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Healing Our Children with Attentional, Emotional, and Learning Challenges

Written by Susan R. Johnson, MD, FAAP   
Sunday, 01 March 2009 00:00
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There is an epidemic in our society. More and more children are being assigned more and more labels. These labels include attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), receptive and/or expressive language disorders, learning disabilities that include visual and/or auditory processing disorders, and the autistic spectrum disorders like pervasive developmental delay (PDD), Aspergers Syndrome, and autism, to name only a few. What is happening to our children? What do these labels really mean?

While I was growing up, my brother was diagnosed at a major university center in California with autistim when he was two-and-a-half years old. He had fine motor and gross motor delays, made poor eye contact, cried a lot from frustration, and he didn’t speak words. When he finally started to talk around age four, he wasn’t as frustrated and he became more social and no longer fit the definition of autism. So, his diagnosis was changed to a speech and language disorder since his speech was so difficult to understand. He still became very frustrated when he tried to communicate. He had trouble expressing his ideas and getting others to understand his speech. Because he had a lot of temper tantrums during those early years and always seemed to be in constant motion, he was also given the label of minimal brain dysfunction (the word used in the 1960s for attention deficit disorder) and was placed on medication.

When my brother started school, he struggled with reading and writing. He had a brilliant mind and could remember almost everything that was said to him, but he couldn’t write his ideas down on paper and he had difficulties with spelling and handwriting. Book reports and papers were hard to write, and he was labeled as being lazy by his teachers throughout grade school. It wasn’t until college that a professor realized how gifted he was, and how difficult it was for him to express his ideas in writing. He was re-evaluated at that same university center and now labeled as having a nonverbal learning disability.

All of these labels affected my brother’s self esteem. I think he saw himself as abnormal or not smart enough. As he grew older he seemed to lack the confidence to follow his dreams and the courage to risk failure because he felt he had failed so many times. Therefore, I have never believed in labels. Labels place children into boxes that they can’t escape from very easily. Labels seem so meaningless to me since a child like my brother could move from one box to another while the “experts” couldn’t seem to agree on what box to put him in.

During my fellowship training in behavioral and developmental pediatrics, I learned that 70% of children labeled with attention deficit disorder also have some form of auditory and or visual learning disability—but no one could explain why. Most of the therapies given to these children were what I called “sit down therapies.” Movement therapy, like occupational therapy, was seen as a way to get children from the door of the classroom to their chair. Once the child was seated, I was taught that the “brain” could be “educated” through speech therapy, practicing phonics, or drilling math concepts. These children were often placed in special education classes but I never saw these children get out of special education classes, and I watched while they academically fell further behind their peers, and their self-esteem suffered.

It was the birth of my son that really taught me to look more closely at what was beneath all of these labels. First of all, because my son never crept on his belly and had a persistent “stiff neck” after his C-section birth, other parents convinced me to take him to a gifted osteopathic physician for biodynamic cranial therapy. Next, it was my son’s Waldorf-trained preschool and kindergarten teachers who first taught me about the importance of movement in the development and healing of neurological pathways.