Learning difficulties, otherwise known as learning disabilities or disorders can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. The symptoms can range from distractibility, weak literacy or numeracy, struggling at school to behavioural disorders. Many adults go through life with undiagnosed learning difficulties, which can significantly undermine their life performance. There are now a wide range of sensory treatments which can offer hope to sufferers of these conditions. While some interventions address visual, auditory and motor performance, others target diet, nutrition or behaviour. All are designed to address the sensory and motor foundations of learning.
What is a learning difficulty?
It involves the inefficient collection, retention and or processing of sensory information. These difficulties undermine how a person sees and hears, how they sense and manage movement and whether they integrate all this sensory information into a meaningful picture of the world around them.
How can a learning difficulty affect you?
It can undermine a range of life skills including school and social performance, organisational ability, maturity and independence. Students with a learning difficulty will typically be more distractible, more emotional and have lower comprehension in a classroom. They require more time and effort to complete tasks.
Learning difficulties involve a wide range of conditions including:
- Sensory Processing Disorder - difficulty processing sensory input(s)
- Dyslexia - difficulty with reading or writing
- Dyscalculia - difficulty with mathematics and numbers in general
- Dysgraphia - difficulty with handwriting and language
- Dyspraxia - difficulty with motor planning
- Postural disorder - including low muscle tone
- Auditory Processing Disorder - low auditory attention or comprehension
- Inadequate vision - weak eyesight or visual processing
- Inadequate digestion - including leaky gut
- Attention deficit/Hyperactivity (ADD, ADHD) – undermine comprehension and learning
- Autism and Aspergers syndrome – problems communicating with and relating to others
Harry Armytage, who offers gentle listening therapy for children with learning difficulties, shared some of his insights garnered over nearly seven years in the field.
How do you view learning difficulties?
"While the term Learning Difficulty is normally applied to those with normal or above-average intelligence, we see learning difficulties right across the intelligence spectrum. It describes any difficulty with learning which has been caused by a sensory deficit. In other words, it relates to the way your senses collect what you see, hear and touch and how well your brain converts all this into meaningful information. A learning difficulty undermines your capacity to access your intelligence and causes you to under-perform. If a child is bright, this may not show as a learning difficulty which is noticeable to their teacher. But your mum's intuition will often tell you that something is not right. The integration of the senses is crucial to functioning as an effective human being and in the development of learning."
"Many with learning difficulties also have a delayed history in their development of motor skill(s). Movement, balance, posture and motor are important for learning because they build motor planning, balance, posture and hand-eye coordination skills so important for holding a pencil, writing while sitting at a desk or playing in the school yard. Movement can also help to integrate both hemispheres of the brain and allows the automation of repetitive and newly learned tasks like writing one's name, catching a ball while running, or riding a bike."
Why do you think auditory processing is so important?
"It is important because language is a vital means of human interaction. Auditory processing provides a foundation for efficient learning because it supports fluid comprehension of language and the acquisition of speech. It also provides the capacity to communicate and coherently express one's ideas and feelings."
Are learning difficulties becoming more common?
"The measured incidence of all learning difficulties is rapidly rising around the world. For example, autism was quite rare in the 1980's (1:10,000). But it is estimated to affect 1% (1:100) children in the USA, Australia and the UK in 2010. ADHD, Tourette's syndrome and OCD appear to be rising at similar rates. A recent UK study suggests a similar pattern for adults. While better measurement may account for some of the increase, I believe the bulk of this explosion in learning difficulties reflects increasing levels of stress."
In your opinion, what factors are causing these learning difficulties?
"There are many causal factors, but the main ones that I see include a difficult birth; delayed milestones, significant ear infections, congestion or food intolerance(s), emotional stress and declining nutrition. Increasingly both parents are working and time-poor, childcare is more common. Families are less stable and unfortunately there is less time for children. I am also concerned by the increasing imbalance between electronic hyper-stimulation and outside or physical play."
"Nutrition is also an important factor. Today's children are consuming food which is less nutritious and which has many more ‘empty' calories. Children's diets are now more processed and contain more chemical additives/residues than in any previous generation. In the long-term, I believe that this is a threat to our children's health and well-being as well as their capacity to learn."
What are some of the signs you look for in terms of a learning difficulty?
"I see a wide range of symptoms such as low attention, distractibility, hyperactivity, poor concentration, difficulty communicating, poor speech articulation, slow processing and inadequate memory. I also see many brighter kids who are bored at school because they cannot cope. Many clients avoid eye contact and cannot sit still. Those with a learning difficulty are often more tired than their peers after school or work."
Which types are you coming across the most?
"Most children with a learning difficulty present with multiple issues - auditory, motor, visual are the most common. Many also have inadequate motor control or poor posture. We often find weak auditory and/or visual processing in those with low literacy or numeracy because you read with your ears and your eyes."
What programs are available?
"There is now an increasing program choice including behaviour management, counselling, digestive programs, listening therapy, movement therapy, nutrition, occupational therapy, optometry, osteopathy, psychology, speech pathology. While treating the gut is important it is often a later program choice because it is more intrusive and can affects what the whole family can eat. Once the foundational issues have been addressed, tutoring and special education can help to rebuild the knowledge gaps caused by the learning difficulty."
Why do parents seek sensory programs?
"Sensory programs are popular because they gently target the foundational causes of the learning difficulties. They think that this is more efficient and effective than treating the symptoms. Some parents are also looking for programs with a minimal risk of negative side-effects."
What advice would you give a parent who suspects their child has a learning difficulty?
"Trust your intuition and seek help if you feel that something is "not quite right". Persist until you get answers that explain the under-performance. The most important thing is to be supportive and get the appropriate help for your child. Testing and evaluation can help to identify which aspects of your child's learning are impaired. Adequate nutrition, sleep and exercise are also crucial to help your child cope with the sensory bombardment of modern life.