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Misunderstood Minds
Stories from the Documentary:
Nathan V. Lauren Sarah Lee Adam Nathan S.
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 Lauren  Lauren's social problems provided a vital clue to the nature of her learning problems.

Lauren's Story


Lauren Smith has always been bright, creative, and articulate. Test scores reveal a well-rounded student with well-above-average intelligence. However, as early as the first grade, Lauren also had severe attention and organization problems that kept her from staying focused, getting her work done, and getting it turned in. She was also impulsive and had trouble reading social cues and keeping friends. Ultimately, her self-esteem plummeted; she withdrew socially, feeling dumb, unpopular, and lonely.

Though her grades suffered and her parents and teachers were frustrated, they also knew how bright, capable, and outgoing Lauren was. They attributed her lack of success to laziness, never realizing the true extent of her learning problems.

When Lauren was in fifth grade, her teacher was key in helping her parents piece together the inconsistencies -- bright but disorganized, outgoing but lonely -- and helped them begin their search for answers. They consulted learning specialists Dr. Mel Levine and Dr. Skip Baker, who together identified the complexity of Lauren's problems. Her parents realized that while Lauren's intelligence and creativity masked academic difficulties, her social problems could have provided early clues to the nature of her learning problems.

Dr. Baker believed that for children like Lauren, who have attention difficulties in all areas, part of the problem lies in their brain chemistry. Specifically, there is a breakdown in the distribution of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is implicated in attention problems, including the mind's ability to determine relevant information and stay focused. Dr. Baker explained how a stimulant like Ritalin could help, but both Lauren and her parents were reluctant to try medication.

Hoping that a new environment and new friends would lead to better academic success, Lauren's parents enrolled her in a new school. Like many kids struggling with attention problems, her new environment at first stimulated her, but its positive effects soon wore off. Her academic and social problems resurfaced, prompting her parents to reconsider medication.

Dr. Baker sympathized with reservations about medication, but also warned that without the appropriate drug to stimulate dopamine levels, kids like Lauren were at a very high risk for using other drugs, like alcohol, that produced a similar effect. Lauren and her parents decided to try Ritalin.

Medication appears to have helped Lauren. Within a month, she showed significant improvement. Lauren herself feels a difference, saying, "It tunes me up but it doesn't change me." Lauren's physicians emphasize that academic and social strategies, in conjunction with the right medication, will play a large part in Lauren's continued success.

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