Right Vs. Reality

Right vs. Reality


G. Emerson Dickman, J.D.

  • The Law; IDEA
  • The Law; Section 504
  • What is a Learning Disability
  • Executive Function Deficit
  • Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Nonverbal Learning Disability
  • Dyslexia
  • Aspergers Syndrome
  • Orthographic Dyslexia
  • Polymorbid
  • Manifestations Sum TEST
  • Extrinsic Influences
  • Aptitude/Achievement Discrepancy
  • Manifestations Profile
  • Social Skills
  • Matthew Effect
  • Post Secondary (S 504) Accommodations
  • Myths of Mildness
  • Happiness
  • Common Cause Variable
  • Conclusion

Knowing the law is nice, but knowing the child is essential. In other words, in order to advocate effectively, you have to (1) know the child’s profile and deficits; (2) know how those strengths and deficits manifest themselves academically, socially, and emotionally; (3) know the state of the research regarding etiology and implications for treatment; (4) develop a knowledge of essential program elements, staffing requirements, technological support, and facilities; (5) armed with this knowledge, advocate for the child, not against the school; and (6), last and least, know the law. In my 20 years of educational advocacy, I have found that most parents and advocates respond to the fact that the system is not working for the child by demanding that the system do a better job or fix whatever is wrong. We advocate for change without a complete understanding of what change is needed. If the system isn’t meeting the needs of the child, it is usually because they don’t know what to do to meet those needs. It may be that the school district and the professionals are the ones that are supposed to know, but if they don’t know, you can’t get the proverbial blood from a stone. This is not intended as a condemnation of our educational system, but simply to draw attention to the obvious. For instance, regardless of education and experience, one person cannot know all that is necessary in order to meet the needs of every child. Therefore, it is up to the parent and advocate to know the single child for whom they are responsible in sufficient detail to instruct and inform the well-meaning educator as to unique needs of the particular child. It is not enough to ask for help – it is not enough to know something is wrong, a responsible parent must know what help is needed and without such knowledge, Due Process provides a false promise.

The law; The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):

The law is simple, i.e., every child has the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). The only problem with this very simple concept is that an educational opportunity that is considered “appropriate” for one child may not be “appropriate” for a second child. Therefore, in order to know what the law requires, we have to understand what “appropriate” means. By means of litigation, it has been determined that appropriate simply means that the child must be able to benefitfrom the educational opportunities provided. The debate now centers on what is meant by the word “benefit.” Many believe that the “benefit” must be achieved within the area of the child’s deficit. Therefore, a child with dyslexia, for instance, may not be receiving a “benefit” if he is provided access to content knowledge and not taught to read. Obviously, a bright dyslexic child could learn about social studies or science by listening to tapes, watching videos, and obtaining tutorial assistance. He would be benefiting from the educational opportunities he is provided, but he would not be achieving any growth in the area of his identified deficit. Another concern is the extent of the benefit required. It is reasonably well accepted that the “benefit” received must be more than de minimus. Simply saying that the benefit must be more than de minimus, however, does not support the conclusion that it must be at least “meaningful.” Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, I am going to accept that the law currently requires the educational benefit in the area of deficit to be meaningful. Of course, by doing this another subjective term has simply been added to a chain of subjective terms, i.e., “appropriate”, “benefit”, “meaningful.” In order to effectively debate these terms and provide a logical and cohesive rationale to support our goals, effort must be focused on gathering the facts (understanding the child) and championing what is right, rather than devoting resources to uncovering what is wrong and placing blame.

The Law; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973:

Section 504 is a civil rights statute that is even more complicated and subjective than the IDEA entitlement to a “free and appropriate public education.” The benefits of Section 504 are available only to those who seek its protection. In other words, under IDEA, the system must seek out those with special needs and respond appropriately. Under Section 504, the party seeking its protection must identify himself to the system and request reasonable accommodations. Section 504 summed up in the fewest possible words:

If a pupil has a disability that results in a substantial impairment of a major life activity, including learning, and the pupil is otherwise qualified, the school cannotdiscriminate and fail to provide reasonable accommodations without being subject to investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The key words are as follows: disability, substantial impairment, major life activity, learning, qualified, discriminate, reasonable accommodations, Office of Civil Rights. The first seven of these eight terms have a subjective quality that requires each to be analyzed in relation to the unique characteristics of the individual.


