Gifted Learning Disabled
Gifted Children with learning disabilities
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Gifted children can have learning disabilities (Gifted Learning Disabled, GLD, now being called "Twice Exceptional") just as other children can, and this can cause a very difficult situation both for parents trying to understand how the giftedness can coexist with the disability or disabilities, and for parents trying to negotiate provision for their child in normal schools. It can be difficult enough to get a school to accept that a child is gifted under normal circumstances, but when that child has a learning disability it can sometimes be close to impossible. In fact some combinations of high giftedness and severe learning disabilities are really beyond what can be catered for in even the best normal classroom. For many GLD children, homeschooling should be considered seriously, at least for the first 3-4 years of primary schooling, or until the child is able to function in the classroom at a level which does show some evidence of his or her giftedness.
Whenever a child is assessed with an IQ test, and
is found to have a wide disparity among the different sections or subtests of
the test, it is likely that one or more learning disabilities are present.
Unfortunately in my experience you can't rely on the assessing psychologist to
point this out, much less to attempt to analyse the pattern of discrepancies for
you, and try to diagnose which learning disabilities may be present. I have
seen many assessments in which the psychologist has been happy to take 3-4
subtest scores at the ceiling of the test, average them with scores
below average on other subtests, and state that the resulting
"average" figure has a high likelihood of being the child's overall
Before addressing the general topic of GLD children, I will write about one measure which I have found to be of very practical use for parents of GLD children generally:
This is the single most helpful area I have found when working with children,
especially children in junior or middle primary school, with apparent learning
disabilities; no investigation regarding learning
disabilities should be undertaken without a Behavioural Optometric assessment
being done first, because it can resolve, and in most cases offer a simple cure
for, problems which may otherwise be diagnosed as any or several of a range of
other learning difficulties.
This is the single most helpful area I have found when working with children, especially children in junior or middle primary school, with apparent learning disabilities; no investigation regarding learning disabilities should be undertaken without a Behavioural Optometric assessment being done first, because it can resolve, and in most cases offer a simple cure for, problems which may otherwise be diagnosed as any or several of a range of other learning difficulties.
Behavioural optometrists are a small, relatively new, group among optometrists; in addition to assessing the optical functioning of each eye individually, they check whether each of the many ways in which the two eyes need to function together are working well; many factors need to be working optimally for the eyes to do the tasks we expect of them for classroom tasks, written work, and eye-work in everyday living. In other words, for some reason I don't understand, optometrists & ophthalmologists only test whether each eye works as an individual optical instrument; it's only behavioural optometrists who have thought to test whether one can actually use one's eyes in practise... I've come to know a lot about this area purely because it has solved what seemed terrible tangles of unknown problems for so many children whose parents contacted me.
A Behavioural Optometric assessment is a vision assessment of all the practical ways of functioning of our eyes, for example ability to focus, maintenance of focus when shifting between the board and the desk, tracking ability etc. Behavioural Optometrists test for subtle problems in the practical functioning of the eyes, which it's just being realised are very common, and which cause (or partly contribute to) various different types of vision problems and also what appear to be learning difficulties.
this assessment is paid for by Medicare unless the child has had an eye
assessment in (I think) the previous 24 months, in which case you need a
referral from a GP for it to be covered by Medicare - please check with the
office about this when you make the appointment.
Don't go to an
ordinary optometrist or ophthalmologist for this assessment, and don’t
reject this advice because your child has already had other optometric
assessments. It is only this
relatively small group of optometrists, called “Behavioural Optometrists”,
who do this type of assessment.
These types of
vision problems can affect concentration, sticking to tasks, maintaining
the same standard as tasks go on, getting ideas onto paper, and many other
problems – the assessment will usually also give indications if there is a
problem such as dyslexia which hasn’t been picked up by other testing.
Any of these difficulties obviously cause the child enormous frustration
which he or she can't understand, which can affect her or his behaviour both at
school and at home. Nobody around the child at school knows what a difficult
situation he or she is battling with all the time, so she or he get lots of that
"could do better" "doesn't work up to his potential”.
