Dyslexia is common — and misunderstood

Five to 17 percent of the population is dyslexic, reports NPR in a series on the “common and misunderstood” disability in its Unlocking Dyslexia series.

Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

Credit: LA Johnson/NPR

Scientists are studying what makes dyslexic brains different.

At some schools, “dyslexia” is the learning disability that must not be named, writes Gabrielle Emanuel, who coped with her own dyslexia by memorizing words.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to provide services to help dyslexic students, such as reading tutors and books on tape, Emanuel writes. That’s expensive.

Megan Lordos, a middle school teacher, says she was told not to say “dyslexia” in a conference with parents. An administrator told her: ” ‘We’re not allowed to say it because we don’t have the capabilities to support that particular learning difference,’ ” she recalls.

As the mother, Lordos learned strategies for raising a dyslexic child. She and her husband decided to “invest in the child that we have now” by paying for reading tutors rather than saving for college tuition. “College won’t be an option” for a child who hates school and rejects reading, they reasoned.

Here are stories of frustration and success.

Christian Boer, a Dutch graphic designer, stresses the differences between letters in his new font, “Dyslexie.” Boer is dyslexic.

‘Smart drugs’ may not be very smart

“Smart drugs” — stimulants prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — are popular college study aids, reports NBC News.

A Boston University student named Wyatt, said everyone he knows uses drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, Focalin, Vyvanse. “You can go up to the second floor of the library and see, you know, a full wing of people just cracked out.”

Image result for study drugs college

In my day, we used caffeine: No Doz, now marketed as an “alertness aid,” was popular.

Nearly one-third of college students have misused stimulant prescription drugs at least once, according to the Center on Young Adult Health and Development. They tend to have lower grades and be more likely to skip classes.

Stimulants don’t  help children with ADHD complete homework or get better grades, according to a Florida study, reports Reuters’ Lisa Rapaport.

Children who received medication did no better than those who got a placebo.

Providing daily report cards for kids and coaching parents to help with homework did make a difference: Students improved enough to raise their average grade from an F to a C.

Autistic or shy?

When her twins missed their growth milestones — sitting, standing, walking and speaking — parents, teachers, doctors and others suggested they were autistic, Paula Lynn Johnson writes on Ricochet.

Image result for shy boy play Legos

Her “lifeline to sanity” was Thomas Sowell’s book, Late Talking Children. Sowell’s son, who didn’t start talking till he was 4, grew up to be a successful, non-autistic adult.

After speech therapy, Johnson’s kids began talking. But her son showed “red flags” of autism in preschool, teachers said. He didn’t want to stop building Legos and go on to the art station.

His kindergarten teacher also complained about her son’s Lego obsession.

Moreover, my son lived too much in his head, preferring to build and tinker rather than playing tag or ball with the other boys. He was clumsy. He was autistic-ish.

The school’s Child Study Team wanted to do an evaluation for autism, but the parents passed. Elementary school was tough, but he came into himself in middle school.

Academically, there were less worksheets and rote work. A lot of his teachers not only allowed, but welcomed discussion (suddenly, he was no longer “argumentative”, but “thoughtful”). He started enjoying his classes. And socially, the transition to a bigger pond with more potential friends was just what he needed. He found his tribe.

. . . they’re on the debate team and in robotics club. They like to play Risk and Magic the card game. They follow politics and like tossing around obscure movie quotes and references. You know the type. Would I call any of them socially smooth or sophisticated? No. But I wouldn’t call them autistic, either — and that includes my son. He’s empathetic and funny and engaging. He’s just taken longer than most to grow comfortable in his own skin.

“Go to a doctor, preferably a pediatric neurologist or psychiatrist who specializes in autism” for a diagnosis, rather than a special-ed teacher, Johnson advises.

She adds that shyness can be confused with autism.

For example, autistic kids often have trouble making direct eye contact and come across as socially stiff. Well, unfortunately, so do shy kids

“Professionals working for the public school system have built-in incentives to label children and put them into special programs, which often get the school system more money from the government,” she writes.