In order to properly advocate for a particular child, one must adhere to the following principles:

  • know the child’s skill profile (strengths and deficits);
  • know the manifestations of such skill profile (academically, socially, emotionally);
  • know the state of the research (organizations, experts, literature);
  • know the appropriate response (program elements, staffing requirements, equipment, facilities);
  • assume an appropriate perspective (advocate for the child, not against the school); and
  • know the law.

The Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey has stated that “The adversary nature of [due process] should yield to obtaining the right result for the child.” [Lascari v. Bd. of Ed., 116 N.J.30(1989)]. It is this perspective that makes due process litigation unique, i.e., both sides to the dispute, theoretically, seek to obtain the right result for the child. If this is the case, the party with the greatest ability to communicate a rationale for its objective, based on knowledge of the child, is going to prevail. Indeed, knowing the child is more important than knowing the law, even when we are in court.

The best way to approach the development of a rationale to support a particular educational goal, is to adhere to the three “P’s” of advocacy: Profile, Program, and Placement.

First, the profile of the child is developed through evaluations, interviews, and observations. The profile obtained is unique to the child. The program developed for the child in his IEP must conform to the hills and valleys of this profile. Thereafter, theplacement is determined based on the least restrictive environment capable of implementing the program determined by the profile. In a broad sense, this is the scaffold on which the advocate hangs his knowledge of the child in order to rationalize an argument that his objective will obtain the “right result for the child.”

What is a Learning Disability?

The best description of a learning disability that I have ever read or heard was crafted by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. at Yale University, Department of Child Study. Her description helps us to visualize the intraindividual discrepancies that may lead to failure and unexpected under achievement. Dr. Shaywitz stated simply that: “A learning disability is a weakness in a sea of strengths.”

There are certain deficit profiles, that have been recognized in the research or have been clinically observed, that are sufficiently common to have received broad recognition. Some of these profiles, such as dyslexia, (phonological subtype) are recognized as being the result of a discrete deficit. Other profiles may be made up of one or more discrete deficits that occur in a, more or less, common pattern, such as, Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, Executive Function Deficits, and Attention Deficit Disorder. Whether these profiles are referred to as “subtypes,” “profiles,” or “constellations of discrete deficits,” the conclusion is the same, i.e., there are different profiles of learning disabilities that each result in different academic, social, and emotional manifestations.

Executive Function Deficit:

An individual said to have an Executive Function Deficit has difficulty initiating, organizing, planning, self-regulating, maintaining attention, and inhibiting behavior; as well as an ability not only to attend to present, but also to the future; and an inability even to prepare for action (intention).

You will note that subtypes of learning disabilities often have individual characteristics, or manifestations in common. Executive Function Deficit, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Nonverbal Learning Disabilities share many discrete characteristics. It is the pattern of such deficits that identifies a particular profile.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder:

The profile of characteristics describing a person with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is rather well known (DSM IV). Such children often have difficulty:

  • Giving close attention to details (makes careless mistakes),
  • Sustaining attention,
  • Listening when spoken to,
  • Following through on instructions,
  • Organizing, and,
  • sustaining mental effort.

They also often:

  • Lose things,
  • Are easily distracted,
  • Are forgetful,
  • Fidget and squirm,
  • Can’t sit in one place,
  • Run or climb excessively,
  • Have difficulty with quiet play,
  • Are “on the go”,
  • Talk excessively,
  • Blurt out responses prematurely,
  • Have difficulty awaiting their turn, and
  • Interrupt or butt in.

A close look at this paraphrasing of the DSM should cause one to question the clinical precision of the diagnostic criteria available to identify this disorder. Also, since we are only evaluating effects, how many different causes may there be and what implications does this knowledge (or lack of knowledge) have for treatment?

