This article is not only about the apparent success of Arrowsmith School (and other facilities that are similar) to provide help and hope for children and youth with learning disabilities. It is also about my personal journey as a “learning specialist” into the field of brain flexibility and re-learning — what is now referred to as brain or neuro plasticity.
It wasn’t called brain pasticity in the decade between 1985 and 1995 when I was in private practice. It was referred to as remediation or learning strategies training which were to “compensate” (as the title of my textbook suggests) for learning problems.
The term brain plasticity, however, has a completely different emphasis because there is the hint or suggestion that, because the brain is not static and constant, it can be re-formed or re-structured — in other words, change itself — as a result of new skills and experiences.
What an amazing possibility that has implications for many areas of health care. It would explain why some stroke victims or those who have had a traumatic brain injury, are able to re-learn to speak, read and, in some cases, walk.
But, to even think that learning disabilities could be essentially “cured” was unthinkable only a decade ago because the definition of a learning disability was a “central nervous system disorder” — caused by a range of possible neurological causes — that is considered a lifelong affliction. In fact, a quick look at an official learning disability site still states that a learning disability “cannot be fixed or cured.”
However, while learning and behaviour problems may be lifelong disabilities for some, in watching the CBC program a week ago (which will be replayed on December 30th, 2008) about Arrowsmith and its promising program, I knew, from my own experience, that some individuals can show more improvement than others.
While parents need to realize that fact before spending the money for a program like Arrowsmith, they also need to know that some improvement is usually better than none or very little. I know that because I wear two hats — as both a professional and a mother. My own son, who is now an adult and has severe learning disabilities and mild to moderate autism, showed significant improvement after attending two different private schools (that are no longer in business). They were the answer to him being able to live a normal independent life, albeit with some restrictions.
I also know that, for most children and youth, the brain exercises done at Arrowsmith should be done in conjunction with a regular school program — which Arrowsmith apparently does in some instances. I say that because in my experience, the brain needs to have opportunities to generalize cognitive and skill development — in context.
In fact, I found that a multi-sensory approach to brain exercises was key — because in my view an integrated approach works best when what you are trying to do is help a person learn to read, write, think, calculate and problem solve. But, I absolutely agree that practice, practice, practice, is crucial for changes to the brain to happen.
It all started in 1986 when I was just finishing up my courses in my doctoral program. Because I had to commute to Toronto from the Niagara Region, I always tried to find two courses, back to back so that I would only have to drive once a week. As it sometimes happens in life, a negative became a positive. One of the courses I thought I had registered for was full and I couldn’t get in. So, I checked what other courses were available and there was one in special education called “Learning Strategies.” Since it had room in it that was the course I took and it changed my life and the lives of the hundreds of individuals with whom I ended up working.
For example, I began to do research and work with children and adults who had mild to severe learning disabilities and ended up opening up my own private practice — while continuing to teach university courses in education. While most of the individuals I worked with had some type of reading and written language problems, one woman in her mid thirties stands out in my mind.
I will call my former client Sophia, although that is not her real name and some details have been changed to protect her anonymity. She had been told she would never read because her dyslexia was so severe that she could only read backwards — obviously a serious setback.
She had just lost a job because she couldn’t calculate quick enough at the cash register. She was also going through a second divorce and was having custodial problems. In short, she was at rock bottom. And, the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services wanted me to help her learn to read and calculate so she could get full-time employment to support herself, instead of having to rely on social assistance.
During the referral interview with the consulting neuro psychologist, I asked Sofia to read a few easy words. What I noticed was when she said “the” she said “eth” — which meant she wasn’t actually reading in reverse. She could identify “th.” So, I felt I could help her. So, I asked her if she would be willing to go back to the beginning and let me coach her as though she was just approaching reading and writing as a young child — including doing old fashioned penmanship exercises.
I told her the reason I wanted her to do that was I had read enough about the flexibility of the brain that I thought we could teach her to read the way everyone else reads. She agreed. It took a year but a miracle did occur — not only with reading but in her entire life. But, the miracle happened because Sofia hung in there and did her homework, day after day after day.
I started simply by giving her the old fashioned penmanship exercises, where you do circles, lines and zig zags. Since she didn’t know if she was right handed or left-handed, I had her use both until she felt comfortable with one or the other. As it turned out, she preferred her left hand.
During the first month of practice she experienced excruciating headaches and she complained her eyes hurt. Then, one day she telephoned me all excited because she said the headaches had stopped and moving her hand and fingers while practising were feeling easier.
So, we went on to simple printing. I purchased cardboard cards that had the letters of the alphabet on them, as well as phonics and I had them laminated. She then was able to use water-based markers which could be easily wiped off. And, she would trace the alphabet and combinations of letters for hours at a time.
And, while all that was going on, I also had Sofia copy simple words and their meanings, which she then tape-recorded. In listening back to what she had dictated, she would then trace everything with her finger. Once she was proficient at that process, we went on to cursive writing.
Also, by the time Sofia was doing cursive writing — albeit VERY slowly — she was also getting into simple math calculations and such life skills as writing a cheque and figuring out the GST and PST on items she wanted to purchase.
After six months of these constant exercises and vocabulary development, I started her on reading sentences followed by short paragraphs. I wouldn’t allow her to ever read backwards. So, she struggled along.
What I did provide her with was an electronic spell checker which was phonetic. Called the simple Franklin Spelling Ace, it helped her a great deal and I would recommend it to anyone experiencing reading problems — as long as he or she is proficient at “sounding out words.”
Since I had not been able to give Sofia a pre-test at the start, I did so after six months. She tested out at the Grade 3 level (which is basic literacy). Then, to make a long story short, after one year I did a post-test and this once completely illiterate women was reading and writing at the Grade six level — which is functional literacy.
But, it didn’t end there. What we discovered along the way was that as Sofia’s ability to think in sequence improved, so did her life. Where she had always had problems making decisions and problem solving, she was suddently able to do so. Her second husband and she reconciled and she got her old job back. And, she regained custody of her kids.
At the time, I didn’t refer to Sofia’s growth as a cure, although I sensed it was because I knew she was never going to be able to undo what she had learned. However, the main lesson learned was that had the school system insisted she learn to read correctly when she was first diagnosed at age seven, all her later difficulties could have been reduced significantly.
Hope for the future:
However, with all this new work on brain plasticity, the good news is that children, youth and adults like Sofia CAN improve. As such, my recommendation is to try, try and try again. You just never know the power of the brain.
Regarding Arrowsmith, while I think some of what they do is obviously working, I also think they should gradually bring in actual tasks and assignments because, in my experience, at some point in time, the brain needs to make connections, needs to generalize to real tasks and real learning — such as reading, writing, spelling and math.
Whatever the case, clearly, the latest research on brain plasticity and schools like Arrowsmith are at the cutting edge of a new frontier of “curing” some types of learning disabilities.