. . .  if you fear the costs of “doing nothing”, consider the costs of labeling your kid with a serious neurological condition that he just doesn’t have. Read I Had Asperger Syndrome. Briefly, in which the author recounts how his mother — an “expert” in Asperger’s! — not only diagnosed him with the disorder but had him participate in an educational video about it.

As a baby, my daughter missed the major developmental milestones — by miles. Other babies were walking before she could roll over. It turned out she was developmentally weird.

How Texas keeps kids out of special ed

Roanin Walker was diagnosed with a condition resembling autism as a preschooler but his mother Heidi says he received no help when he entered kindergarten in Humble, Texas.

Texas cut the percentage of disabled students by one third since 2004 by threatening to audit districts that let more than 8.5 percent of students get special-ed services, reports the Houston Chronicle.

The Texas Education Agency saved “billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness,” the Chronicle reported.

More than a dozen teachers and administrators from across the state told the Chronicle they have delayed or denied special education to disabled students in order to stay below the 8.5 percent benchmark. They revealed a variety of methods, from putting kids into a cheaper alternative program known as “Section 504” to persuading parents to pull their children out of public school altogether.

Nationwide, 13 percent of students receive special-ed services. Texas, which used to be close to the national average, fell to “exactly 8.5 percent” in 2015.

In a statement, Texas Education Agency officials said the 8.5 percent number is a performance “indicator,” not a cap.

However, special-education limits will be abandoned, officials pledge.

Inclusion of troubled kids hurts classmates

“Including” young children with emotional and behavioral disabilities affects the learning and behavior of their non-disabled classmates, researchers conclude. Other students “had more absences, lower math and reading scores in kindergarten and 1st grade, and were more likely to act out in the classroom or struggle with social skills,” reports Ed Week.

Image result for angry kindergartener

Federal law requires mainstreaming of students with disabilities “to the maximum extent appropriate”.

There is a “direct negative effect,” said researcher Michael A. Gottfried, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In 2009, Jason Fletcher, currently a University of Wisconsin professor, looked at the “spillover effects” of inclusion of emotionally and behaviorally disabled students on their non-disabled classmates.

. . . Fletcher found that the negative spillover effects were more “robust and larger for reading” and had more of an impact on African-American and Hispanic nondisabled students in low-income schools. Fletcher also reported that score gaps between Hispanic and white students were larger at the end of the school year in classrooms with students with emotional or behavioral disabilities than they were in demographically similar classrooms without such students. The same pattern held for the gaps between white and black students.

This is very troubling — and not very surprising.

Can schools help kids who lunch alone? 

Florida State player Travis Rudolph eats lunch with sixth-grader Bo Paske at a Tallahassee middle school.

Bo Paske, a Florida sixth grader on the autism spectrum, doesn’t eat lunch alone any more. After his mother shared a photo on Facebook of a Florida State player sitting with Bo, classmates have become “super welcoming,” says Leah Paske. “He was at a table full of girls, which I thought was funny,” she said.

“It’s been awesome,” said Bo on Fox News. “It was like me sitting on a rainbow”

Laura McKenna, mother of a middle schooler with high-functioning autism, writes about how schools can help the kids who eat lunch alone.

Every autistic kid has some sort of stigmatizing behavior or social-communication impairment, which isolates him from his peers. Some flap their hands, others hum. My kid eats alone in the cafeteria because he isn’t very good at chit-chat. When I ask him who he ate lunch with that day, he mumbles, “I don’t know.”

“Most preteens are struggling with their own social development and aren’t able to reach out to others,” writes McKenna. But schools are trying to make the cafeteria a friendlier, safer place for the socially challenged.

Some schools have organized “lunch bunches,” where a school therapist or a special-education teacher will gather together a group of kids who may be sitting by themselves at opposite ends of the cafeteria. Sometimes the teacher will ask typical kids to join them at the table for a week and guide conversation among the kids. Sometimes she’ll simply create a safe place, a sanctuary lunch table, for the autistic kids to sit.

It doesn’t work without a trained adult, writes McKenna.

Autistic kids do mind sitting alone, she believes. Even if they can’t engage in conversation, they “still want to sit next to other kids and feel their companionship.”

I’m not sure that’s true of all students with autism. Thoughts?