Nonverbal Learning Disability:

A profile justifiably attracting attention in the field of learning disabilities at this time is most commonly known as a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD). Such persons are not as the name may imply, “nonverbal”. In fact, they often appear to have excellent expressive language skills – they talk easily and often. Their most obvious difficulty is in the ability to process nonverbal (paralinguistic) cues. They have difficulty interpreting nonverbal cues such as: Body language, facial expression, gesture, tone of voice, and figurative language (e.g. sarcasm, inference, innuendo and hyperbole). The NLD child also displays unusual problems with anticipating, problem solving, formulating concepts, following directions, and benefiting from past experiences.

The clinical profile exhibited by NLD is surprisingly consistent:

  • WISC: Performance score significantly (>12) below Verbal score, often with relative difficulty with Block Design, Object Assembly, Coding, and Arithmetic.
  • GESTALT: difficulty relating parts to a whole and creates images constructed in a part-by-part fashion.
  • MATH concepts (versus arithmetic calculations) are relatively weaker than reading and spelling skills.
  • Visuospatial skills are impaired.
  • Bilateral Tactile, perceptual and psychomotor impairment that is more pronounced on the left.
  • Difficulty attending to tactile and visual stimulation as compared to auditory stimulation.
  • Dysgraphia.

This profile and much of our current understanding of NLD is the work of Byron Rourke at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada and his colleagues.


An individual with the learning disability known as dyslexia evidences:

  • Deficits in phonological processing.
  • Unexpected difficulties with single word decoding.
  • Conspicuous problems in reading, writing and spelling.
  • Difficulty attending to auditory stimulation as compared to visual and tactile stimulation.
  • Relative strengths in perceptual, visual spatial skills and math concepts (as compared to arithmetic calculation and language-based problem solving).

There is currently broad consensus among researchers and scientists as to the definition of the language based disorder involving phonological processing known as dyslexia, i.e.:


“Dyslexia is one of several distinct learning disabilities. It is a specific language-based disorder of constitutional origin characterized by difficulties in single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient phonological processing. These difficulties in single word decoding are often unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities; they are not the result of generalized developmental disability or sensory impairment. Dyslexia is manifest by variable difficulty with different forms of language, often including, in addition to problems with reading, a conspicuous problem with acquiring proficiency in writing and spelling.”


“A learning disorder marked by impairment of the ability to recognize and comprehend written words.”

Dyslexia is currently the most understood and best defined of all learning disabilities. Note that dyslexia involves difficulty attending to auditory as compared to visual and tactile stimulation, where as NLD involves the reverse.

Examples of less common profiles include:

Aspergers Syndrome

  • Social peculiarity (aloofness)
  • Motor rituals
  • Unusual responses to sensory stimuli
  • Non-social attachments (e.g., pieces of string)
  • Unusual interests (e.g., calendars)
  • Precocious skills (e.g., reading, rote memory)

Aspergers is often considered as one end, the most extreme, of the Nonverbal Learning Disability continuum. It is also considered to be part of the Autism spectrum of disorders. It shares significant similarities and differences with both. For instance, it is similar to autism except for the commonly high level of intellectual functioning and the fact that the verbal score on he WISC usually exceeds the Performance Score. However, the social peculiarities seem to go beyond that which would be explained by a struggle with nonverbal deficits alone.

Orthographic Dyslexia

  • Poor recall of letter/word appearance
  • Poor recall of letter/word sequences
  • Over-reliance on phonologic features
  • Slow reading rate

Orthographic Dyslexia is a controversial subtype, it appears that there may be a variety of causes for why a person exhibits difficulty with symbol recognition. In other words, the orthographic subtype of dyslexia appears to be heterogeneous with each etiology having a different developmental course and implications for treatment. Orthographic dyslexia is already relatively rare, if, as if expected, there are different deficit profiles within this subtype, the chances of meaningful research being done on large numbers of similarly effected students is probably remote. In spite of the fact that it is recognized to exist, it will probably remain controversial due to a lack of valid and reliable empirical data.


