Dyslexia in LIFE
Dyslexia in LIFE Magazine: A cover story from 1972
NOTE: I found this issue of LIFE Magazine in the stack of the important issues my mother-in-law saved. She had been a third-grade teacher, and clearly encountered dyslexia in her students. It is important for parents, educators and administrators to realize that we have been at this for more than 40 years, and this ignorance about dyslexia just has to end!
–Cheri Rae, The Dyslexia Project
An Agony of Learning: For millions of children, subtle flaws in perception can brutally handicap bright minds
By Will Bradbury
This morning, like most at the Center School in Bound Brook, N.J., has been long and hard—a snarl of tension and tears, occasional obscenities and frequently scuffles. But now, in front of the camera, these youngsters might be any group of 7- and 8-year-olds hamming it up for a photographer. But they are not. What separates them, and perhaps two million more like them, from other children, is a very special kind of problem, one that affects each uniquely: these children cannot learn properly.
No doctor could tell Courtney or Joseph or Kurt or Mitchell, why they have this problem. But it involves the nervous system—that billion-cell triumph of sensors, nerve cable and brain cells that runs all human beings. Deep within its seemingly infinite circuitry something has gone wrong, perhaps for genetic reasons, perhaps because of an infection early in a mother’s pregnancy, perhaps because of an accident at birth. The result is that these children can’t correctly process the flood of sensory information that spills into their brains.
Most often such deep-brain imperfections are slight, for these youngsters are not retarded or autistic and usually they are of average or better-than-average intelligence. But for a child entering the disciplined and carefully programmed world of the disciplined and carefully programmed world of a classroom, where the pace and needs of the group rule so completely, learning flaws can be brutally handicapping.
Tears masked a futile effort to understand
Take Joseph, sneakers on, fist clenched. Joseph had enormous difficulty reading, writing and following directions in first grade. “Sometimes,” his teacher noted,” I feel as if he is capable of doing much more than he lets on.” She was right. Joseph was capable of doing much more. The tragedy is that Joseph’s teacher, like most in elementary schools these days, had no idea why he didn’t do more. Joseph repeated first grade, but made little progress, and left in midyear for special training at the Center School.
Joseph’s problem is that he has trouble remembering what he hears. His hearing has been carefully checked—but once information goes into his brain it doesn’t stick the way it should. And so Joseph squints his eyes and turns restlessly in his chair and says, “I don’t understand,” or “What did you say?” and desperately, but futility, tries to do just as much as he can.
Joseph also has trouble distinguishing the difference between sounds like M and N and D and B, and t his makes it difficult for him to read and form words. And Joseph has problems telling top from bottom, right from left and remembering the sequence of things, which makes it hard for him to reproduce the order of strokes in forming letters of the alphabet.
Worst of all, Joseph is hyperactive, which means it is literally impossible for him to keep from jumping up, getting into fights, throwing things and dashing wildly around the room. Now, because he is 8 and knows he is not doing what other children do with ease, Joseph is developing his own special clutch of anxieties, which makes everything else a little more difficult.
Play can be an anguished struggle
Each child in Joseph’s class is wrestling in one way of another, with the same destructive trinity—information-processing problems, application problems and emotional problems. Some may have difficulty picking out the bits of a letter than makes a T different from an F, some may have hands that don’t properly express what they create in their minds, some may be hyperactive, or have short attention spans or something called perseveration, which means they have trouble stopping an activity once they have started it. But each in his own way is unable to cope with the flood of signs and sounds that breaks over him in school.
The phrase used today to describe children like Joseph and his classmates is “learning disabled” or “children with learning disabilities.” Other words or phrases have been used in the past—word blindness, dyslexia, minimal brain damage. Learning disabilities is really a better catchall, because it is so general and reflects the child’s problems rather than an unknown cause, but is much too bland a phrase for the furies that hound a child and the parents of a child with this problem.
Unlike Joseph, Mike is a veteran of those furies at age 12 and—now back in regular school—can talk about his problems. Mike was born with eyelids that wouldn’t open properly, and he was missing something called Bell’s reflex, which turns the eyes up and in when the lids close. He was also colicky and as he got older he had trouble digesting any kind of fat. But worst of all, Mike’s eyes and hands never really seemed to work in unison. Sizes and shapes made little sense to him and putting things together or drawing made him angry and frustrated.
