The following is a reprint of an article I wrote this year.  Part of the work I do involves helping families with teens or young adults with significant emotional/behavioral struggles.  I sometimes consult with therapeutic programs so that they are more sensitive and responsive to LD-related issues and how they impact therapeutic concerns.

Resolving Issues of Learning Disabilities, ADHD and Therapeutic Education


Integrating knowledge from mental and behavioral health with best practices culled from cognitive science is a critical ingredient when considering how therapeutic programs can improve outcomes. Understanding how learning disabilities and the neuro-developmental conditions of ADHD/Executive Functions deficits, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) impact behavior and mental health, should be a current and on-going goal for our therapeutic community. According to experts, upwards of 60% of adolescents in residential treatment centers for substance abuse have learning disabilities (. Tracking enrollment data from all types of therapeutic programs indicates that students with ASD and ADHD contribute to, and even add to those numbers. Consequently, it’s an imperative that programs and schools become better informed about what science and clinical practice tell us about these conditions and how they impact mental health.

It’s more than self-esteem
Historically there has been a clear and continued awareness of the burdening effect and weakening of self-esteem in students with a history of learning disabilities and related conditions. Schools and programs have been relatively quick to recognize negative effects that stem from unspoken student thoughts, such as “I’m not good enough” and “I’m not smart.” However going further down this path, one understands that perhaps the most damaging aspect is the mindset of reduced self-efficacy, or belief in the effectiveness of one’s own efforts. Frostig’s landmark study was one of the early ones to signal this. Students with LD, ADHD and EF deficits suffer from a limiting belief that their efforts don’t have much to do with the results they see in their lives. This is the real meaning of “learned helplessness.” Further, such students perceive that most interventions, regardless of intention or potential effectiveness, are “done to me.” Partnership becomes much more difficult to achieve.

When I am involved in faculty training, one of the most common misunderstandings I run into involves issues related to processing. The ways in which information (verbal and non verbal) is processed have huge effects on how and whether such students process therapy as well as classroom instruction. When a student who struggles to effectively organize spoken language (and even bright dyslexic students can struggle with this) too much talk therapy is, well, too much talk. This is no trivial matter. I remember the moment when my own stepson advocated for himself by telling us that when he calls home, he doesn’t want his mom and I on separate phones talking together with him at the same time. He gets overwhelmed with the amount and density of language. Now imagine a high-powered and emotionally charged group therapy session. Some students needs appropriate set up and an effective debrief. He/she may also benefit from some version of what’s called skeletal outlining during such a session. It’s important to ask a student even during an individual therapy session to recap the main issues and possible solutions covered. In addition we know from science and practice, that creating schematic visual representations (picture a flow chart or decision tree) helps support weaker language processing, short-term and working memory. Lastly, students who have such language-based learning disabilities including dyslexia, may also struggle to effectively produce precise language on demand. In a therapeutic context this can look like a teenager who is withholding, or even dishonest, unless one looks under the hood, cognitively speaking.

Autism Spectrum Disorder
While it’s outside the scope of this article to discuss all the complexities of students with an Asperger’s presentation, here are a few important paradigms and observations, based in part on my time as an executive director of a school where 60% of our students had Asperger’s Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities. Much of the literature discusses weaknesses in reading the social and non-verbal cues of others. Most programs are at least partially familiar with these issues. What gets less or little attention is the flip side of this; namely weaknesses resulting in under-recognition of their own non-verbal signals. As a result, stress management becomes infinitely more complicated. Literature indicates that the neurobiology of autism spectrum involves right hemisphere weakness, an underperforming insula and an overactive amygdala. Such neurological characteristics help us understand why some students fail to recognize their own signs of distress, why hygiene is an on-going issue and why relatively neutral interactions can seem so threatening. One of the main jobs of the insula is to register and move sensory information from the body and emotional (limbic) centers to the thinking and meta-cognitive parts of the brain. We have to wrestle with this, in order to explicitly work on these areas when treatment planning. In general, students with these types of deficits may benefit from somatic therapies, aspects of mindfulness, and visual-spatial supports.

Executive Function Deficits and Resource Pool Depletion
Dr. Russell Barkley, one of the world’s most respected authorities on ADHD and Executive Function deficits, outlines the concept of resource pool depletion. In essence, every time someone with executive function deficits engages in a task that demands these self-regulation skills, their EF fuel tank is depleted further. Research helps us recognize what to do and how to build up these resources as well as avoid unnecessary depletion. I find that front line staffs of therapeutic programs are hungry for more knowledge in this area.

