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Thoughts on “Special Needs”

November 27, 2008

This is being reposted from a year ago.

I was listening to a bit of an NPR program on the way to Wal-Mart. They had been interviewing Jonathan Mooney. As a child, he received extensive school-based services for learning disabilities, including dyslexia. He described a plethora of efforts to “fix” him, including making him wear purple glasses to “treat” his dyslexia. (“YOU try going to school in purple glasses,” he said. He’s got a point). He also said, “I took enough medications to kill a small farm animal.”

Mooney did learn to read and write, and he went on to earn a degree in English Literature from Brown University. He started Eye to Eye to support students with “special needs.”

I only heard a few minutes of the program, but I did catch a few interesting points. One thing Mooney emphasized was the pitfalls in our remediation-based system. We become hyperfocused on fixing what’s “wrong,” and forget to focus on a student’s strengths. We need to find the right balance between remediation and truly concentrating on a child’s skills and gifts.

At this point, I was nodding my head and saying, “well, YES! Of course.” This point seems obvious to us home educators, I guess. And those of us who home school “differently wired” kids ponder this often. But, at times, even we become so wrapped up in our responsibility to help our kids overcome their difficulties that we lose sight of this. I know I do.

Mooney gave a dramatic example from his own childhood. Spelling was determined to be a weak point. So it was decided that he would spend an extra hour each day focusing on spelling. They even came up with some very innovative ways of trying to accomodate his kinesthetic learning style. On Monday, he spent an hour drilling spelling words with flashcards. On Tuesdays, he spent an hour tracing his spelling words in sand.? On Wednesdays, he spent an hour building his spelling words with blocks. On Thursdays, he explored the words through interpretive dance. (Now I would’ve liked to’ve seen THAT!) Every week, he went through all this, and every week he failed his spelling test.

Finally his mother decided “that’s why God invented spell check,” and called a halt to all this. Apparently, as a Brown graduate and published author, he hasn’t let his abysmal spelling skills hold him back.

The thing that strikes me about this is the opportunity cost. What else might he have been doing with that 5+ hours each week? What might students with learning disabilities do with some of the time they spend in resource classes? Doing something they really excel at? Drawing? Building something? Playing soccer?

I wonder what route my son would have taken if he’d gone to public school. James has ADHD (in the opinion of his doctor and, apparently, everyone who’s ever met him) and seems to be a visual-spatial learner. I

He was a “late reader,” by our country’s standards; he started really reading when he was about 8. At 9, he still reverses some letters and numbers. He’s not an avid reader, and he likes writing about as well as he likes having a sharp stick jabbed in his eye. I don’t think he’s truly dyslexic, but he’s not on top of the normal curve either.

If he were in school, I’m willing to bet his teachers wouldn’t have been as relaxed as I, letting him wait until age 8 or so to start reading and writing. In school, it’s become a bona fide educational emergency if you’re not literate by Kindergarten. Maybe, with plenty of consistent prodding, they would’ve gotten him reading “on time.” Maybe they would have fed him a steady diet of brain numbing books and gotten him up to speed. On the other hand, they might have decided he needed Title I and, later, special education services.

What has he done with the time he might have spent in classroom reading groups and resource classes? Listened to some really good books. Made up stories and cartoons. Played soccer. Built things. Created lots of art. Made friends. Moved ahead in areas of academic strength, like math. Run around outside, being a kid.

Maybe I am digressing a bit. (No surprise, there.) I am not minimizing the importance of special education services for kids who need them. (I’ve been down that path, too.) I’m not denying that schools can, and should, provide meaningful remedial services for kids with “special needs.” And many kids really enjoy resource classes and truly benefit from them. I get that. I just think our educational system has lost perspective. And we’re not giving kids with “special needs” a full opportunity to explore areas they excel in and use their time to spread their wings in those areas.

Look at Jonathan Mooney’s quest to become a better speller. Spelling is a fraction of the entire writing process, which is but?a part of all the academic areas there are to be explored. Five hours a week of trying to “fix” that weakness is disproportionate. It’s time that could have been spent focusing on something at which he could really succeed. And trying to push a child to read and write if he’s not developmentally ready (which, for many kids, comes at 8, 9, or later) is probably wasted time. It’s somewhat akin to trying to “make” a kid learn to crawl or walk by dragging him across the floor.

Another thing I heard Mooney discuss was our evolving medical model of learning disabilities. I only caught a line or two, so I am paraphrasing and embellishing. As our understanding of neuropsychology advances, the neurological basis of things like dyslexia and ADHD will probably become more clear. Mooney said MRI imaging can already identify left-brain differences in people with dyslexia and frontal-lobe differences in those with ADHD. I don’t know whether that’s true, because I haven’t taken the time to look it up yet. But it is an intriguing prospect.

As I see it, this kind of progress is a wonderful thing. It brought us past the deeply entrenched notion that schizophrenia and autism were caused by bad mothering. (That wasn’t so long ago, either. I can only imagine what mothers of kids with these diagnoses suffered during the 70’s.) It brought us beyond that, and it will probably enrich our understanding of learning differences. But that means we’re going to have to re-examine our concept of the medical model. Because right now, if something can be medically explained, it’s a “sickness” or “dysfunction” that needs to be “fixed.” If alcoholism is a disease, then we can and should “treat” it. But does this apply to things like learning disabilities? Are these differences something to “fix,” or simply a different way of being?

As Mooney pointed out, and I am fond of saying, these “disabilities” bring both gifts and challenges. People with dyslexia or ADD commonly have tremendous visual-spatial gifts. Those with NLD (Non-Verbal Learning Disability) often have enormous verbal abilities. Then there are things like autism and Asperger’s which bring their own set of strengths and challenges. Do we want to try to “fix” these things? Would I want James to be an avid reader and a strong writer if it cost him his gifts in math, art, and other strongly visual-spatial areas? Would I want my daughter with NLD to be more competent at math and visual-spatial reasoning if it diminished her verbal ability? Would I want my Aspergian kid to be “normal?” The answer to all those questions is NO. Of course, as parents, we want to make things easier for our kids as much as possible. We don’t want them to be held back from accomplishing goals they choose because of their limitations. That brings us back to remediation. As Mooney said, I think it’s all about finding the right balance.

Mooney also raised an interesting point about the medical aspects of learning differences. As the medical model has more to offer in the way of understanding these kids of differences (neuro-science seems to be growing by leaps and bounds) can we expand that model past the concept of “disease” and “cure?” For that matter, will we ever to be able to get past the idea that everyone should function optimally in the same areas and under the same set of circumstances? If and when we do, we may make some real progress is understanding and celebrating the diversity of human beings. I hope I live long enough to see that day. đŸ˜‰

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