  • Elements of NLD
  • Elements of ADHD (not a responder to psychostimulants)
  • Elements of Executive Function Disorder
  • Sensory hyper/hypo sensitivity
  • Obsessive compulsive traits (perfectionistic)

Interestingly, this child who I have identified simply as “polymorbid” displays a pattern of behavior that appears to presage the development of psychosis. I have often been told that such children when put on a trial of Ritalin, due to their ADD type symptoms, react badly- “go off the wall.” Ritalin is not a tool to diagnose ADD because psychostimulants usually have some beneficial impact on the ability to attend and concentrate even in the non-ADD population. The reaction of such a child is, therefore, unusual and possibly of some diagnostic significant.

Every child is unique; one-of-a-kind. Fortunately, however, children are not so unique that we cannot learn about their needs and get direction as to treatment by studding in other children with similar profiles. The information we get from studying a group can generalize to the individual even though the individual was not part of the study and the similarities are relatively superficial. In other words, you can classify eggs as jumbo, large, medium, or small and by doing so, learn something about the egg. On the other hand, there are always differences within a classification that must be addressed to describe the individual, e.g., small jumbo, two yolks, thin shell, brown. The point is, we know a lot about dyslexics, but we don’t know everything we need to know about Tom, Sally, or Jim who happen to be dyslexic.


One of the greatest deficiencies that we suffer in our current multi-disciplinary approach to evaluation is that the evaluations and, therefore, the discussion of findings usually stops at diagnosis or, if not at diagnosis, at the point of making generic program recommendations, e.g., small class size, seat in the front of the room to avoid distractions. The knowledge of the evaluators is often rich in the information for which parents hunger. The speech and language evaluation that concludes that the child is intact in every way except that he has a significant problem with “pragmatics” does not satisfy the parents’ need, nor does it give direction for remediation. How many parents are aware that their child’s behavior that seems to be oblivious to consequences, their child’s difficulty with decision-making and problem solving, and their child’s overreacting, and ultimately their child’s isolation and sadness may be a result of his difficulty with “pragmatics”? How much more meaningful is it to parents who are told that their child has a problem with “auditory figure ground discrimination,” if they were also told that such a deficit may explain why he doesn’t come when he is called for dinner, or why he may appear deaf when his hearing is perfectly normal? Are kids that interrupt being rude, or are they compensating for a weakness in the ability to store or retrieve information from long-term memory? Are children that know the rules but appear to choose not to follow them being oppositional, or do they have a neurologically based deficit that interferes with their ability to generalize knowledge to practical applications? How confusing is it to have a child who speaks well and often, but won’t answer simply questions if you don’t know the difference in the mechanisms used for the production of spontaneous language as compared to demand language? What about the student who prints everything and has difficulty taking assignments from the blackboard? Both the teacher and the parent might be overlooking the fact that the script the teacher uses on the blackboard is a different symbol system from the print used by the student.

Many children display what appears to be paradoxical behavior because the manifestations of their deficits and disabilities have never been fully explained to the people supervising the various domains in the child’s environment, e.g., teachers, coaches, lunch aides, parents. For instance, the child with a nonverbal learning disability does not usually have difficulty expressing himself verbally. On the contrary, such a child often has very well developed expressive language skills. Unfortunately, this child who talks easily and often when in control of the content of the conversation (spontaneous language, sometimes called “cocktail language”) has difficulty formulating thoughtful and structured responses when asked meaningful questions. The teacher’s interrogations are as threatening and ego defeating as the neighbors willingness to hear about such a child’s interest in medicine, weather, or insects, is comfortable and ego enhancing. To the parent the teacher is rigid and insensitive, to the teacher the child is oppositional and willful, and to the child the world is confusing and hostile.

One of the core manifestations of NLD is the inability to deal with “nonverbal cues” such as: body language, facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, sarcasm, inference, innuendo, and hyperbole. Such a child’s difficulty with these paralinguistic cues and related visual-spatial deficits result in problematic peer relationships. Researchers interested in the mechanics of normal psychosocial development have determined that prosocial behavior is intimately involved with the development of perspective-taking and role-taking abilities. They have determined that the ability to understand another person’s point of view and the ability to recognize different visual perspectives generate from a common basis. Therefore, it makes sense that the individual with NLD who has difficulty with visual attention, visual memory, prosody, semantics, and pragmatics has a significantly impaired ability to interpret the paralinguistic cues necessary to develop a sense of another person’s perspective. Interestingly, the NLD child is often not seen as having a learning problem until approximately the fourth or fifth grade. At that time, he can no longer rely on his phonological processing and memory skills to achieve in school and the growing reliance of his peers on nonverbal language reaches a peak. At that time, the child suffers a “surprising” problem with concept formation, and critical thinking skills, has no friends, and has either withdrawn from communications with adults in authority, or begins to act out.

