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D is for...

Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, three common learning disorders that are sometimes the cause of early struggles with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

By Rachel Rabkin Pechman | null , null
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When Josh was in 6th grade, his mother’s concern about his handwriting reached a head. Josh’s capital S still looked like the hasty squiggle of his early elementary years. His lower case n was not much more than a tiny arc. “Josh read on level, his vocabulary was fine, and his math skills were advanced,” says 45-year-old Jean Steffen of Yorktown Heights, NY. “Why couldn’t I read his writing?” After talking with Josh’s teacher, Steffen had her son tested by a specialist. The result: Josh was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disorder that affects the ability to translate thinking into motor skills in the hands. “That explained a lot, including why he is so slow at tying his sneakers,” says Josh’s mom. Josh’s handwriting is improving thanks to school-based occupational therapy — though he now types most of his work on a computer.

Identifying the Cause
Children acquire and develop academic skills, such as the classic three Rs — reading, writing, and arithmetic — at different rates. Most grasp them at grade level, and the majority of kids who lag behind eventually catch up. Experts advise parents not to jump to conclusions if their child doesn’t keep up,  but to consult first with the teacher or your child’s pediatrician about possible obstacles.

When Josh’s mother took the next step — having her son tested by an educational specialist — she learned that dysgraphia, which affects only a small portion of the population, is one of three common learning disorders, each of which on its own or in some combination with the others can hinder the ability to master one or more of the three Rs. The others are dyslexia, which can affect reading, and dyscalculia, which affects math. Here’s a closer look at all three.

Dyslexia

What it is: The most familiar of the three disorders is thought to affect language processing. Most of us know it can hinder reading ability, but it can also result in difficulties with word recognition, sequencing, spelling, writing, or speaking. Experts believe it affects about 5 to 17 percent of the U.S. population.

How to spot it: Contrary to popular belief, children with dyslexia don’t necessarily write letters backward. “The symptoms manifest themselves differently in each person — and they can present differently at various ages,” says David R. Rosenberg, M.D., chief of child psychiatry and psychology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and Wayne State University. The overarching issue is that children with dyslexia often have difficulty organizing their thoughts on paper and sometimes orally (though they typically have normal or above-average intelligence). In school-age kids, common signs include trouble spelling, writing, and reading — to the point that a child isn’t keeping up with the rest of the class.

How children react: “A child with dyslexia usually experiences frustration every day, and school provokes anxiety,” says Jill Lauren, M.A., a learning specialist and author of That’s Like Me! Stories about Amazing People with Learning Differences. “Not being able to keep up with one’s peers can lead to shame and self-doubt.” For this reason, dyslexia is often associated with poor self-esteem and depression.

Taking action: If you get a diagnosis of dyslexia, “there is no cookie cutter approach to treatment,” says Dr. Rosenberg. A good specialist will look at your child’s specific weaknesses and strengths to develop tailored multisensory learning strategies that help your child cope best. As a parent, you’ll also want to work with your child’s teachers to keep them informed of your child’s progress and arrange for accommodations for your child (such as the ability to use a spell check machine). “A child with severe dyslexia who gets proper treatment can look like a different child,” says Dr. Rosenberg. In fact, kids with dyslexia who get appropriate help typically catch up to their peers in reading within a few years, says Lauren.

Dysgraphia

What it is: Children with dysgraphia typically have motor and processing weaknesses that make it hard for them to get their thoughts down on paper — even when they understand the subject matter. Basically, getting words from head to hand is a challenge, says Marjorie Fessler, Ed.D., supervisor of outpatient educational services at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Kids with dysgraphia often also have dyslexia (and/or other neurobehavioral issues such as ADHD), so experts don’t have a clear idea of how many people have dysgraphia, says Caroline DiBattisto, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at the Medical College of Georgia. But it is thought that 5 to 20 percent of people have some problem with handwriting.

How to spot it: Signs include poor handwriting, difficulty sizing letters or keeping them in line, an awkward pencil grip, twisting the body uncomfortably or getting extremely tired when writing or drawing, rushing to get writing over with quickly, and actively avoiding writing.

How children react: As with dyslexia, children with dysgraphia can experience severe frustration and anxiety and may develop poor self-image as a result. Outside of the classroom, children with dysgraphia may also have difficulty with other fine motor skills such as tying shoes or sewing.

Taking action: If you notice several signs, you might want to talk with your child’s pediatrician or teacher about getting a referral to an educational specialist. If your child is diagnosed with dysgraphia, remember to address any other issues, such as ADHD, with the educational specialist, as well.

Your child will likely work with an occupational therapist to improve his writing skills. Depending on your child’s needs, the therapist may have your child write on paper with raised lines so that he has a sensory cue helping him stay on course, for example. As with dyslexia, certain accommodations in school (such as allowing a child to take breaks during tests to correct for mistakes) can also help. Dr. Rosenberg suggests offering low-stress opportunities to practice writing — ask your child to write a letter to Grandma or a list of his favorite sports teams. Playing an instrument can also help your child improve her fine motor skills.

Dyscalculia

What it is: Affecting about 6 percent of the population, dyscalculia makes math a challenge. The disorder also tends to occur along with other learning and/or behavioral disorders.

How to spot it: Young kids with dyscalculia may have trouble sorting objects, recognizing patterns, doing puzzles, understanding proportions (taller/shorter, bigger/smaller), learning to count, recognizing numbers, and matching numbers with amounts. Once kids are in school, dyscalculia can become more evident when children have problems adding and subtracting.

How children react: Not only is math class a source of anxiety for children with dyscalculia, but their difficulty with spatial and numerical relationships can cloud over everyday functioning. For instance, telling time, using money (paying for something or making change), or measuring an ingredient in a recipe can be overwhelmingly difficult, says Dr. Rosenberg.

Taking action: If your child is diagnosed with dyscalculia, there are many strategies that can help — and the techniques should all be based on your child’s specific needs and strengths. “Some children need to practice with concrete manipulative objects longer, while some kids need a verbal approach to math,” says Dr. Fessler. Other kids, who can’t recognize an operational sign (plus or minus), may learn to highlight those signs with a marker in order to make fewer errors when doing math problems. In some interesting cases, a student might not be so good at calculating, but he might have a great mastery of mathematical reasoning. “Give those kids a calculator in higher grades and they go on to do honors math,” says Dr. Fessler. 

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