Learning disability déjà vu

By Myles Shane

Grade one. The class sat in a semi-circle.  It was my turn to read. I swallowed hard and tried to pronounce the words but all I saw on the page was “dfwefwejfwpeoq” Anxiety paralyzed my body. The teacher, my own personal Darth Vader, demanded I read the sentence. I tried speaking but I was unable to form words or at least any words that were comprehendible. 

A month later I met with the school resource teacher. Like a special prosecutor gunning to impeach a president, she grilled me. This lady was vicious.  She was out for blood. The Prosecutor wasted no time in asking me why I had stolen the teacher’s special stamp and then stamped happy faces over all of the incorrect answers on my classmates’ tests. She waited for my answer. I confided in her. I wanted everyone to be happy. The jury shook their heads in unison. My fate had been sealed.

In a private meeting with my parents, The Special Prosecutor, diagnosed me as a “slow learner” – “a child with a lower than average intelligence who may have mental retardation. (psychologydictionary.org) My parents were dumbfounded. They didn’t believe a resource teacher had neither the training or schooling to provide a proper diagnosis. They insisted a private psychologist give a second opinion.

This psychologist was a real pro. He wore a tight fitting white polyester suit and had a nameplate on his desk. He was the real deal. There was no doubt my parents would trust his opinion.  He diagnosed me with a relatively new type of learning disability, “dyslexia”- “A neurological based disability in learning with difficulty in reading, writing, spelling and sometimes arithmetic.” From my perspective everything appeared upside down and backwards.

By the end of Grade 1 my mortal enemy Darth Teacher, surmised I should repeat the grade. My parents were beyond reproach. After much squabbling they negotiated a deal. If I was tutored during the summer and could read by September, I’d pass the year.

My parents searched for a Super Hero. Someone who could make the impossible, possible?  Eventually they found her.  Her name was Edith Raber and she’d been reading books and attending lectures on Dyslexia. She had all the latest gizmos and gadgets, including a computer, which experts claimed was vital for teaching dyslexic children to read. That summer Edith changed my life. When I met her I was the student. When I left, I was still the student but I could probably read any “Mr. Men” book thrown my way. Not only did I pass Grade 1 but I graduated high school with honours. 

But the people I owe the most gratitude to are my mom and dad. If they hadn’t yielded their light sabers in front of Darth Teacher from day one, I’d probably still be living at home and have never completed high school. It was their passion and advocacy for their son, which shaped who I am today. They never gave up on me and to this day are still my biggest fans.

Fast-forward 35 years. Our son is probably a genius. Perhaps another Doogie Howser. Maybe even Einstein. However there are a few problems. He is incredibly silly, hyperactive, and defiant. If you say the sky is blue, he’ll argue for hours it’d red. Eventually you might actually believe him.

His school insists they won’t diagnose Einstein until Grade 3. His family doctor recommended we seek out an institute, which provides mental health services to children. With our counselor we discussed how our son was mathematically gifted. She hypothesized the right side of his brain was developing faster than the left side. Her advice was to practice empathetic parenting and when he’s unable to control his emotions, gently explain that his anger has transformed him into The Incredible Hulk but truthfully he’s Bruce Banner, a sweet cutting edge scientist who’s misunderstood.

Surprisingly this concept sometimes worked for about six months, at which time they informed us, our sessions were up. In the meantime, our kid was still turning in to a green monster whenever he couldn’t regulate him emotions, which was often.   

Eventually we found a psychiatrist who would evaluate him. The doctor spent three minutes with our child, spoke to us for an hour, then determined he might be autistic. In the meantime he offered to start him on some medication. We were outraged. How can anyone diagnose a child in less than five minutes.  It was clearly a Mc Diagnosis.

As Grade 1 rolled around, his behaviour continued to worsen. There were fights.  He rarely listened to his teachers. He didn’t finish his tests. Every night persuading him to go to bed was a nightmare. My wife and I were physically and mentally exhausted.  There was no way we could live the rest of our lives like this. 

Months passed and finally after my wife had Googled pages worth of psychiatrists, she connected with one, who seemed a good fit. 

This psychiatrist was excellent. She spent at least five hours talking with our son. During our final visit she revealed her diagnosis. She believed he was suffering from a combination of ODD and ADHD. The dictionary defines ADHD as “a disorder in which a person is unable to control behaviour due to difficulty in processing neural stimuli, accompanied by an extremely high level of motor activity.” The definition of ODD is as follows: “Oppositional defiant disorder is defined by the DSM-5 as “a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behaviour, or vindictiveness lasting at least six months.”

Her recommendation in terms of treatment was she didn’t treat patients but only diagnosed them. She suggested various child/parent programs we could attend in order to help our son and educate ourselves, which we are following up on. In the meantime her written diagnosis has facilitated his teacher at school to create an IEP (Independent Education Program) for him and a special education teacher has also been assigned to him. 

Like my parents, I have become an advocate for my son. I’m not sure if one of these new programs may help our son overcome his disabilities. Nothing in life is guaranteed but what I know for sure is if it doesn’t work, my wife and I will research another program or find another specialist. We’ll do whatever needs to be done in order to ensure he has all tools to live an amazing life to his full potential.