Complicating our goal is the fact that much of what we understand may be based on common myths. Dyslexia is a visual deficit. Right? Wrong. Read the following paragraph out loud:


Now count the “F’s” in that paragraph. (Yes, you can go back and look at it.)

If you have counted three “F’s”, you agree with 99% of the people that read this paragraph. Indeed there are six “F’s” in the paragraph. Apparently, your brain is looking for the sound /f/ and not the symbol “F” and, therefore, you did not count the “F’s” that represented the sound /v/. Marilyn Adams put it this way: “The symbols of alphabetic language graphemes, encode phonological information.” Sally Shaywitz said: “The task of the reader is to transform the visual precepts of alphabetic script into linguistic ones – that is to re-code graphemes (letters) into their corresponding phonemes.” I say: “good readers see sounds and good spellers hear letters.”

Dyslexics often have good visual-spatial skills allowing them to display unique abilities such as writing backwards or upside down. As a result, they suffer the possible paradox that these advanced visual-spatial skills may indeed slow up the processing of symbols that can meaningfully exist in more than one spatial orientation, such as: b-d-p-g; m-w, 3-E; 5-2 and 6-9. In other words, it’s possible that a strength in visual-spatial skills may compound the impact of a phonological processing deficit on the ability to acquire fluent reading skills. Observations that point out relationships or correlations between two phenomena often do not identify the direction of cause to effect or disclose a common cause variable. For instance the erratic eye movements observed while poor readers try to read have recently been shown to be the result, rather than the cause, of poor reading ability. The common cause variable problem is often observed when a dysfunctional family is seen as the cause of a child’s delinquent behavior when, in truth, it is the unremediated learning disability of the child that underlies both the dysfunction of the family and the delinquency of the child. Beware of drawing conclusions based on correlational evidence alone.

Extrinsic Influences (Environmental):

The primary environmental factors that have been supported by research to influence academic achievements include: school failure, low socioeconomic status, and adopted child status. There is nothing about this revelation that is surprising to anyone in the field. A great deal of time and money is being regularly dedicated to addressing academic deficiencies seen as resulting from low socioeconomic status. Adopted child status is a complicated discussion that cannot be adequately addressed even in a cursory manner in an article such as this. Unfortunately, due to the way in which our youth and family services delivery systems are set up, it often appears to focus blame on environmental factors, when they exist, to the exclusion of neurobiological causes. In other words, there are two factors that often dictate how an agency responds: (1) “referral bias”, they tend to respond to the situation based on the background and experience of the person assigned to help rather than the needs of the child; and (2) “conservation of diagnosis”, they tend to see only one problem or need at a time, e.g., they treat the emotional problem rather than the deficit that caused problematic relationships that, in turn, resulted in the emotional problem. Environmental influences must be recognized as only part of the equation that results in a dysfunctional child or family.

Aptitude / Achievement Discrepancy:

School failure is, in many cases, a trauma that can be avoided. Unfortunately, our system of education is such that school failure has become a prerequisite to obtaining help. At the present time, the majority of school districts apply an Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy formula to determine the eligibility of students with special education services. Central to an Aptitude-Achievement Discrepancy Formula is a reliance on evaluation of achievement or potential with a comparison to other children. Any formula that determines the existence of a disability based upon a student’s performance or achievement as compared to a group norm, is fatally flawed. Any such formula requires that the student cross a “threshold of severe failure” (Nancy Mather, University of Arizona) before the student can receive service delivery. It is also clear that the student must remain on the wrong side of this threshold to justify continued service delivery. Such a formula overlooks young, remediated and compensated students with disabilities. In kindergarten, where no one reads, the dyslexic often gets no help. Parents often withdraw private remediation because their child, as a consequence, is doing to well to get support in school. After a year of failure, the school provides support, the parent provides remediation, and the child tries to recover from a year of failure and humiliation. Children, who are bright enough to cover-up their disability, often do not experience failure in terms of norms until their unique gifts and potential have been permanently compromised. A prime example of the cost this shortsightedness has to society is the Nonverbal Learning Disabled (NLD) child. Such a child usually has good phonological awareness, memory skills, and expressive language that carry him successfully through the fourth grade. In the fifth grade weak visual motor integration and poor concept formation, inferential thinking, and problem solving skills, taken together with an inability to deal with nonverbal language, such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice, cause the NLD child’s academic and social world to collapse like a ton of bricks. This would just be an unfortunate unavoidable circumstance if it were not for the fact that such a child can be easily diagnosed years before any problem develops. Without intervention and early remediation, such children suffer a very high risk of exhibiting self-destructive and antisocial behavior. If we wait until children fail to help them, we do so at a devastating cost both to children with learning disabilities and society. “The only thing an aptitude/achievement discrepancy formula prevents is prevention.”(Jack Fletcher, University of Texas) Eligibility for service delivery for a student with disabilities should be based on intraindividual criteria alone. We must evaluate children as individuals and not as failures.

Manifestations Profile:

Without being aware of the variety of manifestations that can be exhibited by a person with a learning disability, one cannot be aware of the actions that should be taken to avoid embarrassment and failure. Further, the appropriate focus of remediation and intervention can be easily overlooked. Is the child being oppositional, needing psychological counseling and therapy, or does he have a neurologically based disorder that interferes with communications and generalization of skills that requires language therapy?

Often “referral bias” adds to the confusion. For instance, not too many years ago an attention deficit child that went to a psychologist was determined to be suffering a psycho-social problem resulting from inadequate early bonding, or due to the fact that he was picked up when he cried; whereas, the same child brought to a neurologist was determined to have a neurologically based disorder treated with medication. The point is, the most important component of a child’s profile is a thorough understanding of how different deficits are manifested in each domain of a child’s environment; e.g., in school, on the playground, during the walk to and from school, in the backyard. This knowledge must flow in two directions; from cause to effect and from effect to cause. He doesn’t seem to hear me when I call him for dinner – why? He has an auditory figure – ground processed deficit – what does that mean in relation to his ability to function in school, at home, with friends, etc.?

Social Skills:

Often when children are having problematic peer relationships, there is a recommendation that they be provided “social skills” training. The complexity of the task is rarely recognized either by parents or by therapists. When social skills are not acquired developmentally, they must be taught. An analogy can be made to the dyslexic who, due to a phonological processing deficit, does not readily acquire the ability to decode written language, unlike the other 60-80% of the population. Therefore, the dyslexic requires explicit and direct teaching in order to learn such skills. Similarly, the child who does not readily acquire social skills must be introduced to them by direct teaching methods. However, compounding the situation is the fact that knowledge of social skills does not mean that the person is capable of applying such knowledge. The difficulty in generalizing social skills knowledge supports the need for mentoring programs (those programs that teach social skills in the environments where they are to be applied), and parent training in order to promote active listening and appropriate modeling.

Matthew Effect:

Keith Stanovich coined the phrase “Matthew Effect” to describe the phenomenon of a minor disability resulting in global deficiencies. The phrase is taken from the gospel according to Matthew in the Bible where it is inferred that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” An example would be a dyslexic child whose difficulty in reading is not sufficiently remediated so as to permit access to information necessary to acquire knowledge in areas not related to the child’s deficiency, e.g., science, social studies, biology. Therefore, the child with an unremediated disability may eventually suffer deficiencies, in many unrelated academic areas. Often you can see the extreme of the Matthew Effect reflected in declining IQ scores.

Examples of Post Secondary (Section 504) Accommodations:

By the time a student with a deficit in learning skills gets to college, it can usually be assumed that his needs in the secondary environment have been: (1) remediated (2) compensated (3) accommodated, or (4) avoided. If a particular deficit is likened to a pothole in the student’s information highway, early intervention and remediation fill it in and compensation, accommodation,

and avoidance takes the child around it. The problem for college students occurs when secondary environments take the easy way out and lead students with a learning deficit around these potholes without showing the way or filling in the potholes. Such students, although intellectually capable, are ill equipped to deal with post-secondary challenges without support.