“definitely isn’t gifted, is a slow learner” type of comments at school.
which are made, which can turn out to be solely caused by these subtle visual problems are:
lack of cooperativeness, aggression
I've found Behavioural Optometry to be so helpful that I would have an assessment done not only if any of these suggestions have been made about your child, but if any learning disability has been suggested. It's easy to check out, it clears away a whole group of possibilities, and is very good news if it turns out to be part of the child’s problems, because in most cases it can be corrected relatively easily.
Australian State Contacts for Behavioural Optometry, who can refer you to the Behavioural Optometrist closest to you, or to the one who specialises in your child's particular area, are as follows:
Mr Adrian Bell 07 5491 1288
(Covers the Northern Territory
It's very expensive and takes a long time to develop an IQ test, and the concepts of giftedness and the complexity of learning disabilities are only a few decades old. Therefore we don't yet have a test which is detailed and informed enough to give the sort of answers that are currently being expected from the WISC III. It's very common for a psychologist to report, after testing a child with the WISC III, that he or she has a bewildering array of disabilities; for example as a parent recently told me about her child: disabilities in the areas of auditory sequential processing, fine motor coordination, timed tests, phonics, mental maths tasks, and that the child is a strong visual learner. The problem is, what does all this really mean about a child in a practical sense? Is there any action a parent should take about it all, and if so, what? A good psychologist may have contacts with Occupational Therapists and other professionals, and provide referrals to them - but what's actually going on here, and is consultation with other professionals really necessary?
Looking at the
list of "disabilities" given above, and remembering that these
diagnoses have probably been made on the basis of 2-3 questions answered wrongly
on a few subtests, I believe these worrying diagnoses are often being made
unnecessarily. I've mentioned on other pages that daydreaming is a common
defence mechanism among gifted children (in fact it's a common defence mechanism
for any child in a situation she or he finds boring); of the
"disabilities" listed above, four could be accounted for at the
superficial level of the WISC III, by a bit of intermittent daydreaming:
auditory sequential processing, timed tests, phonics, and mental maths
I believe strongly that the second aspect of the complex situation we are dealing with re learning disabilities, is that our children are maturing under the influence of two different timetables; one being the timetable of their personal maturation, the other the timetable of our current schooling system.
There is undeniably what one can call a "timetable" of natural maturation, or natural development of the complex combination of skills needed in life; we understand this best in the case of preschoolers. We have a reasonably clear idea of the age at which babies are likely to be able to roll over, sit, crawl, walk, begin to speak isolated words, short phrases, sentences and so on. Most of us have a less clear idea of when babies are likely to be able to pile several blocks on top of one another, thread beads, jump, hop or skip - these being examples of more detailed aspects of fine & gross motor skills. But whether we have a clear idea of them or not, all the learning tasks of children do progress according to an inner timetable; one can easily find a list of approximate ages for the main milestones in babies and toddlers, and if it's a good list it'll point out that individual variations in all aspects of this natural timetable are very wide. For instance, looking at the issue of clear pronunciation of consonants and vowels (a combination of cognitive understanding of the differences between different sounds, and the fine motor skills needed to form them) - there is a range of 5-6 years between children's clear pronunciation of the more difficult sounds, without concern that the child has a speech "disability".
My point in that paragraph was that humans have a natural "timetable" of development, and that the variation between individuals is very large.
Now we come to the timetable of our schooling system. For reasons which have suited our society, and whether we realise it or not, very much influenced by our concept of the "average" age at which children are able to achieve particular tasks, we have created a detailed "timetable" of achievement of cognitive and physical tasks, and have implemented it in the school system, so insistently that we've made it a legal requirement. It's not a legal requirement to progress through the range of school tasks at the "right" times, but our human tendency to be dismayed by anything "different" makes us worry very much about children who are not able to perform every tiny little detail needed "on time" as they progress through school. But we've already noted the wide individual variation between children's natural maturation; having wide natural variation combined with an anxiously imposed regimen is bound to cause what appear to be some problems. Are they genuine problems? I believe many of them are only problems for the school system; unfortunately it's the fact that we're legally compelled to impose the school system on our children that makes them appear to be problems for our children.
