQ and poor performance IQ due to visual-spatial difficulties

Children with nonverbal learning disorder may seem like miniature adults because of their advanced verbal skills. They understand the world with words and lots of them. They often learn to read before the first grade. They are always asking questions of the adults they know rather than going out into the world and finding the answers for themselves.

Oops. I thought that toy car was much farther away from my foot!
Oops. I thought that toy car was much farther away from my foot!

With words, they feel comfortable. But the visual perception difficulties and physical clumsiness of children with nonverbal learning disorder make it hard for them to understand the physical world. By asking questions instead finding opportunities to learn through experience and exploration, the awkwardness of nonverbal learning disorder is only made worse, through lack of trying.

In high school and on into college, learning in the classroom turns into a nightmare for the person with NLD who struggles to understand the meaning of a lecture (information that is heard), while struggling with the motor problems of taking notes (slow, difficult, clumsy handwriting). People with nonverbal learning disorders also cannot distinguish between important and unimportant details and information.  The student with NLD may know all the names of the battles fought during the Civil War, but may fail to understand the reason for the war (the issue of slavery).

Social/Emotional Issues with Nonverbal Learning Disorder

And then there are the social emotional issues. It is thought that there is some overlap between Asperger’s syndrome and nonverbal learning disorder. People with NLD don’t understand nuance of tone, for instance sarcasm. They understand words in a literal way only. If you say to your child with NLD, “Why don’t you just throw all the clothes I just washed, dried, and folded neatly onto the floor instead of putting them away carefully in your bureau drawer,” you might see your child literally throw those freshly laundered clothes on the floor.

He meant well.

Supporting Those With Nonverbal Learning Disorder in the Classroom

Teachers can help students with nonverbal learning disorder by creating PowerPoint presentations with headings to accompany their lectures, to offer nonverbal context to the material. Having a chart with the day’s academic schedule is also a good thing—it offers a reference to help the student with NLD organize himself and his classroom materials. Keeping to a routine is also very helpful. Tasks should be broken down into the smallest possible pieces in a logical sequence. Classroom time is better spent in discussion than in lectures, as this helps the student with NLD learn how to pull out concepts and the important details from the information he hears and reads.

NLD and Learning Social Skills

Last but not least, children with nonverbal learning disorder need help to learn how to be effective in social situations. One way to do

People with NLD don't always "get" social cues.
People with NLD don’t always “get” social cues.

this is to play games in which children must guess the emotions that go together with the facial expressions you show them (angry, confused, happy, sad) or the tones of voice you use (sarcastic, tense, impatient). The next level is to have them guess the appropriate social responses to expressions, gestures, and tones of voice.

It is very helpful to people with nonverbal learning disorder to have those around them explain the expressions, gestures, and tones they use as they use them in everyday interactions. “This is me being sarcastic.”

It’s not an easy road to travel, having NLD or parenting a child with NLD, but with patience and effort, you will see improvement.

What are some of your favorite tips for supporting the child or adult with NLD?


Visual Processing Disorder: Does Your Child Have VPD?

Visual Processing Disorder (VPD) covers a variety of vision issues that have nothing to do with being near or farsighted. Does your child think that a square and a triangle look the same? Does she bump into things, because she doesn’t understand where objects are in relation to her body? Does she have trouble understanding that numbers and letters come in a certain order? All of these issues can be signs of a visual processing disorder. In VPD, the brain has trouble processing signals that come from the eyes.

A child with VPD may pass her vision test with flying colors because her eyes are fine. The problem is the way her brain deals with visual information. VPD is not something a person outgrows, but there are ways to cope with the challenges of having a visual processing disorder.

We think of our vision as something to do with the eyes, but it is much more than that. It is the brain that is responsible for using the information from our eyes to create images and impressions. But sometimes the brain doesn’t understand visual information as it should.

The eyes may send you the message that in front of you on a piece of paper is the shape of a triangle. But the brain may only see the image as a shape and not be able to tell you which kind of shape it is.  The eyes may see a house a short way down the road, but the brain says that the house is far away. When the brain doesn’t see visual information as it should, it means that brain function is weak in these areas.  And that is called visual processing disorder.

smiling blond boy with visual processing disorder (VPD) plays soccer in red shirt, green shirt
Somehow, his foot never connects with the ball. Could it be a visual processing disorder?

