Learning to Learn
Early interventions can overcome many learning disabilities
Patsy and Edward Pastrano had no idea their bright, young son Gabe might have a learning disability until he entered second grade in his Montessori school and learning began to involve more and more abstract concepts.
“He’s very smart but he would learn something and then it was gone,” Patsy Pastrano says. “He was also very distracted by other things in his environment.”
A teacher recommended that Gabe, then 8, be tested at the Children’s Learning Institute (CLI) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
Experts there diagnosed him with learning disabilities in auditory processing, expressive language and short-term memory, as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His parents were crushed when they realized that Gabe might never be able to make the grade for college.
Discovering that your child has a learning disability can be a frightening experience. In basic terms, a learning disability is a neurological disorder that affects a child’s ability to store, process or produce information. People with learning disorders may have problems with listening or paying attention, speaking, reading or writing, or doing math, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
As daunting as finding answers may seem for parents with a recently diagnosed child, appropriate therapy can launch their child on a roadway to success. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), an estimated one in seven Americans has some type of learning disability, and if children receive effective intervention by the first grade, 90 percent will achieve normal reading.
Best of all, children such as Gabe can go on to attend college.
“It’s important to get an evaluation that will look at their strengths and weaknesses,” says Linda Ewing-Cobbs, PhD, professor in the departments of Pediatrics and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UT Medical School at Houston. “Having a learning disability is not unusual and early intervention is by far the best.”
Signs of a learning disability include not meeting milestones for basic motor skills and language development for toddlers, Ewing-Cobbs says. Pre-school children may have difficulty managing the structure of a classroom, focusing their attention, complying with teachers’ requests or getting along with other children. At the kindergarten level, children may have difficulty learning and remembering names of letters and the sounds letters make, or remembering math facts.
“When there is an impact on daily life and they’re missing out on activities, or when they’re avoiding reading or academics, or when they’re angry or withdrawn, it’s important to know what is contributing to the distress,” she says.
Gabe remembers a time when he would shy away from teachers when the class was asked a question. He would look down, hoping he wouldn’t be called upon.
Ewing-Cobbs is part of a CLI team that has assessed Gabe, now 19, over the past 11 years. She is also director of the new Dan L. Duncan Children’s Neurodevelopmental Clinic, which is going beyond testing to address developmental, parenting and educational needs for children from babies to young adults.
“What I tell parents now is that testing is the foundation. If you don’t know what you have, you don’t know how to deal with it,” says Patsy Pastrano, whose daughter Carissa, 15, was diagnosed at age 3 with difficulties in expressive and receptive language, fine motor skills and speech. “I also tell them not to fear the word ‘disability.’ You don’t let that paralyze you from taking action.”
Building on strengths
The Pastranos worked hard to help their children, whose homework would take from one to three hours a night. Both children received weekly therapy for their learning disabilities. They also attended the School for Young Children, a small Houston school for grades 1 to 5 for children with special needs, and Houston’s The Briarwood School, a non-profit school that specializes in teaching children with learning differences and developmental disorders.
“My mom told me that nothing was impossible to get around,” says Gabe, now a freshman at Sam Houston State University who finished his first semester with a 3.0 grade point average. “She told me that everyone has differences and some just have to struggle a little more.”
Ewing-Cobbs says therapists help children use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. In Gabe’s case, his greatest strengths are his visual and tactile senses—sight and touch. Therapists worked with him to attach visual pictures of what he was learning in order to absorb it. “He’s so good at it that it’s like a motion picture for him,” his mom explained.
Mary Prasad, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and another member of his assessment team, suggested that he would do well in anything visual. (Gabe, incidentally, is majoring in graphic design.)
Patsy Pastrano reports that Gabe has needed no special accommodations in school, though certain accommodations are allowed by the state. “In a large class, he sits in the front and he actually can take really good notes. I’ve been blessed with my children. I have independent and hard workers,” Pastrano says.
Gabe and the CLI team credit the tenacity of his parents, especially his mother.
“A lot of teachers said I wasn’t college material,” says Gabe in a telephone interview between classes. “My mom refused to hear it and she pushed me really hard. At the time, I didn’t understand why. Now I’m glad.”