Special kids, special needs

What should you do if you find out your child has a learning disability? Mike Carroccetto speaks to two experts on how to navigate the system


What should you do if you learn that your child has special needs?


It can be overwhelming for parents to find out their child has a learning disability (LD), special physical and emotional needs, or hearing, sight or sensory issues. But these aren’t unchartered waters, and parents don’t need to do it alone. We spoke with two experts in the field of special education. Leigh Giles is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and the clinical director of ABA Connections, a private company dedicated to providing support and services to families, professionals and individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Heather Desjardins is the co-chair of LDAO-C (Learning Disabilities Association of Ottawa-Carleton) and a business owner (The Open Door Educational Services) who specializes in helping children and adults with dyslexia. She is also a parent of a five-year-old child on the autism spectrum. 


Parenting Times: What is the most important thing parents need to know about learning disabilities?


Heather Desjardins: It is important to realize that a learning disability has nothing to do with how smart someone is. It is a misconception that a learning disability is related to lower intelligence levels. On the contrary, there are some very brilliant people with learning disabilities. 


Leigh Giles: Every child’s needs will vary. Day-to-day, week-to-week or year-to-year. A multidisciplinary team (of health professionals, from one or more organizations, working together to deliver comprehensive patient care) is the best approach to ensuring our children are receiving the best care and support.


PT: What are the broad categories of learning disabilities? 


LG: Challenges associated with learning such as ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, or processing disorders. Many of our clients also have difficulties with fine/gross motor movements, executive functioning, language, visual performance, or exhibit extreme behaviours.


PT: How are each of these disabilities assessed?


LG: Many of the assessments involve questionnaires sent to families, teachers, and those that know the child well. There could also be direct testing where various skills are assessed or an observation of the child in a variety of environments such as home, school, clinic etc.


HD: To diagnose LDs, parents should contact a psychologist who specializes in this type of testing. 


PT: What kind of tests might a parent find their child undergoing? 


HD: Specific tests are used depending on the area(s) of perceived concern i.e. behaviour, anxiety, attention deficit or hyperactivity ADD/ADHD, etc.


PT: What is the best advice for parents to help deal with the situation once the process has started?


LG: Begin assembling your support team, whether it be family members/friends you can count on or joining support groups on Facebook. These help parents connect with families who have undergone similar situations and can help guide and support or just listen. Begin researching intervention and contacting local agencies, many who may have wait lists. Be prepared with a list of questions, tour the facility, research the regulatory bodies associated with them. Choose a provider that not only has the credentials and reputation, but that you feel as though you can trust and that has the best interests of your child and your family.


PT: What signs should parents look for if concerned about their child?


LG: Children develop at different rates, however as soon as parents notice that their child is falling behind, struggling, not meeting milestones etc. they need to act. This could be as simple as booking an appointment with your family doctor.


PT: What kinds of LD resources are there for parents in Ottawa? 


HD: In addition to the LDAO-C, there are organizations that support families like Parent Lifelines of Eastern Ontario (PLEO), which helps parents connect with resources. Parents can also connect with psychologists, occupational therapists, CHEO, Decoding Dyslexia (a parent advocacy group), disability advocates, educational strategists, ADHD coaches, assistive technology specialists and more. www.ldathome.ca for learning at home resources. 


PT: What are wait times like? 


LG: ABA’s waitlist varies depending on the schedule parents wish to have, the services of interest and availability of therapists.


HD: There may be an opportunity for a psycho-educational assessment through the child’s school board, but these waits are often long due to demand and capacity. Private psychologists usually can provide an assessment in a few months. Cost can vary from $1,800 to $4,000. www.ldaottawa.com/list-of-psychologists-for-ld-assessments


PT: Do some children improve enough where they are able to return to mainstream educational channels?


LG: Many children, with the right intervention and supports, are able to return to mainstream education (or no longer need extra supports and/or individualized education).


HD: There are many children with LDs in mainstream educational channels, and as long as they receive the right combination of accommodation alongside effective remediation, they can do so with great success.





Early intervention key to helping children with LD


Do you suspect your child has a learning disability? If so, what’s next?


“Immediately begin looking into the assessment process,” says Leigh Giles, of ABA Connections, who specializes in early intervention for children and youth who have been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). “As a professional specializing in early intervention I can not stress enough the importance of early intervention. Do not wait and see if they will ‘grow’ out of it. Be proactive.”


It is best to have the child tested (and/or get them the right type of help) as soon as possible. 


Heather Desjardins, of The Open Door, agrees. “The wait-and-see approach is so often used, resulting in the child falling further behind, often developing confidence issues along the way.”


There are many types of learning disabilities (LD). Visit the LDA Ontario website (www.ldao.ca) to get an idea of categories in the broadest terms.


Both experts agree that interventions should begin sooner rather than later. Be persistent when asking a doctor for referrals.


The bottom line is that “parents will need to become active advocates for their children,” adds Giles. “Trust your gut.”