Visual processing disorders aren’t considered learning disabilities, but as you might suspect, they are common in children with learning issues. Just as dyslexia or dyscalculia have to do with a difference or weakness in brain function, so do visual processing disorders. When the brain is weak in one area, it is often weak in more than one area. This is why someone with VPD will often have other learning disorders. When someone has two disorders or disabilities at the same time, the conditions are said to be comorbid.

VPD can affect the way a child learns. But a visual processing disorder can also affect everyday tasks like putting away the forks and knives into their correct slots in the silverware drawer, or sinking a ball into a basketball hoop. Visual processing disorders can even affect the way a child feels about himself. To his classmates, a child with VPD may be the kid who can never get that ball into the hoop. And so the child may withdraw into himself, to avoid the frustration and pain that come with being different.

Visual processing disorder is complicated. There are eight different types of visual processing disorders but many people have more than one kind of VPD. Since visual processing issues don’t show up in a simple vision test, it could be your child will go through school without anyone picking up on the fact that he has a visual processing problem.

Confused girl in pink shirt at crossroads
Which sign is the one she’s looking for? She just can’t tell. That could be a visual processing disorder.

Eight Types of Visual Processing Disorders

Here are the eight types of visual processing disorders (remember that a child may have any combination of these forms of VPD):

  1. Visual discrimination: The child may not see the difference between similar shapes. He may mix up b and d and may not see the difference between a circle or an oval, for instance.
  2. Visual figure-ground discrimination: The child can’t pick out a person or a shape when seen against the background on a page. He may not be able to find specific information on a web page.
  3. Visual sequencing: The child doesn’t know that B and C always follow A, or that 4 follows 3. When he reads, he may skip lines because he doesn’t understand the idea of “next” as in “the next line.” Sometimes children with visual sequencing problems reverse letters or words.
  4. Visual-motor processing: The child has trouble using the feedback he gets from his eyes to coordinate the way other parts of his body move, for instance, the hands or the feet. He may knock into things or find it difficult to turn the pages in a book.
  5. Long/short-term visual memory: Show the child a picture, take it away, and ask him what he saw. The child with visual memory problems won’t remember. This type of VPD also makes it hard to remember the letters and numbers he has been taught in class and the books he has read. Visual memory issues can get in the way of using calculators and keyboards.
  6. Visual-spatial: The child has trouble understanding where things are within space. This affects his understanding of how close or far items are to them or to each other. The same may be true of objects he sees in a picture. Visual spatial issues can make it hard for a child to judge how much time has gone by, and it can make it difficult for him to read a map, too.
  7. Visual closure: A child may not understand that a smiley face is a face, because it is missing ears and hair. A truck without wheels may not be recognized as a truck. If the teacher gives a worksheet where students have to fill in missing letters or words, a child with visual closure issues may not be able to do the work.
  8. Letter and symbol reversal: Most kids reverse letters when they first begin to write. But if he’s still mixing up b and d and p after the age of 7, it may be due to a visual processing disorder. This sort of disorder can make reading, writing, and math work difficult.
baby girl with stacking toy
This baby learned the sequence of big, bigger, biggest with her stacking toy. But does your 8 year-old still have trouble with this task? It may be a visual processing disorder.

VPD: How Common is it?

No one really knows how common visual processing issues are, especially since a lot of the time, these disorders go undetected. But we do know that the signs of VPD often show up in kids with learning disorders, for instance in children with dyslexia. Dyslexia is the most common learning disorder in America, where it is thought that as many as one in every five children has dyslexia. That translates to lots of kids who also have VPD.

What Causes VPD?

Again, no one really knows the cause of visual processing disorder. But if you think of the brain as a sort of circuit board where the wires can get tangled or kinked and even disconnected, you’ll have a pretty good picture of how VPD works. The eyes send a signal to the brain, but the signal crosses with a different one, or there’s a kink in the wiring that keeps the signal from going through to the right part of the brain. Or perhaps, the wire is narrower in parts. The brain’s synapses, responsible for mapping out information and sending messages, are very much like wires.  The eye sees what it sees, but the brain fails to understand the information sent to it by the eyes.

