Your Teen’s Learning Disability & Therapy

August 29, 2019

Approximately 10% of today’s children and adolescents are battling a learning disability. In some cases, more than one learning disability exists at one time. If your teen has a learning disability, the chances are that it is affecting more than just their ability to succeed academically.

Students with these disabilities often feel disappointed in themselves, alone, or different from others, especially if they have not yet been diagnosed and don’t understand why something so easy for others can be challenging for them.

What is a learning disability?

Learning disabilities are a neurological disorder often explained by medical professionals as a difference in the way someone’s brain is wired.

Often, people misunderstand and don’t realize that the presence of a learning disability does not affect a person’s intelligence. These disabilities, however, can make the use of common learning approaches for reading, writing, information recall, and organization much more challenging. Learning disabilities cannot be cured, though there are several techniques and resources available that can allow those with these struggles to excel academically and professionally.

Learning disabilities come in a variety of forms and the severity of these disabilities can vary significantly from person to person. And, some disabilities are higher functioning than others, which means that it is not at all uncommon for youth to get through their teen years without a diagnosis. These high functioning disabilities are harder to spot and can make academic success very challenging and frustrating.

Common learning disabilities include:

  • Dyslexia – This learning disability is the one that most people are familiar with. Those with this disability have difficulty with word recognition and placement.
  • Dyscalculia – These people have challenges with arithmetic and mathematical concepts.
  • Dysgraphia – In this disability, these people have difficulty forming letters and writing within a defined space.
  • Auditory and Visual Processing Disorder – This is when a person cannot use verbal or written language without vision or hearing problems.
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disorder (NLD) – Those who suffer from this disability have challenges recognizing and dealing with nonverbal cues such as body language, facial expression, and the subtleties of conversation

The causes of learning disabilities

Researchers are not able to fully define what causes learning disabilities. However, learning challenges and disabilities often run in families and are therefore genetic. But environmental factors can play a role too.

Occasionally, these disabilities can be caused by complications from or after pregnancy such as a lack of oxygen low birth weight, premature labor, or early delivery, or drug or alcohol use during pregnancy. In other cases, learning disabilities can be caused by brain injury, head trauma, or the presence of a brain tumor.

In most cases, it is believed that learning disabilities occur because there is an immense range of variation in people’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Whereas in most cases, cognitive profiles of people are adequate for what we expect them to accomplish in school, at work, or otherwise in life, for some people, this is just not the case.

As such, those have difficulty meeting age and grade level requirements and expectations or often identified as having a learning disability.

Signs that your teen may have a learning disability 

Teens often find it difficult to reach out to an adult or trusted professional that they need help. Likewise, it can be very hard for parents to identify and manage the challenges that their teen is experiencing. In fact, it is not uncommon for people with learning disabilities to mask their challenges and find ways to cope, and in many cases, they never receive a diagnosis. In these situations, those with the undiagnosed disability will find ways to avoid the tasks so that the problem is not identified.

There are some common signs of learning disabilities that parents can look out for, to determine if their teen may have a problem.

  • Frequently spells words incorrectly 
  • Has trouble with memory or is frequently forgetful
  • Has trouble adjusting to new settings or environments
  • Avoids reading or writing assignments or both
  • Has difficulty summarizing or understanding abstract concepts
  • Misinterprets or misreads information on the page
  • Ignores or overly focuses on certain details
  • Spends a significant amount of time studying but still performs poorly academically 

The National Center for Learning Disabilities has developed a checklist that parents can use to understand if their teen has an underlying learning disability. And, because learning disabilities often present with other health concerns, it is important that your teen’s issues are addressed as soon as possible by a medical professional.

In many cases, and especially when diagnosed early on, teens can be trained on coping skills and alternate methods of attacking their area of challenge, which will then enable them to live as normal of a life as possible.

Teens | Learning Disability | Hillcrest ATC

Leveraging therapy to help your teen’s learning disability 

Both occupational therapy and talk therapy can help make a positive difference in your teen’s ability to persevere in spite of their disability. Occupational therapy focused on improving the patient’s abilities to perform basic activities of daily living. Further, occupational therapists treat the whole person by people patients fully engage in daily life. 

If your teen started working with an occupational therapist when they were young, you probably noticed that the therapist worked with your child to help them gain independence as well as to develop new skills so that they can participate in daily activities. When occupational therapy continues into the teenage years, this same approach is taken but the care starts to focus on skills that are needed as the teen gets older and faces new experiences. The goal of the therapist is to work closely with your teen to optimize their engagement both at school as well as at home. Occupational therapists work on underlying motor obstacles or challenges, attentional concerns, and the visual perceptual deficits that can contribute to or cause academic challenges for the teen. 

Occupational therapists are also referred to as educational therapists, as they frequently work with teens in the academic setting. Many children and teens with learning disabilities find it hard to get organize or to create a sequence to the actions that are needed to accomplish everyday activities.

