The Mislabeled Child
by Danielle Wood
In the past 25 years, the number
of children labeled as "learning disabled" has jumped by over 150
percent. Nearly one in ten children meets the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.
And prescriptions for powerful behavior-controlling pills like
anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and stimulants are doled out to patients as
young as 2 years old.
So what gives? Has the number of special
needs kids in the general population skyrocketed? Or are doctors
over-diagnosing children at an alarming rate? "It's a huge combination of
issues," says Brock Eide, M.D., M.A., a leading learning specialist and
physician who, with his wife, Fernette Eide, M.D., penned the book The
Mislabeled Child (Hyperion). The two doctors run the Eide Neurolearning
Clinic in Edmonds, Washington, which specializes in the evaluation and care of
children with school and learning challenges. "When we talk to veteran
teachers and those who've worked with kids for a long time, it's hard to escape
the conclusion that they're seeing different behaviors than they did a
generation ago. The rise in learning disabilities isn't just someone's fantasy,
but it's difficult to get to the root causes."
There are lots of theories out there.
Environmental causes. Too many preservatives in our food. Early overuse of
electronics and television. "A large number of kids we see with autism
spectrum disorder had difficulties around birth or early life," Brock Eide
says. "In earlier days, they might not have made it, but with modern
medicine being what it is, they do." Another possible contributor to
special needs? Parenting. "We call it No Deprivation Syndrome," Brock
Eide says. "These are kids with parents who never set limits and so they
are less prepared for the structured setting of school than other children
That often leads to a label like
"attention deficit disorder" or "hyperactive." Strangely,
teachers are the first individuals to suggest an attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in nearly 60 percent of cases, although
they are not trained to do so. And even when doctors slap on the ADHD label,
over half do it without ever having formally tested the child's attention
capabilities. "There's an excessive tendency to apply biological and
psychological labels rather than view them as challenges kids face growing up –
challenges like self-discipline, self-control, or a variance in learning style,
information processing, or how individual children learn best," Brock Eide
Fernette Eide agrees. "In the
medical community," she says, "we're looking for what's wrong and
what the problems are. We look at the struggles and advise on a plan of next
steps. But children are a complex mix of things. Medical practices aren't set
up to look for what's going well. And yet, our feeling is that a lot of how the
brain works is that it corrects itself. It compensates. And so it's often true
that striking gifts sit next to disability. You don't often have to look far to
see the positives next to the negatives."
For example, children with dyslexia are
often also extremely gifted, the Eides say. In fact, that's why dyslexia is so
often misdiagnosed. "The kids present in ways in which no one would
suspect a learning disability. They're often early readers who read at, or
above, grade level. But they have significant problems in written output,
spelling, and often math." Studies have shown that the average IQ of a
child with dyslexia is higher than that of the regular population. And it's just
these smarts that get them into trouble.
"They stretch the boundaries,"
Brock Eide says. "When they read, they can't just automatically match
sounds and letters, so they use contextual cues and problem solving and no one
may realize there's a problem."
In fact, dyslexic children often become
creative adults – they're used to solving problems on the fly and end up as
engineers, scientists – "some of the world's greatest contributors
and thinkers," Brock Eide says. It comes back again to labels – a flaw in
the standard way of looking at learning disorders in children. Difficulties in
school are often because a child processes information differently than his
peers, rather than because there's a problem with learning or attention. Some
take information in best through hearing it, some through seeing it, and some
through doing. "Nobody is globally food in all areas," Brock Eide
says. The most important thing you can do for your child is to recognize how he
or she learns.
That, and to set them up for victory.
All kids need parental support. But when a child spends his whole school day
being frustrated and feeling like he's not smart, he needs parents who can tip
the balance in the other direction – emphasizing his strengths and focusing on
his gifts. "We sometimes see gravely disabled kids, but we've never seen a
case where something couldn't be found to bolster learning," Brock Eide
says. What they have seen, are children who've been chronically put in
situations where they can't succeed. "These kids are often put through
chronic stress, repeated failure, and situations they're incapable of dealing
with, early in life and they develop negative responses because of it. These
problems become well established and children sometimes exhibit them when the
underlying neurological processing is no longer a problem." Long after the
learning problem falls away, the negative patterns can remain if the feeling of
being unworthy is still there.
As a parent, it's tempting to focus on
the label. But labels are broad. And they tend to point to the problem and
never the little gifts that may accompany it. "In all of these areas, time
is on your side," Brock Eide says. "ADHD is compounded by problems
with frontal executive function and that falls away dramatically in the teen
years. And children with autism spectrum disorders have severe difficulties
multitasking and with complex interaction of functions. But there's an
exponential development of these skills in the second decade. Time is on the
side of the child."
They just have to have the confidence to
get there. And parents have to have the patience to make the journey as smooth
as possible. "Find the treasures in your child and learn how to develop
them in positive ways," Fernette Eide urges. Because you are uniquely suited
to see the jewels that might be hiding just beneath the surface.