Brain cells with electrical firing. 3D rendering - Illustration
There are any number of ways that the brain’s nerve network threads, called “synapses,” can get tangled or kinked, or simply misfire. When a child’s brain doesn’t correctly understand information from the eyes, it could be a visual processing disorder.

Is it VPD?

Here are some signs that a child may have a visual processing disorder:

  • Turns away from large amounts of visual information, such as the sight of a busy picture
  • Fidgets during videos or PowerPoint presentations
  • Does a sloppy job with visual tasks, for instance, sweeping the floor
  • Doesn’t like to see movies or watch television
  • Can’t deal with copying from the blackboard
  • Mixes up shapes, letters, numbers, and words
  • Always bumping into things, is clumsy
  • Can’t stay inside the lines when writing or drawing
  • Finds it hard to spell words he knows that have unusual spelling patterns, for instance he can never quite remember that “quite” is not “quiet”
  • Can’t remember even his own phone number
  • Doesn’t understand what he reads when he reads silently, to himself
  • Cannot remember common facts read silently, for instance, that H2O is water
  • When reading, he reads the same sentence over and over again, or skips too far down the page for the “next” line
  • Says his eyes hurt, rubs them often
  • His reading comprehension and writing skills are poor, but his verbal and oral comprehension skills are average or even strong
  • His math skills are weak because he leaves out steps, overlooks function signs, or mixes up similar types of math problems
  • Often fails to note changes to displays and signs, or new notices posted to bulletin boards
Girl follows in book with finger
When your child follows the words in a book, and it’s time to skip down to the next line, does she skip too far? Or read the same line again? It may be a visual processing disorder.

What’s A Parent to Do?

If you suspect your child has one or more visual processing disorders, there are many things you can do to help. Keep in mind that helping your child learn to cope will take patience and lots of work. Here are some of the things you can do at home that may be helpful:

  • Read up on visual processing disorder. Knowledge is your best tool for helping your child with VPD.
  • Watch your child as she does different tasks and take notes on what you see. Does she do tasks differently than most children? Writing down what you observe will help everyone in your child’s life understand her particular challenges and tell them how to respond.
  • Always be clear when writing out schedules or instructions. Break up instructions into numbered steps. Write things out in large letters and use colors, too.  When assigning household chores, you might use a different color for each sibling. If “sweep the steps” is written in purple, for instance, that means it’s Tommy’s task
  • Use your child’s free time for activities improve visual processing, but turn things into a game. Do a puzzle together. Read. Play catch.
  • Offer lots of praise for real achievements. If your child worked hard on studying for his spelling test and improved his grade, let him know you’re pleased. He needs your support and recognition to keep on going, because it’s such a struggle! Let him know you know that.

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published Nov 14, 2017, and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.

Stealth Dyslexia: Does Your Child Have An Issue?


Stealth dyslexia is the term that’s used to describe children who struggle in school despite having average or gifted reading abilities.  Does your child have a larger vocabulary than most adults you know, but find it hard to use a pencil? Does your child read books suited to a college student but often mispronounce words?  Are his grades just not showing what you know he can do? It’s possible your child has stealth dyslexia. It’s not as uncommon as you might think.

When we hear the word “dyslexia” most of us think of reading difficulties. The experts, too, define dyslexia as something to do with reading, a skill most children master by the end of third grade. In 2002, for instance, the board of directors of the International Association for Dyslexia adopted this official definition of dyslexia:

Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Still, it is important to note that dyslexia is a complex neurocognitive or brain difference that is different for every person, since no two cases of dyslexia are exactly alike. If we think of the brain as a circuit board, it’s easy to see that the wires can be tangled or disconnected in a variety of ways, each tangle or disconnection having its own, specific end result. For this reason, the concept of dyslexia as a reading difficulty just doesn’t cover all bases.

dyspraxia, stealth dyslexia
Just clumsy? Or is it dyspraxia, a form of sensory motor skills issues, a type of stealth dyslexia?