As an example, consider a bright dyslexic (subtype involving phonological processing) with good visual memory skills. In college, this student often hits a brick wall. This student may do reasonably well in elementary and secondary environments, having some unexpected difficulty in foreign languages, and do well on SATs due to good analytical skills. The sight word vocabulary, built-up slowly over the years in elementary, middle, and high school, that was adequate to meet the challenges of those environments, is no match for characteristic language, full of unfamiliar orthographic patterns, used in almost every course encountered in college. Reading that was merely slow and tiresome in high school becomes almost impossible as the need to rely on the processing of phonological and morphological information increases. Further, a student, who responds well to visual and tactile/kinesthetic stimuli, finds himself in large lecture classes requiring interpretation of auditory stimulus alone without even the benefit of Socratic interaction to engage analytical and concept formation skills. Expressive written language is difficult not only due to spelling problems but also due to the lack of a phonological and morphological understanding to readily engage the jargon and vocabulary characteristic of the discipline. With help, this student may not only succeed, but eventually excel in learning. Without help, this student’s potential to himself, his family, his community, and society as a whole may be forever lost.

There is no formula that applies to all students with learning deficits. Each student is unique. The student described above may initially require reduced credit load, remediation in reading by a learning specialist (to gain an understanding of phonology and morphology), a tutor to support lecture classes, and accommodations to permit oral responses to essay questions. Successful supports will result in a gradually increasing course load and decreasing accommodations. As this student progresses in college, the freedom of course choice increases and the selection process naturally leans toward courses with high interest that tap strengths instead of weaknesses.

Many high school students with deficits in executive function (e.g., anticipating, initiating, organizing, planning) are often provided with the guidance, supervision, and structure necessary to succeed. They are told what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done; often without sufficient consideration of what will occur when these supports are withdrawn. The freedom of a post secondary environment is, to such a student, equivalent to being thrown in to the deep end without the ability to swim. Such a student can learn to swim if given proper instruction. A decreased course load with remediation (direct instruction) and support (supervision and mentoring) to develop temporal judgment and executive function skills will quickly provide the motivated student with the tools to succeed.

Post secondary environments also often encounter the student with learning deficits who has received effective remediation in his deficit area but has been spoon-fed knowledge and/or received watered-down curriculum in content courses through misdirected tutorial support. This student often lacks the metacognitive skills necessary to acquire knowledge on his own. He must now learn how to learn. Study skills, note taking, time management, classifying, categorizing, test taking strategies, and prioritizing, are some of the skills that are needed to be an efficient learner. Such a student given appropriate accommodations and direct instruction in metacognitive skills, will progress rapidly to acquire the distinction of an autonomous learner.

Students with deficits, even if fully remediated, come to college with a history. They need to learn to articulate their needs and advocate for themselves. They need counseling and support to begin the process. Accommodations have to be crafted to the unique needs of the student, the professor, and the course. In order to be effective, the student needs a sounding board or a counselor who is experienced, knowledgeable, and cares enough to brainstorm necessary, acceptable, and appropriate accommodations, e.g., preferential seating, oral exams, course substitutions, note taker. There are many situations faced by the student with learning deficits that can easily be solved. A student who prints and has never learned script may not be able to read the problems, comments, notes, or assignments the professor writes on the board – in script. Cursive is a different symbol system from print. The student with problems in the retrieval of information from long-term memory may simply need to learn to use key words to unlock whole ideas or concepts.

For instance, as a dyslexic, I was left back in first grade because of problems reading, a “C” student except in concept oriented courses, I failed out of freshman year of college due to reading problems and a lack of study (metacognitive) skills. The degree I finally sought in college (in the early 1960′s) was the only course of study that didn’t require a foreign language. Any interest I may have had in psychology and philosophy had to be suppressed in favor of time and motion study and industrial engineering. A little compensation, a little knowledge, and a little choice resulted in a successful senior year in which I acquired 56 credits to makeup for the failure in the freshman year. With help, I could have avoided the failure, I could have followed a path dictated by my interests instead of the one necessary to avoid my weaknesses. Still, I was one of the lucky ones. How much easier it all would have been with a little remediation and appropriate support.