Final Thoughts
One of the longstanding and often helpful operating paradigms in therapeutic programs is “natural and logical consequences.” Learning through the experience of mistakes and their consequences feels intuitive and seemingly bulletproof from criticism. However it’s important to recognize its limitations in terms what research tells us. Addicts often defy this logic for example. We know that the powerful forces of addiction often disobey this type of learning from mistakes. These conditions all contain a common denominator: powerful chemical, neurological undercurrents. Consequently, simply waiting for the light bulb to go on for those with significant ADHD and Executive Function deficits is often an exercise in futility. They don’t suffer from a lack of knowing what to do. They suffer with issues of performance. Without knowing how to offer the right types of supports at the “points of performance” teachers and therapists are left to repeatedly apply consequences. It can be a vicious cycle that engenders repeated failure.

Not all therapeutic programs need to become experts in these areas. Learning how to apply awareness of these special needs will wind up helping all students. This is referred to as a universal design approach. Building sidewalk ramps for folks in wheelchairs has given help for people with sprained ankles, skateboarders and parents with strollers and carts. Similarly, employing best practices in reading instruction helps able readers to become advanced readers. This is my hope and perspective of integration between disciplines.

Fallacies of “Whole Language”

Whole Foods- great.

Whole Wheat- for some, great.

Whole Language (as a reading strategy for kids with dyslexia)- sounds good, right? If it’s “whole” it must be good.


Well-done post from Dyslexia Training Institute For Those with Dyslexia, Whole Language is a Coping Mechanism, Not a Strategy

The moral of the story is that science has shown time and again that explicitness is the key to teaching reading. Our brain was not intended to decipher print but it has developed the capacity to learn when explicitly shown how to do something – like read. We know that students with dyslexia need a little more help strengthening the reading system and guessing is not a strategy it is a coping mechanism! This graphic does nothing more than rob our children the opportunity to learn how English is structured, how to interrogate their language and learn to decode unfamiliar words in order to be independent readers and spellers.

What Makes a Great Teacher?

From NPR’s series, Fifty Great Teachers

This piece, Among Dartmouth’s Lathes And Saws, Lessons In Creativity focuses on a woodworking teacher at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I love how he seems unaware, or unconcerned (and hence, unencumbered with “trying”) of how what he does works. And just is the type of teacher who has helped many in higher education over the years.

What does he do or how does he teach, that seems beneficial o the creative process?

Some quotes from the article that struck me:

“He knew when to be subtle, when to admonish and when to praise, when to let you fail and when to swoop in and save the day, and most importantly, when to laugh and when to tease.”

    Ahh, not too much and not too little. Just right. And plenty and feedback.

Jennifer Mueller does know. She’s a professor at the University of San Diego, and, for 15 years, she’s been studying creativity.

“There is this impression that: Give students freedom and they’ll be creative. And what we know is that they need some structure upfront,” says Mueller.

“They need a well-defined problem — like building a piece of furniture — and they need to know the constraints and the range of possibilities.”

    Yes. One of the most important conditions under which learning takes place is what’s implied in the quote above: Essential questions or problems are provoked, with a well-presented problem


But creativity involves something we don’t always feel good about: uncertainty.

“Where there is no answer, there is no clear answer, we don’t like that type of uncertainty at all,” Mueller says. “We really hate it.”

She says this is hard for students: that blank piece of paper. It’s hard for businesses: Will people buy the product? Uncertainty is hard for everyone, but research shows it’s key to thinking creatively.

Dyslexia Pioneer David Schenck Dies

David Schenck, founder of the Schenck School, an Atlanta area school for dyslexic students, passed away last week. I’d visited this school on a tour of Georgia area schools and was impressed. The Schenck school has been a leader in the field for many years. From the article and other descriptions I’ve heard of Mr. Schenck, he sounded like a great guy and I’m sure he’ll be surely missed. There’s a complete story about him and his work here, on the school’s website.

Conference on Disability and Diversity in Hawaii

From the Pacific Rim Conference on Disability and Diversity

You can’t miss the 31st Annual Pacific Rim Conference on Disability and Diversity, May 18 & 19, 2015 at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu. The theme for our 31st Edition is “Deep Impact,” and there will be over 200 exciting workshops and events all week long! The 2015 Call for Proposals will be open until January 31, 2015. We want your proposals! This year we are featuring many diverse and innovative topic areas, such as Making and Impact: Education for All and Lifting Youth Up. We are looking for your creative ideas to build the just, sustainable and inclusive future we all want! To learn more, visit:, email or call us at (808) 956-7539.

A study was recently published that claims learning to read and improvement in reading ability has a positive effect on intelligence overall.

Where to begin?

First, getting past sensational science related headlines takes effort. I have an educated and beginners mind when it comes to reading research. I read through this study slowly, and appears to me to be well-designed, and does not overstate what it found.

What it basically found/claims, is that learning to read not only helps improve verbal intelligence (which would be expected), it leads to improvements in non-verbal (visual/spatial) performance on IQ tests. This is the first time positive effects were found in areas not limited to verbal performance.

