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Debate over teaching vs. medicating
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Mixed reviews on drug for learning disabilities
Feb 27, 2009 04:30 AM

Family issues reporter

Chris Canavan has been diagnosed with dyslexia and an attention disorder. To most of society, the Vancouver businessman has a "learning disability." Not to him.

"I'm not disabled. I'm not broken and I don't need fixing. I'm successful at what I do," says Canavan, 37, who also has an 11-year-old daughter with dyslexia and ADHD.

Instead, Canavan says he and the roughly 10 per cent of the population diagnosed with learning disabilities simply process information differently. What needs fixing, he adds, is an education system and a society fixated on deficits and unprepared to teach or accommodate the way some people learn.

His comments came on the heels of news this week of a future drug to treat learning disabilities. The drug, now being tested on Alzheimer's patients, would boost the performance of brain receptors that are crucial for learning. While the research is in its infancy, the possibility of medication has been met with enthusiasm by some educators and concern by others like Canavan who are wary about the implications of medicating cognitive disorders.

Canavan is part of an increasingly vocal group who feel society and schools must recognize and accept as normal a wide spectrum of differences in the way brains are wired.

This notion of "neurodiversity" – a variation in neurological functioning – first emerged among autism activists in the 1990s and is gaining ground in the learning disbilities community.

Sue Hall of Vancouver, founder of The Whole Dyslexic Society, stresses that while those with dyslexia are seen as having a reading impairment, their way of interpreting the world is also a gift.

"Dyslexia is not a medical condition," she says, adding it is often accompanied by an unusual perceptual ability that isn't recognized in typical classrooms and calls for visual and multi-dimensional teaching strategies. "The system is telling these children they are disabled, but they're not."

But for some educators the notion of a future drug to help struggling children is welcome news.

"I think it holds a great deal of promise for parents and children with learning disabilities and the whole field," says John McNamara, professor in child and youth studies at Brock University in St. Catharines.

McNamara, also co-president of the Canadian Association of Educational Psychology, runs clinics for children with reading difficulties and sees the toll it can take on self-esteem and development. While medication shouldn't be a first resort, he says, it could be one of many tools to "support the learning process" in kids with severe difficulties.

"If I were a parent of a child with a learning disability I would be happy to have it in the toolbox."

Tayyab Rashid, a school psychologist with the Toronto District School Board, says while drugs should not be the first line of intervention or viewed as a shortcut, if used cautiously they could prove useful for some children.

But the drug debate also raises questions about a system focused on disabilities and problems rather than strengths.

"We have been obsessed with fixing the weaknesses, supported by a flourishing industry which gave us many tools to identify those," says Rashid. In contrast, school psychologists who conduct assessments of students to diagnose learning disabilities have few resources to identify strengths. Rashid is unusual because when he tests students he also assesses character strengths like creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, citizenship and enthusiasm.

"I'm not denying (disabilities) but those problems can best be tackled by understanding the wholeness of our children," says Rashid.

The focus on labelling students according to their disabilities has largely developed because a formal diagnosis is needed to access many special education services.

Among those worried about this trend is California educator Thomas Armstrong, whose book The Gift of Neurodiversity, due out next year, will explore the strengths in many kids with ADD, dyslexia and other brain differences.

Canavan, who often speaks with teens and kids in his role as board member of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, says the school system needs environments where different learners can thrive.

"It sometimes seems like society is trying to streamline everyone into a nice straight line. But we need people who learn differently."

More on learning disabilities:

One school's belief in a fixable brain

MD touts medication for learning disabilities


More parenting stories:

Fun-filled family events

Teens and the 'home haven' hypocrisy

GTHL parents must pay $520 to watch kids play

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The school system is geared to a specific group, outside of those peramters, we (teachers) are given either instructions to modify objectives or endevour to do do the impossible, teach in a way which is suitable to each learning style. While the latter solution would be ideal, the reality of over crowded classrooms makes it impossible. Having classroom assistants is helpful, but the rule is that students must be 'identified' (read labelled) in order to qualify for this. The education system has never acknowledged the individual strengths of a student as the measure of success, everyone must be judged according to a scale. Is it any wonder kids get frustrated and teachers burn out? Blame the 'brains' at the top for the system's failure, not the kids or teachers!