Losing Dory: Chaos is not all that great

Finding Dory, which features Nemo’s absent-minded friend in a search for her family, will open up a new conversation about disabilities, predicts USA Today. The blue tang fish’s back story reveal she was born that way.

Dory is “about the acceptance of chaos,” according to A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times. “Dory’s inability to make or stick to plans is shown, in the long run, to be an advantage.”

“The point of civilization is to make order out of chaos,” responds James Lileks in a Bleat. “The inability to make a plan or stick to a plan is not an advantage, and people who live this way do so because they live in a society that makes plans and sticks to them so there’s food in the store and juice in the sockets.”

Dory’s memory issues and Nemo’s deformed flipper are impairments better “understood as strengths,” Scott writes.

Lileks thinks that’s silly.

Now, an impairment might produce a strength of character, or strengthen bonds within a family or social group, or encourage a person to develop alternative skills that are impressive for the amount of determination required to overcome a handicap, but an impairment does not automatically bestow strength, and it is not in itself a strength. If something appears to be an impairment but it’s actually a strength, it’s probably not, you know, an impairment.

The fetish for identifying and celebrating differences creates “a superficial read of human complexity,” writes Lileks.

Look, everyone’s different. That’s a given. The challenge is finding similarities, which is healthier for a polity in the long run. Fixation on your differences leads to solipsistic tantrums like this, where someone interrupted an Orlando memorial service because no one was talking about her particular set of tremendously illustrative differences.

The atomization of the culture into a set of competing differences, some exalted and some derided according to fashion, does not lead to social cohesion. It puts people in boxes and puts the boxes on the shelf and then hoorah for us, because look how neat these boxes are lined up.

Some messages are “timeless and necessary,” he concludes. Tell kids to “be kind and accepting to good-hearted people who, like everyone else, have their flaws.”

The grandkids are visiting next week: We’re babysitting for two days while their parents go wine tasting. So, I’ll probably have a chance to see Dory.

From special ed to the workforce

Kelly Custer teaches horticulture students at River Terrace Special Education Center in Washington, D.C. Photo: Grey Korhonen/Atlantic

After years of “inclusion,” only two-thirds of special-ed students earn a regular high school diploma. Those with intellectual or developmental disabilities are even less likely to complete high school. As adults, most are unemployed or underemployed.

Now, “specialized workforce academies for students with intellectual/developmental disabilities are growing in popularity,” reports Alia Wong in The Atlantic.

At the River Terrace Special Education Center in Washington, D.C., mentally retarded students who’ve completed a mainstream high school train for jobs in plant care, hospitals and hotels.

When they’re in the classroom, students learn soft skills—What does it mean to have a job? How do you keep a job? How do you deposit a paycheck?—and practice their work tasks in retrofitted classrooms. (Students in the hospitality track, for example, learn how to prepare a basic meal, make a bed, clean a bathroom, and load a laundry cart in a room that’s equipped with a bed, a hotel-like bathroom, a washing machine, a dining table, and more.) But students spend most of their days doing internships in their respective industries, all of which are paid.

Adrian Bland tried various jobs at Embassy Suites — housekeeping, laundry attendant, dishwasher and door person — before deciding she likes to be a porter. A June graduate, she’s been hired for a permanent job.

Jannika Napper works at a VA hospital

Jannika Napper works at a VA hospital, where she washes tables, stacks trays, restocks the food court and other tasks.

“Many of [my students] have experienced school as a place where, academically, they’re left out,” said Kelly Custer, who teaches in the horticulture track. “In previous experiences they were the ones that were doing very poorly in class; now, they’re getting 100s in their classwork, and you can see . . .  it changes their confidence—and that spills over to the worksite.”

Workforce academies are controversial, writes Wong. Some critics value inclusion above all. Others complain “the programs pigeonhole severely disabled students into a vocational path and as a result never encourage them to consider college.”

Some colleges offer special programs for intellectually disabled students, she writes. However, these focus on social skills, not preparing students for jobs they might be able to do as well as anyone.

Some River Terrace students have exited 13+ years of mainstreaming without having learned how to read. Half didn’t complete their year-long program this year and only five got permanent jobs. Should they rest consider college?