Of course I agree with the obvious. Learning to read and improving reading skill is vastly important for all sorts of reasons. There are however, a few cautions.

1. We don’t really measure intelligence. We try. What we really do as far as I can tell, is measure performance on tasks that we think are manifestations of intelligence.

2. If improving reading skills has positive effects on verbal and non-verbal intelligence, that’s a good thing. But we still don’t know why. Success in reading is based on several cognitive capacities including working memory, phonological processing, and fluent orthographic knowledge. Perhaps development of those skills are what transfers over to other more general thinking and problem-solving abilities. Perhaps the process of improving one’s reading skills, which undoubtedly includes perseverance, goal-setting and seeing weaknesses as challenges to be met, contains the operative links to improvements in “IQ.” In many cases, having access to high quality teaching (of reading and spelling) involves a mentor-student relationship that is a critical factor in building on success.

In other words, success breeds success.

The study I’m referencing can be found here: Learning To Read Improves Overall Intelligence

Of course it’s exciting news that early intervention works. But, the magic is in the details.

In this study, parents were coached to pay attention to subtle signs from their children (with autism) that they previously missed. When parents have seemingly non-responsive infants (not cooing, engaging in reciprocal eye gazing, etc) the adult often feels rejected and starts to do less of the interactive things parents generally do with their kids. By learning to spot the much more subtle interactive communication from children with autism, parents are more able to socialize their kids “upwards” and they gain more skills.

Treatment at earliest age reduces symptoms of autism spectrum disorder

Researchers found that oxytocin, the hormone heavily involved in social connectivity and feelings of warmth towards others, is not lacking in people with autism spectrum disorder.

Oxytocin Isn’t Lacking In Children With Autism, Researchers Say

Instead, the study found that oxytocin levels affected social functioning in both kids with autism and typical kids. “As your oxytocin levels got higher, your social functioning was more enhanced,” Parker says.

Gregory says it’s not surprising that children with autism have widely varying levels of oxytocin. “Autism isn’t a disease, it’s a spectrum” that can’t be linked to any one cause, he told Shots.

A Scientist with a Learning Disability

“Dr. Collin Diedrich has a Ph.D in Molecular Virology and Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently a 2nd year postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His research focuses on how HIV increases individuals susceptibility to tuberculosis. Collin has aspirations to become an advocate for people with learning disabilities and ADHD.”

This incredibly bright scientist who has a learning disability expresses some great and thought-ptovoking ideas about intelligence, learning disabilities, and the damage caused by educational systems being so focused on the “average.”

I’m a Scientist With Learning Disabilities and That’s Okay!

You’re never too old to understand yourself better. Lisa Ling, journalist, discovers more about her brain and learning style.

Lisa Ling, gets a diagnosis of ADD at age 40

[via Richard Wanderman]

I came across this piece written by someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She makes some important points to consider concerning the judgmental implications of terms such as “high functioning and low functioning.” I’m a fan of precise and descriptive diagnostic work, but the writer points out the subtle and unspoken judgements that accompany some of our terms.

Decoding the High Functioning Label


I love that quote.

As Walt Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

In this recent opinion piece in the NY Times, “The Upside of Dyslexia” science writer Annie Murphy Paul cites a few experiments that causes her to wonder about the positive attributes and cognitive abilities that may occur naturally in people who have dyslexia, and could in theory lead to better performance in certain artistic and scientific fields.

She discusses a couple of interesting examples, one of which involves the discovery by cognitive scientists at UMASS found; that their subjects with dyslexia saw things on the periphery faster than non-dyslexics. This has been repeated in additional studies. In these examples, those who can focus better on the periphery or outer aspects of a visual field (who are less proficient at discernment of the central field) can do things like find the logical flaws in “impossible figures,” such as the interesting and impossible images found in some of M.C. Escher’s work.

Similar examples are cited in other experiments done with undergrads.

I think it’d be fascinating to find out that there are inherent abilities in a given condition mostly viewed as a frustrating learning disability.

I wish experiments like these focused on four and five year olds. Brains are proving to be far more plastic or malleable than we ever imagined. So I wonder if skills like the peripheral vision ability in their subjects are developed over time, as a result of (someone with a reading disabilitiy) not practicing or knowing what to look for in the central field of vision while reading. Word analysis requires looking at specific patterns within the central field. As a result of repeated looking more at the non-discrete aspects of words on a page, the outer reaches are more what one pays attention to.

It’s an intriguing field, that of looking for strengths as well as struggles and I’m all for good research along these lines.

On the other hand, blind people seem to develop great auditory abilities that I’m sure are reflected in teh developing architecture of their brains.

Stay tuned.