Updated: Oct 21, 2020
It's absolutely true. There is more hope for parents with special needs children than ever before. But, before we get into that, I need to share a pet peeve with you. I don’t like labels. Largely because in my 14 years of teaching high school I have found them to be both inaccurate and unhelpful. Every child is unique and each is gifted with a purpose. They are NOT a label to be identified for the convenience of other people.
There is a well-traveled cliché in educational circles that if you gathered five pediatricians together and asked them to define ADD/ADHD, you would get seven different opinions. It’s funny ...because it’s true. Despite the almost near absence of scientific consensus concerning these labels, they are often regarded as though they were graven on stone tablets.
Bottom line: ALL children are special needs children. They are ALL special and they ALL need to be educated differently. Period. So, let’s just exchange the labels for what they actually are: "developmental delays."
In the past, parents who had a child with developmental delays were given a mostly hopeless diagnosis. Children were routinely stamped with labels that were often over-diagnosed and decidedly unhelpful in understanding the problem, or finding solutions.
However, in just the last 20 years, neuroscientists have acquired a much greater understanding of (1) how the brain works and (2) how the brain can improve.
These scientific breakthroughs could not be happening at a better time. Consider the following:
Each year, an estimated 1.5 million children (1 out of 6) are diagnosed with autism, Asperger's syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia, or obsessive compulsive disorder.
According to a 2014 report published by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), at least 5.7 million school-age children are affected by some form of learning disability. Their findings also revealed that approximately 4 to 7% had both a learning disability and ADHD.
In 2015, childstats.gov reported that 42.2 million children ages 4-17 used special education services for either serious or minor emotional/behavioral problems.
In 2015, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that there were 6.6 million—or 13% of all public school students—ages 3-21, who were receiving special education services. Among that number, 35% had specific learning disabilities.
These numbers present at least three very important questions…
What is the meaning of these diagnoses'?
What can explain this dramatic increase in neuro-behavioral disorders?
Can they be corrected?
The debate over questions 1 and 2 will likely continue, but the answer to question 3 is a resounding "YES."
In the past, the typical "corrective" response has been:
Medications. Taking them will "help" your child to focus MORE which will then help them to achieve MORE.*
Academics. Completing an ever-increasing AMOUNT of academic work will "help" your child to learn MORE.
Accommodations. Funneling them through a continuum of services will "help" your child compensate for their lack of progress.
*There are legitimate reasons to take medication. The point here is that they have often been over-prescribed as a reflexive response to virtually all instances of developmental delays.
But none of these "corrective" responses actually address the root of the problem.
A developmental delay simply means that one hemisphere of a child's brain has developed faster than the other. The overdeveloped hemisphere compensates for this by attempting to do the job of the underdeveloped hemisphere. Since that hemisphere of the brain was not designed to do those jobs, it performs them poorly. Compounding the problem, neither of the two hemispheres communicate very well with one another.
However, IF the underdeveloped hemisphere becomes sufficiently advanced through appropriate stimulation, both hemispheres can begin the process of communicating (synchronizing) with each other. Consequently, this increased synchronization results in significant improvement…emotionally, mentally, and physically.
And THAT is exactly why there is so much hope. Because change IS possible.
These breakthroughs are largely built upon scientific research from the 1990s that made four key discoveries…and the hope these discoveries represent for children with developmental delays cannot be over-emphasized.
Neuroplasticity. Can occur throughout a person’s life, which means that it is "never too late" to improve.
Invention of the MRI. Allowed scientists to locate the parts of the brain that perform specific functions.
Functions of the brain. Determined that all human functions are distributed either on the right or left hemisphere of the brain.
Functional Disconnection Syndrome (FDS). The root cause of all developmental delays.
Additional research from the 1990s revealed…
Stimulation and training can change the brain both physically and chemically.
Brain cells can grow larger and the spaces between them can become smaller.
Additional connections can be formed and activated, which increases the brain’s processing speed.
Norman Doidge, MD, FRCP, The Brain That Changes Itself (2007) …the use of brain exercises generally, has MAJOR IMPLICATIONS for education… The idea that THE BRAIN is like a muscle that GROWS WITH EXERCISE is not just a metaphor… The brain is ALWAYS LEARNING to learn.
However, harnessing the brain’s neuroplasticity to stimulate beneficial change requires two things:
Exact stimuli delivered in the appropriate sequence with precise timing.
The training must be intensive, repetitive, and progressively challenging.
To achieve maxim improvement, the combination and timing of the stimuli is critical:
The body must be physically stimulated to strengthen connectivity between the two hemispheres of the brain.
Strengthening connectivity requires the consumption of appropriate nutrition and supplementation to support the development of the central nervous system and brain.
Customized academic stimulation is also needed to activate the underdeveloped hemisphere of the brain while leaving the overdeveloped hemisphere mostly untouched.
In my next post, I will discuss (1) what are primitive reflexes? (2) the essential role they play as the root cause of developmental delays and (3) what can be done to address them. You can also check out our additional resources here.