My Daughter’s Different Brain

When my 6-year-old daughter started Grade 1 this year, something changed. The curious and imaginative child I had known was coming home with teachers’ complaints about her lack of focus, difficulty reading and writing, and clumsy coordination. It was a new school; at first, I brushed off their concerns. But then, the school requested my daughter get a screening for children with learning disabilities.

She was diagnosed as being “at risk.” The diagnosis took my husband and me by surprise – at first. But as I learned more about what it means to be ‘LD,’ I realized the signs had been there for a while.

Three years earlier, I was putting out clothes to dry in our balcony when my daughter, then a toddler, marched up and told me she was hungry.

“Tell daddy you are hungry. He will get you a cookie.”

“Daddy,” she said, turning, “you are hungry.”

I laughed. I thought she was being smart-alecky – kind of like Kevin McCallister, in Home Alone, saying “Good night, Kevin,” after his mum says, “Say good night, Kevin.”

It was funny the next time she did it, too. And later that year, when I taught her how to tell her playschool teacher she needed to use the restroom. I prompted her in the same way I used to teach her to thank someone who gave or said something nice to her. (“What do you say?” I would ask, and she’d respond: “Thank you.”) After going through the scenario, I said, “So, if you want to go to the bathroom, what do you say?”

“Thank you,” she replied, on rote and distant.

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She struggled with other questions, too. When I would ask her, “What is your favourite food?” she would panic, tearfully stuttering “um, um, um” as tried to find a ‘correct’ answer.

This inability to make connections, a common problem for children with learning disabilities, escalated to other things: trouble speaking full sentences, sequencing, and finally, skills like reading, writing and math, which require the brain to connect the dots between a host of other abilities and knowledge in order to perform.

But I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew was every day, I heard about other 6-year-olds writing essays, reading Roald Dahl and competing in maths contests. Forget the gifted ones, I listened to fellow parents talk about their perfectly average children borrowing chapter books from libraries, even as my daughter struggled with simple diagraphs, pronouncing chat, “ka-h-at,” and ship, “ss-hip.” Reading a full sentence seemed a distant dream. The peer pressure, not from other kids, but from other parents, was overwhelming.

When will she enjoy the delight of reading a book? I wondered.

After the diagnosis, I took a course for parents of children with learning disabilities and began fitting together the puzzle of how my daughter’s mind works.

Quite simply, she has a different brain. She is both a visual and an auditory learner. In fact, research by Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent found as many as 82% of students studied were visual learners like my daughter, who “remember best what they see—pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, demonstrations, etc.”

Yet traditional teaching methods favour verbal learners. Children with learning difficulties in school struggle because they are expected to learn in the same way as people who can ‘sound out’ a new word and best remember information through the language they hear, read and write.

My daughter is learning those difficult diagraphs, however – not by phonics, but by sight; I make her circle the diagraphs in any word she sees.

Labeling children with learning disabilities is misleading. LD lumps together an ocean of issues – dysgraphia, dyslexia, and other challenges – into a single, general problem, when really it depends on the child. For example, a friend’s daughter has dyscalculia and struggles with math and logic, but does very well in writing.

My daughter struggles with learning languages formally in school – but she learned to sing “Let It Go” in Japanese and Spanish by listening to the songs just a couple of times on YouTube. She can copy any drawing she sees and can also draw from imagination, with deft and fluent strokes.

The more I learn about teaching children with learning disabilities, the more I realize that support for learning problems is a fine balance. Instead of sending my daughter to classes after school, I make her play, because free play gets her neurons to fire together, wiring her brain’s executive control centre and building her ability to make connections.

But there’s no dodging formal schooling, exams and standards; I can use visual aids like mind maps and lap books to help her learn, but reading is an important skill.

I no longer ask when she will enjoy a chapter book. Now, the biggest question for me is: How do I reconcile my daughter’s uniqueness with the necessity of retraining her brain to thrive in a school (and society) suited to a narrower interpretation of the world?

A part of me wants her to read, write and ace exams just like every other child. But another part of me treasures her potential to see the world so differently. This child is imbued with the ability to produce such original expressions as: “It’s raining sunshine,” “That baby is pampering around,” or – my personal favourite – “Allah’s studio,” to describe a mosque. They all sound a bit off, and yet, they are her ideas, pure and true to the quirky voice inside her head.

Steven Spielberg, who was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, has said the news was the last piece in a puzzle that had bothered him for decades and explained why he embraced the visual art of movie-making with a certain passion. Spielberg shot most of his movie E.T. from a child’s eye level, so that audiences would connect with the story and with ET. Somehow, I can imagine this perspective comes from a totally different brain.

Which makes me think: If we can find this balance, my daughter and I, the sky might be the only limit for her and other children with learning disabilities.

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