Submitted by twinks at 4:24 AM Saturday, February 28 2009

So the current alternatives aren't doing it?

Not all kids are fit for school, just like not all adults are fit for a cubicle job. We have alternative options available for grown ups, why not for kids? I don't think drugging our children is the answer, not for learning disorders. Pervasive development disorders may be different because the primary concern isn't learning essay techniques or memorizing historical dates; it's behavioural. Seeing letters backwards is entirely different from having regular loud and violent outbursts. There are lots of integrated alternatives and programs and classroom helpers out there currently, but it sounds to me like parents are saying they want to go back to having 'special schools' for kids who don't fit normal classrooms. That idea used to be called 'barbaric' but now it's come back to being 'progressive'?

Submitted by stargazer at 11:25 PM Friday, February 27 2009

Transferable skills

I hope some thought and how best to prepare students adequately for suitable career options is being done at the curriculum level, too. What employable skills are they learning?

Submitted by moss67 at 10:07 PM Friday, February 27 2009

Re: Morally Disabled

It's funny because the first thing I through you would be thanking about would be the reactions of the schools and school boards if this drug was actually successful ... why bother teaching the children to be successful independent learners via techniques that help them mitigate their disability when drugging them is so much easier (but probably no where near as useful).

Submitted by rmarshall at 7:56 PM Friday, February 27 2009

I understand

My son attended John Wanless; the school was wonderful & very accommodating. Unfortunately, the school system, does not have the expertise to diagnose or help childen with other learning capabilities with 30 other students. My son was frustrated, anxious- self esteem was suffering. Dr. Frisk and Dr. Brenda Miles @ sick kids, conducted an assessment; the results were scary. They told me to get him the proper educators right away. If we had waited until Grade 5,he would have been extremely behind. He is at Dunblaine school for children with learning disabilities. The staff are unblievable; my son has made tremendous progress within 7 months; NO MEDS, just a different teaching method. I encourage parents to help their children by first getting a proper diagnosis by a qualified doctor.Do your own research. Be persistent! Dunblaine students are remarkable intelligent students, with great futures ahead. Some kids require a different teaching method.

Submitted by ArtG at 10:56 AM Friday, February 27 2009

I agree with having every tool available to you in the toolbox. However teaching kids to work with their strengths-the way THEY learn and process information-should be one of the first tools tried. Teachers who observe,then implement learning strategies which use the student's strengths,provide one of the best tools for a student who processes information in a "different" way. By working WITH the student and using a multi-layered approach to instruction within a classroom- verbal,visual,hands-on,aural-all students' needs are more evenly met. It takes a committed, observant and motivated teacher to instruct in this way,but I know they're out there,and have seen the rewards for their lucky students. The strategies these kids are taught go with them throughout their "educational career" and into their adult life. The observation and extra time in the planning of lesson can change a life-and make a kid feel "the same as everyone else" in how he achieves,even if how he learns is different.

Submitted by momacita at 10:22 AM Friday, February 27 2009

Moraly Disabled?

After having read the article "Not letting bullies get away with it" and being able to relate to that as a much more pervasive problem than ADHD and all that I am left wondering how long it will take to start evaluating kids on their moral foundations and identify the moraly disabled? Will there be a drug for that too? Until I went to school in Canada I had never encountered so many kids with a screwed up moral compass. The "bullies" where I came from were downright good samaritans in comparison. There is a bigger problem there to be fixed.

Submitted by newdaddy at 10:00 AM Friday, February 27 2009


as the mother of a child with special needs, I am not surprised a lot of educators are applauding this "new miracle". Schools are notorious for saying "increase yor childs medication, or he won't be allowed to come to school" - regardless of what the doctors say about it, or the fact the schools REFUSE to implement the tools necessary to help the child learn. They don;t have the resources, right? Drug 'em all, a class full of zoned out kids is better than anyone WORKING with these kids (and families) to try to help them.

Submitted by Commutingmom at 9:07 AM Friday, February 27 2009

Do the reseaerch

There is help in reseaerching health issues in Alan Geller's book Scary Diagnosis. Arm yourself with all the alternatives to get to the best possible outcome.

Submitted by Coowie at 7:53 AM Friday, February 27 2009

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