Thus, an occupational therapist can work with your teen to establish appropriate and efficient routines by breaking down the larger task into smaller steps that the teen can effectively follow. Understand, however, that occupational therapists are not properly equipped or trained to diagnose a learning disability. Instead, they leverage the insights from a psychological assessment that then gives specific information about your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

Talk therapy, and in extreme cases, residential treatment can be used to help teens that are experiencing additional mental health concerns tied to their disability. Certain learning disabilities are accompanied by emotional deficits, including misunderstandings of facial expressions, body language, or verbal cues. This often leads to awkward and uncomfortable social interactions. Further, these issues along with impulsivity associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can lead to overly poor social skills, which then, in turn, can cause alienation or social conflict.

Individuals of all ages with learning disabilities are unfortunately subject to ridicule from peers. In many cases, these teens become objects of bullying behaviors or are more susceptible to cyberbullying. Further, low self-esteem is a common outcome of learning disabilities.

Poor academic performance can cause disassociation in school settings, and thus the teen with one or more learning disabilities who have not received proper academic support from parents, teachers, or guidance counselors run a higher risk for becoming involved with illegal substances such as drugs and alcohol.

Functional illiteracy is also commonly associated with a predilection to drop out of school and those teens that do drop out are at very high risk to get involved in illegal activities, to become incarcerated, and also to become teen mothers and fathers. 

Talk therapy is often used in combination with occupational therapy to help the teen work through the resulting feelings that are associated with learning disabilities. As an estimated one in five teens experiences mental health issues, it is not at all uncommon or unusual that those with learning disabilities run a higher risk.

Doctors and therapists treat the mental health outcomes from the disability just like any medical problem.

Residential therapy for your teen’s mental health conditions – an outcome of learning disabilities

When your teen is experiencing serious mental health issues as a result of their learning disability and decides to undergo residential treatment, they will often participate in both individual and group therapy sessions.

During individual therapy, your teen will work one on one with a therapist who will ask them about how they are feeling, and the approaches that they take to work through concerns that they might be experiencing. In some cases, the therapist will assign your teen some homework so that the outcomes of those assignments can guide further discussions.

When your teen engages in group therapy, your teen will meet others who are going through similar experiences. These sessions may make your teen uncomfortable at first, but over time, most participants make new friends and find the experience to be highly effective and comforting. 

In many cases, your family may be asked to participate in family therapy sessions, which will include parents and siblings of the teen. These sessions allow the family to work through the situation and challenges of the disability together, as in most cases, disabilities and mental health problems impact the entire family, and not just the individual.

Your teen will also participate in extracurricular activities and hobbies that are designed to be fun and healthy outlets. The benefits of extracurricular activities for your teen, whether they are in a residential treatment center or working through their disabilities at home and receiving therapy as an out-patient, can improve a teen’s quality of life in so many ways.

These activities provide opportunities for community involvement and can help your teen to develop strong behavioral health skills. 

When your teen combines extracurricular activities with their individualized treatment program, they will often experience some or all of these benefits:

  • Better academic performance
  • Development of new skills
  • Enhanced self-esteem
  • Better social skills as well as a desire to engage in social activities
  • Exposure to diversity
  • Change of pace
  • Experiences to add to job applications, resumes, and college applications
  • Improved overall health

Therefore, regardless of the approach you and your teen take to their treatment, extracurricular activities should be encouraged and explored.

How can parents help their teen with their learning disability 

Your teen needs your love, encouragement, and support regardless of whether or not they have a learning disability or other health concern. But those who do suffer from a learning disability need additional positive reinforcement so that they can stay strong when times are tough. As there is no cure for these ailments, parents need to be sure that they are not striving to cure the illness. Instead, parents need to provide social and emotional tools that will allow the teen to persevere and both face and overcome the various challenges that will come their way. 

  • Remember that a learning disability, while not curable, is also not insurmountable. Everyone faces challenges; your teen just happens to have a very specific challenge that they will face for their entire life. 
  • Become an expert on your teen’s disability by conducting independent research and stay on top of developments in learning disability programs, educational techniques, and therapeutic approaches. While you can and should look to professionals such as teachers, therapists, and doctors for help, you need to take charge in helping your teen to find the tools that will help them to be successful. 
  • Understand that you will need to advocate for your teen repeatedly as you seek special help. This can get very frustrating, but by keeping calm and leveraging your knowledge of your teen and their needs, you will be able to provide a significant and positive impact on their life.
  • Your teen will follow your lead, so if you approach situations with optimism and positivity, they will too. Work with your teen to identify what works best, and then implement those techniques to the best of your ability.

If you’re looking for therapy to help your teenaged child deal with their learning disability, contact Hillcrest in order to find out if our facility is right for you!