How many students are lost, how much talent is wasted, how long is progress delayed because otherwise promising, capable, creative, and motivated students cannot find an environment in which to function? Colleges and universities that do not recognize the support needs of students with learning deficits do the student a disservice, the institution a disservice, and the community a disservice.

Myth of Mildness:

One lesson this article is intended to reinforce is that learning disabilities are not mild. Learning disabilities are not only academically disturbing, they are also emotionally disturbing, job disturbing, family disturbing, and socially disturbing. The thought that a child with learning disabilities will be fine once he moves on from an academic environment ignores the reality that most so called “learning” disabilities severely impact the individual’s ability to effectively communicate in all the domains in his environment. For instance, an individual with a nonverbal learning disability clearly has difficulty with the paralinguistic cues that enrich oral communications, the dyslexic has difficulty with the sound/symbol system that underlies written communications, and the child with executive function disorders has difficulty, planning, organizing, and initiating activities. Learning disabilities are not mild and their impact is not limited to academic achievement.


The child’s happiness is paramount. As an attorney with a specialty in educational advocacy for over 20 years, I can, without hesitation, state that the one common factor linking all of my clients is that the child involved is unhappy. It doesn’t matter whether the child is getting all A’s or is failing in school, if the child is unhappy the parents are seeking change, if the child is happy, they are hesitant to support change unless there is a fear of future unhappiness. Ask yourself what are the four most important things that you’ve learned during your high school years (give yourself a minute to think before proceeding).

Except for learning to drive, the vast majority of responses to this question can usually be categorized as a social skill (learning to get along with people, learning to lead, making friends), an executive function skill (learning how to plan, organize, strategize); or a metacognitive skill (learning how to learn, study skills). It amazes me that the most important skills that the vast majority of individuals feel that they’ve learned during high school were, for the most part, learned by default.

Not too long ago I asked 110 mainstream and special education teachers to provide me with a word or a phrase describing a trait that made for a successful child. Their answers were as follows: “happy, self-confident, cooperative, motivated, organized, popular, creative, resourceful, self-directed, caring, good self-image, not afraid to accept a challenge, competitive.”

I want to underscore the fact that it was an audience of teachers and not parents that generated this list. This fact makes it all that much more significant that not one answer referred to academic achievement or intellectual potential. There is not one trait that could not be exhibited by a child with a 50 IQ or could fail to be exhibited by a child with a 150 IQ. It would appear, that the most important things we learn and the most important traits we acquire are not directly related to intellect or academic achievement. It is interesting to note that research on parenting styles (unrelated to learning disabilities) has also indicated that those styles that promote and rewardautonomous behavior are more successful in producing an individuated child with a mature identity, than those parenting styles that simply reward academic achievement.

Common Cause Variable:

Many children with learning disabilities are also seen as having behavioral difficulties. By the time those difficulties emerge, the family of the child with learning disabilities is often also suffering significant interpersonal communications problems. In other words, Mom blames Dad for being too strict, Dad blames Mom for being too liberal, and each blame the other for providing inconsistent parenting, and they both feel guilty because their relationship has suffered and they have no time to deal with the needs of their other children. The dynamics surrounding a family environment that includes a child with disabilities makes for an interesting and complicated study. However, the common assumption that delinquent behavior in a child is the result of a dysfunctional family is a vast oversimplification. In many cases, the learning disability is the common cause variable that results in the delinquency of the child and the dysfunction in the family. The reason this phenomenon is addressed is that therapies and interventions for the child are often misdirected as a result of the assumption of social service agencies that family dysfunction is the sole cause of the delinquent behavior. It is my experience that such misdiagnosis pervades social, family, and youth service agencies. Such agencies, law enforcement, and the judicial system must be aware of the link between learning disabilities and behavior if they are to provide successful intervention and remediation to prevent the development or continuation of inappropriate behavior.


Knowing the child is more important than knowing the law! The ability to rationalize the need for a particular program and placement based on the profile of the child is the key to determining what is appropriate under the law.