“I remember I used to want to draw a red wagon,” Mike says of his days in nursery school. “And I could see that red wagon, but it always came our looking like a hurricane. “ What a nice storm, Mike’s mother would say; but why do you always do a storm?” And Mike would mumble it wasn’t really a storm, it started out to be a red wagon.
The next year, in a totally permissive kindergarten, Mike went to pieces. Without any kind of educational structure to cling to, without any understanding of his eye-hand problems, he stopped being a troubled by generally sweet boy and became a rigid, tantrum-ridden bully. At home he viciously picked on his little sister, and he hated school and demanded that e be allowed to take guns to class for his own protections.
“They used to think I was retarded.”
At this point, Mike and his parent faced two classic learning disability battles—getting proper diagnosis and getting Mike to a school that would help him. Despite his eye problems, no doctor had suggested that Mike might have brain damage. But one night, Mike’s mother spotted a flickering movement in Mike’s eyes, and, wondering if his reflex was now present, rushed him to a neuro-psychiatrist. The doctor stunned Mike’s mother by saying the boy was psychotic, needed play-group therapy and might have to be institutionalized. In Washington, where Mike used to live, his original eye specialist said, yes, the reflex had appeared, but the problem did not indicated any central-nervous-system disease or disorder.
Then in New York City, Mike’s mother finally found a neurologist who said Mike did have minimal brain damage. The doctor urged her to take Mike out of the permissive kindergarten, put him in a normal one and give him special therapy at home. But it took months for the kindergarten to release Mike and for the school system to agree to pay for two hours of special teaching each day. Administrator after administrator avoided or ignored or stalled, until finally Mike’s parents made contact with a member of the board of education and the arrangement was made.
That fall Mike entered regular first grae, continued an hour of special training daily and sank deeper into the learning-disability pit. He still could not learn to read properly. Other kids teased him unmercifully. “They used to think I was retarded because I went to a special school,” Mike remembers. “And sometimes I thought they were right. “
Under these pressures, Mike split his life in a way that would haunt him for the next three years. In school he was rigid, highly cooperative and sugary- sweet. At home he was foul and violent, especially with his little sister. When he was alone with her one morning, for example, before the rest of the family was up, Mike threatened to commit suicide with a sharp pencil. His sister’s screams woke their mother. Desperate and terrified, Mike’s mother got him to a pediatric psychiatrist who prescribe an amphetamine-like drug known as Ritalin. Mike started taking it and the drug helped enormously. “It let him roll with the punches,” his mother remembers. “When another kid jostled him it was just a jostle, not a personal insult. His world wasn’t so terribly black-and-white.”
Mike also started going full time that fall to the special school that became the Center School and seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Larry Silver of Rutgers Medical School. It all helped.
Mike, still on Ritalin, had a good summer at camp. But in the fall Mike stopped seeing Dr. Silver. And his mother went back to school to learn how to help learning-disabled kids.
Without their support, Mike crumbled. At school he was intensely rigid, but cooperative, at home he screamed at dinner, wet his bed at night and occasionally attacked his mother with belts, coat hangers and even a chair. Within a month Mike was back in therapy. For the next year and a half Dr. Silver saw Mike and his parents twice a week. But Mike’s tantrums continued. Often he had to be held down. At night he roamed, turning on the television, until his parents became desperate for sleep. Reluctantly, Dr. Silver tried Seconal on Mike and then in a last step took him off Ritalin. Twenty-four hours later Mike was better, though not even Dr. Silver could be sure exactly why.
Since then, Mike’s progress has been steady and sure. Today he is a good reader and ahead in almost everything except penmanship and spelling, which will always bother him. He still has eye problems and his coordination is not perfect but he is drawing well and though he hasn’t gone back and drawn any red wagons for his mother, he has turned out an impressive series of airplane battles, posters and cartoons.
