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Coping with the Diagnosis of Learning Disabilities

A Perspective on Learning Disabilities from the United Kingdom

By Barrie Smith

A Mother and Daughter Share a Hug

A Mother and Daughter Share a Hug

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This article focuses on learning disability issues from the perspective of the United Kingdom. Consequently, British spelling is used throughout.

The professional diagnosis of a learning disability in your child can be a difficult one, even for the most practiced medical staff. In many cases it won't be clear what the exact learning disability is or how it has come about. Discovering that your child has a learning disability can be an emotional and confusing experience. Not only will you have to deal with your own feelings and new fears about the future, you may need to offer extra advice and support to the diagnosed child along with other family members who will also be affected by the news.

The Initial Diagnosis

In some circumstances, learning disabilities can be diagnosed at birth, others may not be identified until later. Even if a learning disability is found at birth, doctors will not be able to tell exactly how the condition will affect a child's development. This will only become clear at milestone ages when they should be able to start to talk, walk or read. For this reason, for children who are not seen to have a learning disability at birth it can be a long time before a parent or doctor finds out. Victoria Royal Infirmary Consultant paediatrician, Dr. M.W. Platt, explains that the main problem with learning disability diagnosis is that it can be hard to make in very early life. "There may be very little in the way of developmental signs. If a child hasn't started talking by the age of two that can be linked to learning problems later on, but this is not certain."

The first thing parents may want to know when a child is diagnosed with a learning disability is what caused it? There are various possible causes for learning disabilities which occur before, during or very shortly after birth.

Learning disabilities are usually obvious by the age of five and intellectual function can only be accurately tested in children over this age; most children with learning disabilities are only diagnosed after starting school.

Coping with a diagnosis in early school years can be just as difficult as coping with a diagnosis made at birth, and the consequences may be just as vague. Even at the age of five, knowing how a learning disability will affect the child in later life is difficult. It is natural for parents to want more information on how the diagnoses disability will affect their child's development as they reach their teens and beyond. Usually the biggest concern for parents is thinking about what the future holds for their child; Mencap charity spokesman Lesley Campbell explains however "research indicates that it's pretty difficult to predict."

With this in mind, coping with learning disabilities involves monitoring your child's current progress and needs. These can be assessed at any stage past the age of five, to help work out what sort of support will help you and your child; after diagnosis a paediatrician (a child healthcare specialist) will be assigned to you as so you will have a professional on hand to discuss the disability with in detail.

Talking to other parents who have children with the same learning disabilities will prove invaluable too. Campbell continues "In the very early stages, talking to other parents is a useful source of support. It's only other parents who can help you in this situation". Other parents may be able to share information on a good local playgroup or, if needed, appropriate counselling for the family.

Understanding 'Developmental Delay'

When a child is not intellectually progressing as effectively as they should be a Doctor may describe them as having developmental delay. When developmental delay is suspected, further questions need to be asked to assess whether a learning disability is present:

  • How much is the child's development delayed?
  • In which area is the child's development delayed?
  • Does the child have a background that may explain the delay (for example, a lengthy hospital stay due to an unconnected condition)?
  • Could the delay be a result low level care or stimulation at home?
  • Development delay is not a diagnosis of learning disability but can be a significant indicator.
Coping as a Family

Learning that a child has any form of disability can be a difficult experience not just for the parents but for the whole family.

For young siblings it can be hard to understand, although often brothers and sisters will develop a unique relationship with a sibling with learning disabilities, intuitively providing affection, understanding and sensitivity towards them.

Grandparents can also find it difficult to hear their grandchild has a learning disability and may want to be provided with as much information as the parents themselves.

Whatever the initial reaction of family members, try to teach the family unit as a whole to put things in perspective - learning disability is not insurmountable. Although it should also be encouraged for a family to discuss their early feelings and concerns on the diagnosis, families should then try to work together with a positive outlook for the diagnosed child. A child with learning disabilities will need emotional and moral support that will outweigh all other influences.

If you approach learning disability with optimism, a sense of humour and hard work, your child is more likely to see the challenges ahead as a speed bump rather than a roadblock.

For many families with learning disability children, the diagnosis brings a family closer together and offers a very rewarding upbringing.

Getting the Right Support

Due to the Children's Act, there is a legal obligation for social services to assess every 'child in need' including those with learning disabilities. This can be a daunting process but, the aim of assessment is to recognise the child's individual needs and create an action plan to ensure these needs are met - meaning both parent and child are always getting the right support.

There are various charities dedicated to families affected by learning disabilities, these include: Mencap, Kids, HFT and MacIntyre. Whether you need emotional or financial support, or further information on any aspect of coping with learning disabilities, they can be a vital resource.

Author Byline: Barrie Smith first noticed learning disabilities when his best friend was struggling at school. They had a buddy system and he was always helping him out with his homework. Whilst studying at University, Barrie worked at the local school with children with learning disabilities to help them get the support they need - sometimes, even a little confidence boost is enough to bring out the best in them. Barrie Smith is currently working for Oakhouse Foods, delivering frozen food to thousands of people across Britain each week and even putting the food in the freezer when required.

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