UW Research into Learning Disabilities-Including New Teaching Tactics, Genetic Testing and Brain Imaging-May Finally Break Some Children's Roadblocks to Success.

by Nancy Wick

For Deborah Shipman and Debbie Daniels, the trouble came without warning. As the mothers of bright, verbal preschoolers, they never dreamed what was ahead. But in kindergarten, Kyle Shipman had difficulty recognizing the letters of the alphabet; in first grade Alex Matteson, Daniels' son, just couldn't seem to learn to read. Neither the mothers nor the boys' teachers knew what to do.

Kyle and Alex were demonstrating the classic pattern of children with learning disabilities. They had seemed to develop normally—both physically and mentally—until they entered school. But when their reading skills failed to develop, their parents' world turned topsy-turvy.

"I was devastated to find out that my wonderful, perfect child wasn't," Daniels remembers. "I was afraid for him. I wondered what this would mean for his life."

Daniels' reaction is typical. Parents of children with learning disabilities are first surprised by a problem that comes out of the blue, then confused because they don't know what to do and finally frustrated that efforts to help their children often fail.

The frustration builds when parents ask for help, but meet resistance. School officials told Kyle's mom they couldn't test him until second grade. Daniels ran into "tremendous resistance" when she asked that Alex be tested. "He's a boy and boys mature later," school officials argued. "Let's wait until third grade."

Kyle Shipman (left) and Alex Matteson

Kyle Shipman, left, and Alex Matteson have been part of a UW research effort. Photo by Jon Marmor.

The schools weren't being uncaring or irresponsible. They were following standard procedure that grows out of the controversy that has surrounded learning disabilities ever since the term was first used in the 1960s. At that time, parents of children like Kyle and Alex insisted that what was wrong with their children be recognized as something more than "stupidity" or a "bad attitude," and they demanded that schools do something to help them. They had better luck with the second goal than with the first; when Congress passed a law in 1975 requiring schools to educate children with disabilities, "learning disability" was included as a category.

Despite the law, little was known about learning disabilities, except that some children who didn't have an overall cognitive deficit did have specific learning problems-most often in reading and writing, but sometimes in listening, speaking or math. Lawmakers and educators grouped a variety of problems under the same term, "learning disability." And because no one knew the reasons for these problems, there was no way to test specifically for them. So schools simply tested a child's general aptitude with an IQ test and compared it to his or her achievement. A gap meant a diagnosis of learning disability.

Unfortunately, such a gap can't be detected as soon as a child enters school. The school must wait until a psychologist can get a valid IQ score and the child has compiled an achievement record. Meanwhile, the typical child with a learning disability will have spent two to three years frustrated at not being able to read.

That is completely unacceptable to Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology who has been studying reading and writing problems for more than a decade. "This is a treatable condition," she declares, "and the earlier we intervene the better."

Update: October 4, 1999

Dyslexic children use nearly five times the brain area as normal children while performing a simple language task, according to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of University of Washington researchers. The study shows for the first time that there are chemical differences in the brain function of dyslexic and non-dyslexic children. See UW news release.

Update: May 25, 2000

A novel treatment for dyslexia not only helps children to significantly improve their reading skills but also shows that the brain changes as dyslexics learn, according to a study by an interdisciplinary team of University of Washington scientists. See UW news release.