Mike and Joseph and the members of Joseph’s class are the lucky ones. They were diagnosed and got help. Many more children struggle through school without help—or drop our when they can. Just as destructive is the professional and pseudo-professional merry-go-round that often awaits a worked mother who knows something is wrong with her child and tries to find out what it is. There may be stops for new glasses, special eye exercises, massive doses of vitamins, patterned exercises designed to move a child through the creeping and crawling states of his development, play therapy, session with a psychiatrist, even hypnosis. And then a suggestion to have the child’s eyes checked again because he has a vision problem. “I could cry,” one mother who made the tour wrote Dr. Silver at Rutgers, “when I think of my son sitting quietly in school, not making any trouble, being teased about his writing, trying hard to read as he pulled the book in and out, studying words, and I’m sure hating the whole thing. This, a boy who wants to learn about everything. “
Many of those who don’t get help do sit quietly—for years. In some cases the results may be relatively minor—a grown man or woman who doesn’t like to read or has to stop and think before he writes a certain word or forms a particular letter. In others the results may be extraordinarily damaging—a 13-year-old girl who cannot write at all and who is not discovered until the seventh grade because her mother has been doing all her homework. Or a grown man, held back for years in second grade, finally educated in a school for the retarded, who walks into a firm seeking employment and then must beg the secretary there for help in filling out the job application. Or a 17-year-old girl, considered a slow learner by her parents, force-fed easy secretarial courses, who turns out to have a high IQ, auditory perception problems and an enormous sense of guilt and insecurity. “I always do better,” she says, “when I read things and have time to write.” With help, she goes to a junior college, then a four-year school, where she becomes a cheerleader and makes the dean’s list.
Other children with learning disabilities don’t sit quietly. They become class clowns, hiding their frustrations and insecurities behind jokes and wild behavior. By the fifth or sixth grade, when they are lost, they may drop out and begin sliding toward delinquency. One study has shown that as many as 80% of a group of delinquents appeared to have correctable learning disabilities. Another study found that many of the specific deficits delinquents suffer from—in language, perception, motor coordination—are very similar to those that appear in non-delinquent children with learning disabilities. The school record of Lee Harvey Oswald, in fact, suggests to some experts that he might have suffered from such problems.
In the next few years, the study and treatment of children with learning disabilities should be enormously helpful to all youngsters. Because in charting the learning topography of children with special disabilities, educators are really dismembering the learning process itself. In prescribing special techniques to help such children, they are really outlining a method for teaching all children, not the way a system dictates, but in harmony with the uniqueness of their minds.
Here and on the following pages LIFE presents information on the basic problems of children with learning disabilities and how to get help for them.
Learning disabilities were first identified more than 75 years ago in a British medical journal, but they have undoubtedly existed as long as a man has been using language. Leonardo da Vinci, who reversed everything he wrote. Thomas Edison, Niels Bohr, Woodrow Wilson and even Albert Einstein all were probably bothered by them. What causes learning disabilities? No one can say for sure today, but there are a number of possibilities. They may be transmitted genetically—there are, for example, four or five times as many boys with the problem as girls, which suggests some kind of genetic component One study of parents and their LD children found a 30% to 40% correlation between the parents’ learning problems and those of their offspring, which suggests an inherited type of nervous system. But any kind of trauma, infection or metabolic imbalance after conception and before birth could damage the nervous system. So could difficulties at birth—oxygen deprivation, prolonged labor, a forceps delivery. And as the nervous system develops, inadequate sensory stimulation at critical moments—or infection or trauma—could malign the organ that orchestrates hundreds of millions of body parts into a functioning organism each second of life.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Experts agree that there is no single clue—or even a group of them—that irrevocably identifies a child as learning-disabled. Children may be hyperactive and have behavior problems—irritability, short attention span, instability—and not be learning-disabled. But, obviously, such problems can indicate perceptual difficulties. In preschool children here are some of the things to look for:
Slowness in language development—Was he or she talking by 3? Did speech begin and then stop? Was the development of speech halting and uncomfortable?
Slowness in motor development—Was he late to sit up, slow to walk (not really getting around after 19 months)? Did he have trouble with the stairs and was he still tripping and falling too often at age 4? By 5, was he unable to jump or climb a ladder?
Other motor problems—Does he bump into things, have trouble stopping a particular activity and have difficulty with hand-and-eye coordination? Is he excessively active?
Interaction problems—Will he sit and listen to a story, but, generally, not comprehend what he hears? Does he have trouble following directions? Does he have problems playing with other children? Does he find it hard to use toys in a meaningful way and stay with them? Does he have difficulty playing with a toy and talking at the same time?