But how does all this apply to gifted children, given that elsewhere on this site I've defined gifted children, for practical purposes, as children who perform well on IQ tests, and who tend to pass developmental stages early? Should gifted children have problems with any of this? I think the answer is exactly what we do in fact see in life: the majority of them don't, but a small minority do, due to the fact that, for whatever reason, their individual maturation "timetable" is unusual with regard to some details of their overall development. If we understood more about the complexity of cognitive and physical development, we might well find that this is often because their development in other areas is so far ahead of "the timetable". An obvious example of this is that children who discover reading and books very early in life, don't spend as much time on activities which promote their gross and fine muscle coordination, which is why I advise parents of toddlers and preschoolers to provide a balanced program of activities for their children (see "Helping Gifted Pre-schoolers")
first timetable, the one inbuilt by nature, children without brain damage (and
even most whose brain damage is only mild), will normally overcome any glitches
in their individual maturation, in time. The issue of whether there are
"glitches", or learning disabilities, which won't be corrected with
the passage of time, is the area which at present is very unclear. We
simply don't know enough yet about the brain and how it works, and I certainly
can't give a definitive answer to that question yet; but my thinking regarding
the whole issue of learning disabilities has been greatly influenced by the
progress of one case of dyslexia with which I've been closely involved.
I'll describe this in the following section.
My thinking and understanding of dyslexia has come only minimally from academic study; mostly it's come from working in practice with the small number of dyslexic children whose parents have consulted me, and in particular from a huge amount I've learnt from working with my daughter. With her permission I'll give the relevant facts from her case here, because I believe it may be of use to many other parents.
There's no doubt in my mind that what we call "dyslexia" is in reality an umbrella term covering various "glitches" in the brain which can adversely affect reading and writing ability. Most of us have vague ideas that people with dyslexia may reverse letters in words, or reverse the whole spelling of words; that the use of coloured lenses or a lower lighting level may help, and so on. I have found that if one looks into it carefully, the presentation of dyslexia can vary greatly from one child to another - some children do reverse letters or spelling, others don't; some are helped by coloured lenses, to others these are irrelevant. As I've said so often on this website, our detailed knowledge of how these issues work in the human brain is simply not yet good enough to provide the clear answers we want. Some concepts which are definitely very important re dyslexia (eg "phonemic awareness") have been identified, but rather than my enlarging this article to a book it's probably better for you to search for articles by academics specialising in dyslexia.
Instead I'll simply describe the issues of my daughter's dyslexia, because I think her story has at least a dozen or more aspects which may be of great interest to other parents of dyslexic children. Rather than post her name on the Net as an example of dyslexia, I'll use our surname initial, D.
As a preschooler D was a gifted child who was intensely interested in learning activities; I would have been happy to take life more easily, but she constantly self-initiated learning activities, including reading and writing activities. Her giftedness was indicated by the wide range of her interests, which extended to many areas not addressed by our school system until tertiary level, and her interest in being read to, and in writing, very effectively masked the fact which was diagnosed some years later, that she had very profound dyslexia. I'll describe specifically what I mean: at age 2 to 4 D constantly initiated activities that required writing on her part. Because of her age she was usually working on the floor, and would ask me to help her to spell words; since they were mostly fairly complex words for her age (eg because, butterfly, demonstrate, etc), her requests for help didn't surprise me, and I cut several large sheets of paper (about a metre square), which lay on our floor where she was working - whenever she asked me to help her spell a word I would write it on one of these pieces of paper in clear "primary school" printing, with brightly coloured pens, tending to group words by size and type. I thought I was responding to her requests to teach her reading and writing tasks, but it turned out that unwittingly I was simply enabling her to produce a lot of written work, without her being able to recognise a single letter of the alphabet, or a single word except her name and mine. She "read" books that we'd read together, but in hindsight this was clearly done purely by memory. She certainly never "taught herself to read" at a level several years in advance of her age, but the amount of time and energy she spent on reading and writing tasks, and the amount of written work she produced, effectively masked this fact.
I think it tells us something about the severity of the "glitches" relevant to dyslexia, that the years of several hours of this sort of work, several days a week, which D did, apparently didn't help her to correct them.
