When a child is diagnosed with a learning disability or attention deficit disorder, might they only have difficulty in school? Could they also have a potential strength?
About 10 percent of school-aged children have attention deficit disorder, and 10 to 15 percent have dyslexia, the most common of the learning disabilities. ADD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder affect the child’s ability to regulate when they are attending to something. This results in difficulty concentrating on subject matter that the child does not find especially compelling but also hyper-focusing on material that is of great interest to them. It includes, for many, difficulty with being disorganized, misplacing or forgetting things, being impulsive, and for those with ADHD, hyperactivity — or a physical restlessness the child experiences in addition to the other symptoms. Dyslexia affects a child’s ability to process written language correctly.
Certainly, both of these differences in a child’s brain can make aspects of school and home life more difficult. Many parents are reticent to pursue a diagnosis even when they have a visibly struggling child, because the very idea of a mental illness or learning disability feels so distressing and stigmatizing.
Delaying diagnosis has two significant drawbacks. One is that the longer a child stays off track with regard to school ability and overall development, the more difficult it is to get them back on track. Children’s brains are very plastic, and the earlier you treat them, the more quickly brain changes can happen; this can result in fewer symptoms or the development of coping skills that enable your child to work around their symptoms. The second drawback of delaying diagnosis is that along with the brain differences that cause symptoms such as distractibility and difficulty reading come particular strengths that, if nurtured, could make all the difference in terms of your child’s actual potential and future self-esteem.
Case in point is Dr. Beryl Benacerraf, a radiologist who discovered the method of using ultrasound to do prenatal screening for Down syndrome. Benacerraf has dyslexia, and though school was challenging for her due to difficulty reading, her uniquely wired brain also helped her make breakthroughs that eluded others. This was no doubt due, at least in part, to a heightened ability to spot patterns and think creatively. These are known strengths for people with dyslexia.
Data also support a connection between ADD and exceptional originality and creativity, high energy and an ability to take risks that can pay off. When a child is diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, one of the first things I advise parents is to be aware of the particular types of strengths that often accompany these disorders; I tell parents to expose their children to subject matter and experiences that allow for that strength to be discovered and to manifest itself. For example, introduce your child to puzzles and various three-dimensional mazes and blocks to explore their visual-spatial aptitude, to art projects and music of various types to gauge interest and creative aptitude, and to subject matter from astronomy to coding to jazz to allow a spark to catch that will engage both their strength and perhaps their passion. Discuss with your child their ideas for solving problems that exist in these different arenas to allow them to generate creative solutions and mull over what might work and what might not. Allow space in their day for imaginative play, since unstructured time is needed to allow creative thought to blossom.
It’s also important to speak to your school and teachers about allowing for methods of completing work that play to your child’s strengths. That way they can show what they know and build confidence in their capabilities.
Parents can and should balance getting diagnosis and treatment with searching for and nurturing strengths in their child. The earlier parents do this the better. Many of the world’s most creative and successful people also have a mental health diagnosis or a learning disability.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. She is the author of the new book “The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius.”