WHAT TO DO
If a child exhibits some of the above signs, or if you just don’t “feel right about his development, take him to his pediatrician. Make it clear that you are concerned with the question of learning disabilities and make sure the doctor knows what you mean. If he says the child will just grow out of his difficulties, he may be right. The doctor may also be wrong. If you are not satisfied, find a specialist. The best way is to write to the Association of Children with Learning Disabilities, a nonprofit organization that provides information on doctors, diagnostic centers, schools, and parents who have had learning-disabled children. The address is 2200 Brownsville Road, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15210.
A number of universities also provide special diagnostic and remedial clinics for teacher training programs: The University of Arizona; University of California at Los Angeles; University of Southern California; Southern Connecticut State College; University of Connecticut; Georgia State University; Northwestern University; University of Illinois; University of Kansas; Boston University; University of Minnesota; Teachers College, Columbia University, Temple University; George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville; and the University of Virginia.
The job of finding out if a child has learning disabilities—and what they are—should involve a number of disciplines—education, medicine, psychology. In a school-age child, medical and scholastic records must be examined along with parent and teacher reports on what and how the child is doing at home and in school. Specific testing—usually at a cost of less than $100—can find out what the child’s potential is, what he has accomplished and what specific things he has trouble with. Can he integrate something heard with something seen? Does he use both sides of his body together and in harmony? If he has speech problems, where in the extraordinarily complex sequence of muscle and nerve events that produces speech does his difficulty lie?
In preschool children, where learning disabilities can be diagnosed and helped severe emotional problems develop, less testing and more observation, game-playing and parental reporting is necessary. If a child has verbal problems, he may start receiving help by 3. If his problems are in motor areas, training might also begin at 3.
The drugs used more frequently by learning-disabled children who are hyperactive are Ritalin, and amphetamine-like compound, and Dexedrine, an amphetamine. They are used because they have a paradoxical effect on a child’s nervous system: instead of stirring it up, as they would a normal adult’s nervous system, they slow it down and help it to focus. Why they do this is unknown, but some researchers theorize that these drugs affect only one part of the brain, a nerve-cell system known as the reticular activating system (LIFE, “The Brain,” Nov. 12, 1971) which helps screen out distracting stimuli.
There is no question that these drugs have been misused—perhaps at an alarming rate—by doctors and teachers who are unwilling or unable to separate learning-disabled and hyperactive children from those who are simply highly active and disruptive in the classroom. Nonetheless, when used correctly, such drugs give a confused and worried child like Mike or Joseph a degree of control and focus he would not otherwise have, a starting point from which he may begin to learn within and around his disabilities. The drugs also work quickly—within 24 hours—if they are going to work at all. And in about four of five properly diagnosed cases they do work.
For parents facing the decision of whether to permit drugs for their child, there are a number of things to remember:
A doctor, psychologist and teacher, as well as the parents, should be involved in the decision.
Hundreds of thousands of LD children have used drugs like Ritalin, and there is no evidence that such use leads to any form of addiction later on.
Once on Ritalin or another drug, a child should be checked out regularly to see how he is doing and even taken off the drug to determine, as in Mike’s case, if he can do as well or better on his own.
The biggest problem facing a child who is diagnosed as learning-disabled is getting proper teaching. The vast majority of schools do not have adequate programs, even though they may have teams for detecting such children. The alternatives may be unsatisfactory t the school, the child and his parents. In some cases, a school may have one special program for a variety of handicapped kids, including retarded children, and offer it as adequate training for a learning-disabled child. In others a school may have nothing to offer and so agree to send a child to a private institution, like the Center School, and pay the cost of $3,000 or more a year. In all cases, however, the final decision is up to the school.
Fighting such decisions can be costly and frustrating. About 30 states now have specific paragraphs in their legislation concerning the identification and education of learning-disabled children. Other states classify such children as “neurologically impaired,” even though specific brain damage usually cannot be documented. Some lump them under comprehensive legislation for handicapped children in general. Few lawyers, however, know enough about educational laws and statutes to help parents who want to remove their child from an inferior program. In some cases it may take ten separate appeals—requiring a year or more and several thousand dollars—before a school system will authorize transfer to a private school or a child’s parents can go to court for a decision. In addition, children under 4 and in some cases 5 or 6 are not covered for special training in most states.
