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Learning Disabilities

Treatment for Learning Disabilities

daydreamWhat kinds of medical, behavioral, and holistic treatments are available? What are the pros and cons of each type? Hear what our panel of experts advises about treatment options.

Candace Cortiella: Parents should be cautious about treatments that are promoted as a cure for learning disabilities. While some medical interventions — such as medication if a child has also been properly diagnosed with a coexisting disorder such as ADHD — can be most helpful, many treatments are unproven and ineffective. Many of the treatments that we see promoted through advertising are extremely costly and have no independent research showing that they are effective and that the effects are sustained over time.

Should parents find a treatment that looks promising, a substantial amount of homework should be done before proceeding. Parents can be quick to act on a promising treatment, wanting to help their child if at all possible. Keeping in mind that a learning disability is a life-long condition that can’t be “cured” will help parents make wise decisions. Ask for contact information from other parents whose children have undergone the treatment program and ask for independent research that shows that the program or treatment achieves the results promised. Then, post messages in some of the online discussion areas and seek feedback from other parents. Ask teachers and other professionals if they know of the treatment and its efficacy.

Gail Grodzinsky, Ph.D.:
Any well-researched treatment recommended by a trained and qualified professional is likely to have some merit. There is rarely just “one” intervention that will have an impact on a child with a learning disability. Often, a multidimensional treatment plan works best. For example, while a reading-disabled child will clearly benefit from explicit instruction in word decoding, comprehension skills and exposure to literature should also be considered. “Cure” therapies — including computer software, one-size-fits-all reading programs, restricted diets, special glasses, etc. — must be viewed with extraordinary caution and cynicism.

The “whole” child must be considered in any treatment plan. How are the child’s self-esteem, behavior (how they act), and learning style affected by their learning disability? Sometimes, it is necessary to prioritize treatment components. For example, structuring the classroom environment before a medical approach is used can be helpful in some cases.

Sheldon Horowitz, Ed.D.:
There are no known medical treatments for reading, writing, and math related learning disabilities, and when it comes to “alternative” types of therapies, consumers beware! The best way to understand and treat learning disabilities is head on, with targeted screenings and assessments, and focused, intensive, and explicit instruction. There are many different treatments that are being advertised as “effective,” and it’s best to consider each one carefully before investing time and expense. If in doubt, ask for help from an expert at either a university or hospital-based evaluation and treatment center or through a national organization like the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the International Dyslexia Association, or the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

If you think your child may have an attention deficit disorder, you should contact your child’s physician and ask for help. ADD and ADHD cannot be “cured” but can be controlled, often with medication and even more effectively with a combination of medicine, behavioral therapy, and educational support. For more information, visit the National Resource Center on ADHD Web site.

David Urion, M.D.:
Treatment of all learning disabilities should center on educational interventions. Medical treatments for related medical problems including attention disorders do not seem to affect learning disabilities directly.

Cheryl Weinstein, Ph.D.:
Multiple interventions that look at all relevant biological, psychological, and social factors are essential and comprise a general principle of treatment. We all want that magic bullet to take care of learning problems. Unfortunately, the belief that medication alone will work is too readily embraced. Likewise, the belief that behavioral strategies alone are enough contains both risks and benefits. When family members say “Oh… no meds… no meds,” I might say, “If your child had diabetes, you would run to Joslin Diabetes Center for insulin treatments” or “If your child had heart disease, you would be at Children’s Hospital immediately to get medications.” When parents agree with my statements, I then ask, “Can you explain why the pancreas and the heart require medication and the brain does not?” This is a crucial issue because there is an unfortunate assumption that brain-based functions are controlled by “will and motivation” rather that brain structure, brain interactions, and neurotransmitters, etc.

The most important treatment, however, may simply be someone helping the child/adolescent/young adult accept who they are and determine the best ways to move on. I recently evaluated a young man who recalled that his teacher had told him that his “brain didn’t work quite right with all of his internal supports, but, when he used external supports, he moved at a high level and all his great ideas came together.” He spent the rest of his education developing those external supports, and what he has achieved is admirable. He held on to the thoughts expressed by his teacher because she believed in him and gave him hope for the future.

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