When she started school on her 5th birthday, I was therefore very surprised when she quickly became intensely unhappy and wanted to stop school, saying it was "too hard" and she "couldn't do it". It hadn't been my idea for her to start school at age 5 (in our state in Australia school attendance isn't compulsory until age 6); I'd been so impressed by all the self-initiated work she did that I thought she was better off staying home and keeping doing her own thing. I sensed a serious underlying issue and initiated vision tests (I hadn't discovered Behavioural Optometry at that time) and a consultation with a psychologist. The (normal optometric and ophthalmologic) vision tests were normal, but the psychologist diagnosed "severe" dyslexia, and and even more severe level of distress about it on D's part - so much so that the psychologist desisted from continuing with the tests, feeling she had enough information for the time being and that stressing D's distress further wouldn't achieve anything positive (a good, practical person in my opinion.)
Possibly because the psychologist didn't persist with her tests, the full extent of D's dyslexia was only discovered when I started to work with her myself. To my amazement, as stated previously, she couldn't recognise even one letter of the alphabet; this hadn't been picked up in the class room during 2 terms of school, and at school it had been thought that her reading was at the average level of the class. I think this type of situation is common with gifted dyslexic children - D had been able to cover up her dyslexia by use of her intelligence and her good memory, but apparently she herself was aware that she had problems: as she had told me herself, school was too hard and she couldn't do it; and as the psychologist found, D was very distressed when asked to do any writing or reading task.
We have a highly-regarded centre for dyslexic children in our city, and my first thought was to take D out of school (because of her great distress - at this time she was still below the age of legal requirement to attend) and take her to work with a specialist there - a very expensive process. After several weeks, during which D's distress continued whenever we went there, we reached the point where the specialist told me that although she in no way wanted to belittle D's high intelligence, it would be necessary to work very slowly because of the depth of her dyslexia. The first task would be to help her learn to recognise the alphabet, which would be done by much repetition; it was expected that it would take her about a year to learn lower case only, and a further year to learn upper case.
At this point my own mind finally "kicked in". I realised that incredible boredom would be involved in taking weeks to learn each letter, and boredom creates a situation in which less and less actual learning results in each (very expensive) hour spent. I stopped taking D to the specialist while I thought about other ways to tackle this problem; fairly soon I developed a concept in which I would combine every study and learning aid I'd discovered over many years of interest in learning efficiency. It took me 2 months' thinking (during which time I told D not to worry about her "dyslexia", and we spent our time on other activities) before I devised a program which combined all my study skill methods together and focused them on the alphabet. It involved producing some specific materials and getting a collection of various aids together. Finally one day I sat down with D, telling her that we would now start learning the alphabet using all this fun stuff I'd collected, only spending half an hour each day (to avoid boredom, the gifted child's ever-present enemy). I had no idea whether the method would work, or how long it would take; I only knew that I'd combined every powerful study method I knew, and that I'd also devised a way to present the method without it being boring. I'd decided to tackle upper and lower case together; on that first day we completed the first third of the alphabet. The second day, that first third was still there and we completed a second third; on the final day we finished the alphabet, and D laid out the letters on the floor and danced around them singing the "Alphabet song" for over an hour, stopping occasionally to change from lower to upper case and back. She had always refused to watch "Sesame Street", but from that day it became a favourite program. Apparently her inability to relate to the letters which are featured in the program so much had caused her to avoid it, but her elation as she danced around those letters singing their song showed how deeply the whole issue had distressed her.
It's horrible to realise what can be going on in your child's life without your having any idea of it, even when you consider yourself a caring and involved parent.
Anyway, so we saved 2 years of specialist's fees and boredom, and I thankfully thought that we had probably conquered D's dyslexia - only the first of many times I was to think this and be mistaken.
I don't know how common it is for gifted children's dyslexia to be so profound that they have no recognition of the alphabet, or have difficulty recognising it, but I've intended for some time to write a description of my "method", packaging it with the materials I developed, and offer it for sale for a reasonable sum. I haven't yet done so; if this would interest you, please email me telling me so and I'll give it priority.
- to be continued; will complete asap; this story has a very happy ending, with D reading at approx 95% of her ability level, which is about 6 years above her age level, by age 14 - if this is of interest, email me and I'll give it priority.
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