Why Does He Do That? Could a Learning Disability Be Involved?

In talking to a colleague today about a family we both work with I was reminded again about how confusing it can be to have a child with significant learning disabilities and how helpful it can be to parents to work with a clinician who gets the whole picture.

Say your child has a weakness in processing nonverbal information. You might even have a test report that tells you that.  But what does that mean in real life?  For one thing it can mean that this child does not understand sarcasm because he isn’t sensitive to tone of voice.  If you only hear the words, sarcastic comments sound mean.

For instance,

Child:  “Are you going to pick me up after school?”

Parent: (joking) “No, I’m going to Europe instead.”  (meaning, “Of course I’ll be there.”)

Child:  (wailing) “What?  How will I get to my lesson?”

Parent:  Sigh….

It is very helpful once parents and children understand this problem.  I know children who now ask trusted adults, “Are you being sarcastic?”  when they think they’ve heard something out of character.

A different type of problem arises when a child processes verbal information very slowly.  This can look like inattention or even disrespect if you get really annoyed by having your child tune out when you’re talking to her.  Once you understand her learning style, you can purposely keep your verbal instructions and explanations brief.  Actually, it is always helpful for parents to be brief, in my experience, but especially so in this situation.

Then there is the child with ADHD.  This and other types of learning disabilities can be confusing because they have an uneven effect on children’s behavior.  Parents see a child who does not sit still long enough to do homework carefully and yet can play video games intently for long periods of time.  Parents will say, “He could do it if he’d try.”  Parents might also see uneven work in school.  In some subjects where the child has more natural interest and talent, grades are good and the work is not too hard.  But in another subject there are daily battles about work.  It is truly confusing.  People with ADHD are drawn to novel information, and that is what a video game serves up over and over.  Doing the same type of math problem twenty times is pretty dull to someone with ADHD.

I tell parents that kids with learning disabilities do well when the planets align—when they are interested, the task doesn’t challenge them in their weakness, they are well-rested, and so forth.

Parents and children in these situations have my sympathy because often it is evident that the children have average or above intelligence, but their performance is puzzling.  If you are wondering why your child acts they way he does, consider contacting a professional who understands cognitive as well as emotional difficulties.  The cognitive problems nearly always lead to emotional upsets, but this can be managed with good education at home and at school.


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Photo credit:  Elizabeth S. on Flickr


5 Responses to “Why Does He Do That? Could a Learning Disability Be Involved?”
  1. These are helpful considerations. I understand how cognitive difficulties and emotional difficulties are different but still overlap.

  2. dr.cstone says:

    That’s the truth–we’re all one organism. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Carolyn,

    I am always fascinated at the overlap in specialties. Since I work with folks affected by serious illness, I am always talking about the relationship between physical and emotional health. As a parent, I know that we finally learned to assess hunger and fatigue when we were seeing behavior issues. And I really appreciate your point about short instructions. That’s one we can all benefit from.


  4. JoAnn Jordan says:

    We spend little time discussing daily life with a diagnosis in the doctor’s office. You have pointed out how important starting these conversations is and the need for support on the journey.

  5. dr.cstone says:

    Thanks, JoAnn. I really agree about support on the journey. No matter who we are trying to help–elderly parents or kids–we can use support on the journey.