Dyslexia can, for instance, cause difficulties with spoken language, handwriting skills, physical coordination, math ability, organization and time management, sequencing, time orientation, left/right orientation, visual or auditory processing, memory, hand/eye coordination, and spatial awareness. Sometimes there are even specific terms to describe the various difficulties caused by dyslexia. Dysgraphia, for example, is a writing difficulty, while dyspraxia is a difficulty with physical coordination. Dyscalculia is a difficulty with numbers and math. Despite the fact that terms have been developed for these three learning differences, all of them are types of dyslexia. Dyslexia is an umbrella term that covers a lot of ground.

Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide developed the term “stealth dyslexia” to describe students who struggle in school, despite having excellent reading and/or verbal skills. The husband and wife team (both of them dyslexic), added the word “stealth” to the word “dyslexia” to reflect the idea that such children fall under the radar and escape diagnosis for dyslexia, because their symptoms are not those we normally think of as being associated with dyslexia. As a result, these students don’t receive the help they need to manage their learning problems. Which is a shame.

Stealth Dyslexia And Gifted

Often, children with stealth dyslexia have such great verbal skills they may even be thought of as “gifted.” Children with stealth dyslexia may use their advanced verbal skills as cover for their mild issues with auditory and visual processing; issues that in other children may cause the reading difficulties more typically associated with dyslexia. After seeing this type of dyslexia so often in their practice, the Eides decided this difficulty deserved a name of its own, and called it “stealth dyslexia” to hint at the nature of this sort of dyslexia that so often fails to draw attention and so goes undetected and unaddressed.

dysgraphia, stealth dyslexia
Verbally gifted, but can’t produce legible script? It could be dysgraphia, a type of stealth dyslexia

By far, the most common manifestation of stealth dyslexia is dysgraphia, or poor handwriting skills. Children with dysgraphia find it difficult to translate the words in their heads into symbols created with paper and pen. They lack the motor skills necessary to make writing happen. It can be physically painful for such children to write, and their attempts at writing are difficult for others to read.

In the early grades, children are taught how to form letters, with arrows explaining where to start and how to proceed. A child with dysgraphia will be unable to remember these instructions and may end up with exaggerated loops, uneven spacing between letters and words, and inverted or reversed letters. The child may not be able to remember where to place a sound within a word when writing it down.

Stealth Dyslexia And Clumsiness

Does your child seem to have more difficulty than is normal in tying his shoes? It could be dyspraxia, a form of stealth dyslexia
Does your child seem to have more difficulty than is normal in tying his shoes? It could be dyspraxia, a form of stealth dyslexia

When faced with the signs of dysgraphia in their children, parents may react with confusion. They see a child with (sometimes) college-level verbal skills who cannot write the letters of the alphabet. Where the child is also clumsy because of the sensory motor skills issue known as dyspraxia, the gap between his report card and his obvious giftedness will be even more apparent to the naked eye. The last thing a parent will think of is that his child has dyslexia, because the child has good or even amazing reading skills.

Stealth dyslexia is not as common as plain old garden variety dyslexia. As such, even an expert evaluation may fail to turn up the real problem as yes, just a variation on a theme, that theme being dyslexia. That’s a shame, because given the proper tools, there’s no reason a child with stealth dyslexia can’t excel in his schoolwork. A keyboard, for instance, may mean the difference between a failing grade on a term paper, and a groundbreaking paper filled with original ideas set forth in solid, legible type.

dyscalculia, stealth dyslexia
Brilliant with words, but can’t do simple addition? It may be dyscalculia, a type of stealth dyslexia.

There is no cure for dyslexia and the same holds true for stealth dyslexia, which after all is just another form of dyslexia. But there are ways and means to deal with the issues that arise. A child who is brilliant with words, but can’t add two plus two, for instance, can receive the correct sort of interventions with an early diagnosis of dyscalculia, a form of stealth dyslexia.

If your child is verbally gifted and reads like a fiend, yet struggles in school, it’s a good idea to have him evaluated by a dyslexia expert for stealth dyslexia and the sooner the better. Early interventions can make or break a child’s academic career. And when it’s your child, failure is never an option.