The greatest handicap for LD children of any age, however, remains ignorance—on the part of pediatricians, teachers, administrators and parents. At the present time, for example, most medical schools and specialty training programs do not prepare the pediatrician or family physician for the LD child; and most colleges to no offer a single specific course on learning disabilities to any of their elementary or secondary school teachers in training.
HOW JOSEPH IS LEARNING TO READ AND WRITE
Joseph’s teachers at the Center School cannot cure his special auditory difficulties, but they can effectively bypass them. Using a carefully tailored learning program that takes full advantage of his senses of vision and touch, they are helping him to read and write as normally as possible. When Joseph works on his spelling, for example, he uses large wooden letters he can see and handle, and objects like an apple or a bottle whose names begin with letters that give him difficulty. His teachers speak to him in short, simple sentences that they repeat several times. When they help Joseph with some of this other problems, such as orienting objects in space or remembering the sequence of things, they work in a one-to-one situation with him and use specially devised equipment. Above all, they try to maintain an atmosphere of tenderness and well-ordered activity that helps Joseph cope with his emotional problems and hyperactivity.
In all, there are nearly 50 children like Joseph at the Center School this year. Most have left public school because of their problems, and each is being taught according to the unique patters on his disabilities. Housed in rented quarters in a church, the school was created by a group of parents and teachers more than a year ago to replace a similar school that closed.
This year for the first time it will have a class for kindergarten youngsters, who can be helped much more easily than older children. Yet the Center School is really a temporary institution: it exists only because most public schools are not yet staffed or equipped to educate learning-disabled children.
Letters to the Editor about the story, published in LIFE, October 27, 1972
Sirs: Thank you for the bottom of my heart for the article on learning disabled children by Will Bradbury (“An Agony of Learning, Oct. 6). Although it revived too many memories—and along with them a few more tears of heartache an frustration, anger, anxiety and bitterness—it was reassuring to read that a very real and terribly complex problem is finally being recognized and some realistic attempt made to understand it. Children with learning disabilities need all the help they can get, as do their parents. –Jane Hiers, Nashville, TN
Sirs: Bradbury covered an extremely complex subject quite thoroughly. He should be commended for his forth-rightness in warning parents against pseudo-scientific treatment fads such as visual-perceptual training, crawling and nutritional therapies, which parents may turn to because they offer a simplistic approach to a complex problem. Labels like “perceptual dysfunction” are glamorous, but they do not specify how to teach Joseph to read, and that is what is imperative.
–Jerome Skapof, Executive Director, New York Center for Learning Disorders, Inc., New York, N.Y.
Sirs: Having also undergone the experiences of Mike’s mother in attempting to cope with the evasiveness of public school administrators and with public ignorance of the meaning of learning disabilities, my wife and I want to thank Mr. Bradbury. We hope every parent and every future parent, every schoolteacher, every school administrator and every public official in this country will read his article.
–James. W. Lance, Falls Church, Va.
Sirs: “An Agony of Learning” is a godsend! It says so much of what teachers of LD children have been trying to say for years. This school year, our system is trying to develop an LD classroom in each of our elementary schools and two junior highs.
–Wanda Paskowski, New Britain, Conn.
Sirs: The most heartbreaking aspect of a learning disability is when school personnel recognize the problem and the parents won’t because they do not want to admit their child is different, an so doom him to a second- or third-grade life.
–Mr. and Mrs. A Holybee, Stockton, Calif.
Sirs: The pediatrician says it is the educator’s problem. The educator says it is a psychiatrist’s or analyst’s problem. The psychiatrist is $35 for 30 minutes and your special learning center is $3,000 a year. We have an LD child who has been diagnosed many times over the past three years. Exceptional IQ but—then nothingness other than basic therapy (suggestions: string beads, walk a board). The emotional illness is the symptom of the disease. Meanwhile, it is like watching someone with a terminal illness. You can do nothing but watch and ache as the young life struggles—unless you are very rich.
–Mrs. D. N. Houston, Greenville, Tex.
Sirs: As a long-time activist and currently president of the New Jersey Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, I would like to make the following recommendations. Today the cause of children with learnind disabilities is the only national health problem without a national fund drive. Because it is believed that 70% of these children can be brought back into the mainstream of life, there is a crying need for additional federal, state, as well as private support now. The loosely knit state associations must be welded into a meaningful national organization if we are to reclaim these youngsters.
–Robert H. Winnerman, Chairman, U.S. Home Corporation, New York, NY.