Most young adults with significant disabilities can work in non-sheltered jobs, according to the Collaboration To Promote Self-Determination.

Smart, autistic kids need challenge

Special education isn’t designed for “kids who have both an intellectual disability and a sharp intellect,” writes Education Post‘s Beth Hawkins. Her 14-year-old son, who’s on the autism spectrum, “has a voracious thirst for knowledge.”

His favorite author is H.G. Wells. He loves Japanese calligraphy. Last year he produced a documentary about William Higinbotham, a member of the team that produced the first nuclear bomb and the inventor of the first computer game.

Corey also has Asperger’s. He can’t tolerate the noise a pencil makes on paper, intuit when sarcasm is inappropriate or easily turn his attention from one activity to another. Until this year, the vast majority of the interactions I had with his teachers were essentially discussions about how to make him into a compliant, neuro-typical kid.

A special-ed teacher suggested he might go to a not-very-selective college with a program for autistic students, she writes. Corey is set on the highly rated Macalester College.

To get there he’ll need help persisting when confronted by rigor. The resulting sense of mastery would be liquid gold in terms of motivation. But the only tool in many schools’ kits for managing these tough moments is to remove the challenge.

In Corey’s case, this meant frequent trips to an isolated room where, under the guise of “social skills,” he played board games. No wonder he hated school.

Corey now attends a “public charter school organized around entrepreneurship where a number of students like him are excelling,” she writes. Working with adult mentors, Venture Academy students “decide how they learn best.”

Hawkins hopes K-12 schools will raise expectations, inspired by the increasing number of colleges and universities that are offering supports for students with autism.

Most students with academic disabilities can meet the same expectations as other students, writes special-ed teacher Mark Anderson. He opposes a New York proposal to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

Acting teaches social skills to autistic kids

Acting out
Children with autism perform at Vanderbilt’s SENSE Theatre.

Acting can teach social skills to students with autistim, writes Laura McKenna in The Atlantic.

How do you join a conversation at a middle-school lunch table? What do you say when someone says hi to you in the hallway and you don’t know her name? How do you delicately correct a member of your lab group in science without calling him stupid?

. . . A set of subtle and complicated social skills is embedded into the entire school experience, from the lunchroom to the classroom.

Drama classes can help autistic students improve their ability to interact with others, concludes a new Vanderbilt study.

Blythe Corbett, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt, teaches drama exercises such as role playing and improvisation to children with high-functioning autism in her SENSE Theatre program.

Drama participants are better able to recognize faces, understand others’ perspectives and regulate anxiety, compared to a control group, she found.

Researchers at the University of Kent found that children with autism could recognize more facial expressions after they participated in a drama program. Children who participated in the Social Competence Intervention Program, another drama-based intervention, improved their ability to play cooperatively, share, speak with respect, communicate while smiling, and say appropriate pleasantries, like please and thank you.

MarbleJam Kids, an after-school group in River Edge, New Jersey, provides art, music, and movement therapy to about 120 kids on the autistic spectrum. Founder Anna Villa-Bager wanted a program for her daughter.

Children can role-play responses to social dilemmas, writes McKenna, whose son is a MarbleJam kid. “Improvisation exercises are also useful because so many autistic kids otherwise rely on ‘scripts’ to navigate social situations.”

Autistic actors star in Rule Breaking, production by the NYU Steinhardt Drama Therapy program.

Autistic actors star in Rule Breaking, a production by the NYU Steinhardt Drama Therapy program.

Teaching autistic kids to act like everyone else is controversial, reports Shira Polan in ScienceLine. While Corbett values social competence, Maria Hodermarska, a drama therapist at NYU, doesn’t think autistic people need social skills to improve their lives.

“At NYU, we focus on social justice, instead of addressing these deficits in functioning,” says Hodermarksa, whose son acts in Rule Breaking: Disability as Performance. “Drama therapy gives people who are marginalized a voice, a platform, a place to be seen and heard.”

Some of McKenna’s readers think students with autism should be allowed to pursue their interests rather than being pushed into drama classes.

My nephew, who’s on the spectrum, did a summer theater program in middle school by his own choice. He had no talent, but liked hanging out with theater kids. He tried to get into drama in high school, but didn’t get through the auditions.