Wednesday, August 24, 2011

E= mc... huh?

The most common type of learning disabilities I see in my work are verbal learning disabilities, meaning that they affect the way a student reads or writes, listens, and/or speaks. These are the most widespread, largely due to the fact that they're easy to see. When a student has difficulty following directions, remembering information, reading fluently and comprehending classroom material, it's obvious to teachers that something's up.

Less common, or perhaps less often identified, are nonverbal learning disabilities. Kids with these difficulties often go unnoticed because they are highly verbal and on grade level in reading. However, they lack organizational skills, forget class materials and homework, have trouble with graphic material (graphic organizers, maps, graphs, charts, etc), and struggle with math. Some students also present with poor social skills and symptoms similar to Asperger's Syndrome. Academic difficulties become more pronounced as the students get older and have to deal with algebra, fractions, and all that other math nonsense (math was never my thing).

This summer, I worked with J, a student who was referred because he has been retained several times and is much older than he should be for the grade he's in. He's had some learning and behavioral difficulties, so I was asked to evaluate him to determine if he would qualify for special education. J is going into seventh grade and racked up oodles of suspensions last year. When I spoke to his teacher, she said that it seemed like J had "given up" and would try to get suspended so he could stay home. J was on grade level in reading and can read over 130 words per minute, but was failing math and lacked a lot of the basic skills needed to do more advanced math. Sounds like a job for Super Psychologist!

J did not attend summer school, so his mom brought him in for testing. When he entered our office, he removed his hat, necklace chains, and wallet chain and set them aside on top of a cabinet so they wouldn't "get in his way" during testing. He worked with our CSE chairperson doing achievement testing first, then I took him for cognitive testing. While working with me, J was well-spoken and articulate, polite, and respectful. I noticed right away that he had an excellent vocabulary and was able to verbalize his responses accurately and concisely. Most kiddos ramble without any direction, but J would nail an answer on the head in five words or less (made testing go by sooo much more quickly).

When J was working on nonverbal tasks, it was another story. On the first perceptual reasoning task, J had to put blocks together to replicate a printed pattern. He was so flustered and overwhelmed it was almost awkward to watch. He scrambled with the blocks, did trial and error combinations, and had little attention to detail. At first I attributed some of it to nerves, but as he did other nonverbal, visual-spatial reasoning tasks, I realized that he seriously lacked perceptual skills. He had trouble finding visual patterns and grouping pictures based on shared characteristics. Things that made me say, "hmmm."

When the scores were calculated, J scored within the average to high average range on all areas of cognitive testing, with the exception of perceptual reasoning. His perceptual score was so low that, when compared to other cognitive areas, a score profile like his happens in less than 2% of the population. On achievement testing, his math score was the pits, while reading and writing were age appropriate. J had trouble correctly identifying which operation (add, subtract, multiply, divide) to use on simple math problems, couldn't borrow/regroup, and struggled greatly with even simple word problems, let alone do algebra. What does all this mean? J had a classic nonverbal, math learning disability profile.
I have to admit, I totally geeked out. I had to tell everyone that might have even remotely cared or knew what I was talking about (who has two thumbs and is a loser? this gal). Being such a nerd, seeing a textbook case of something that was considered more "rare" in my line of work was kind of exciting. My CSE chairperson and I started putting together an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for J. We put in a lot of testing support and program accommodations for J to use in math and when taking math tests, such as extended time, use of a calculator, additional math examples, and simplified charts, graphs, organizers. These supports are designed to level the playing field educationally, so that with them, J can access the curriculum to a level comparable to his non-disabled peers.

J's referral to special education at the beginning of the summer was a bit of a fluke, but in the end, I'm glad that the referral went through, since we identified a kid who otherwise would've continued having difficulty unnoticed. Looking at J's past year of not-so-great behavior, it makes sense that he purposefully acted out to get suspended and intentionally had poor attendance, since he likely did not want to show that he was having difficulty, or wanted to be doing something difficult in the first place. I'll be very curious to see how J does this year with special education supports in the classroom. I also hope that he'll find positive ways to use his verbal gifts... if only my school had a debate club, poetry club, or other public speaking goodness!

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