What is a learning disorder?
Learning difficulties are associated with serious problems in the areas of reasoning, speaking and listening, writing, reading or mathematics. Learning disorders are believed to be caused by maladjustments in the nervous system, and often affect individuals differently and vary in severity. The term ‘learning difficulties’ is often utilised to categorise conditions including dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyspraxia.
It is important to recognise learning problems as early as possible, to be able to address them and enable the child to fulfil their potential. Left untreated, learning difficulties are likely to have adverse effects on the individual’s development as they transition from childhood to adolescence, and adolescence to adulthood. Often, if these problems are not addressed early, they can have negative effects on the person’s self-esteem and confidence, as well as relationships with others.
How do I know if my child has learning difficulties?
Below are some commonly seen signs that a child may have difficulties with learning and processing information:
- Poor organisational skills, problems completing tasks in timely manner (within timeframes)
- Poor memory
- Difficulties learning alphabet, colours, shapes, numbers etc
- Problems with spoken and/or written communication
- Poor reading skills
- Visual perception deficits
- Problems with abstract thinking
- Difficulties in creating legible school work
- Being behind or slow in school compared to their peers
- Is easily distractible and/or restless
- Vocabulary is slow to develop
- Issues with social interactions
- Poor ability to follow routines or direction
How can OT help improve learning difficulties?
Occupational therapy (OT) helps people become more independent in everyday tasks. In individuals with learning difficulties, OTs often work with the child’s parents/carers and school teachers to design ways to mitigate the problems. While the specific therapeutic strategies will differ depending on the child’s specific needs, common ways that OT helps improve these areas include:
- Dividing activities and tasks into smaller, workable parts
- Utilising learning aids as appropriate (e.g. electronic equipment such as dictionaries, talking calculators, audio books)
- Teaching the child how to physically prepare for tasks (e.g. how to get ready for school every morning)
- Memory aids
- Techniques to improve pacing and timing of tasks
- Help with improving time management (e.g. using simple calendars, notes etc)
- Establishing routines into the child’s daily life
- Help improve handwriting and other fine motor skills
- Using a variety of methods involving different sensory approaches (i.e. engaging as many of the senses as possible in learning)
- Using visual cues to help develop sequencing skills
- Modelling appropriate actions to the child to improve their ability to follow instructions
- Helping the child to regulate feelings when overwhelmed
Once a child’s unique needs and therapy goals have been established, the OT will usually evolve specific session plans. It is usually important for therapy to occur in an environment that best allows the child to concentrate; usually a calm, quiet place with little distractions. The child’s parent/carer may also be involved in sessions and in collaboration with the OT, they can come up with ways to practice what is learnt in therapy in the child’s everyday routine. For instance, problems with time management or sequencing can be worked on by the parent supervising/assisting the child in their morning routine when getting prepared for school.