(Mis)understanding Learning Disabilities (LD)

Over the last few years there seems to have been an enormous leap in explanations for Learning Disabilities (LD).  There is talk of genetic predisposition, drug therapy, processing times (e.g. slow auditory processing), brain imaging techniques and findings, quantified EEGs, brain biofeedback, sound therapy, light therapy, and many others. Each new avenue quickly gains a following of professionals offering help. 

 

In the midst of all this, one might wonder if the ‘old-fashioned’ belief in movement programmes is outdated.  With all the computerized programmes, new therapies and drugs that speed up processing times being more and more widespread, can we motivate the belief in the power of movement programmes?  Why does Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) still achieve such good results, even though the approach is neither supported by technology nor uses sophisticated equipment?

 

The answer lies in the simple truth that LD is not just a cognitive (intellectual) deficit.  A really close look at children identified has having LD will show that they also have significantly high deficits in several motor (movement) areas.  This was supported by research in England, which suggested that very refined, accurate tests of balance might be a quick way of screening for LD[1].

 

Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) finds that movement training is wonderfully beneficial.  It refines and speeds up kinesthetic (feeling of movement) processing as well as auditory processing, visual processing and the integration of all three to produce balanced, calmer individuals who become more proficient in reading, spelling, maths and writing.

 

ILT sees that the learning problem is in the brain of children who have difficulties – not because of lack of intelligence.  The brain ‘wiring’ is faulty or incomplete, leading to neurological disorganization.  Look at the behaviour of a child with LD.  They can be seen to reflect the disorganized neural networks in their brains with their disorganized ways of trying to learn and cope with the demands of home and school.  They are struggling with information that is not getting through from skin, body, ears and eyes to the brain, or they are processing the information too slowly, or it may be scrambled along the way.  Some children may be hearing only part of a word or sentence and, to make matters worse, what they do hear may be processed slowly and is confusing.  They don’t hear full instructions from teachers and parents.

 

To add insult to injury, their two brain hemispheres may not be working together.  You can see signs of this in school-aged children: they don’t automatically know their left from their right, they can’t do more than one thing at a time, handwriting and producing written work is tedious and really hard because they struggle to organize themselves or their work.  Not surprisingly, they become frustrated with the daily effort and may have meltdowns.  Simply put, LD children are usually working much, much harder than their more ‘learning ready’ classmates.

 

The good news is that we can speed up the rate at which information reaches the brain and is correctly processed.  Brain networks can be reinforced to be more stable – and we do this with the knowledge that the brain is plastic and in a constant state of change throughout our lifespans.

 

As is true of other countries around the world, it is unlikely that our South African government will increase resources to help those with learning difficulties in the near future.  We do, however, have resources in the form of trained people who can help introduce movement and perceptual training into school programmes.  Several schools around our country use ILT as part of the school day to help – and the amazingly successful results speak for themselves.  If you’re interested in knowing which schools these are, contact us at info@ilt.co.za.

 

ILT practitioners around the country try to help LD children but the ideal would be to have programmes in the schools.  Schools should be the place where immature children are given the chance to catch up.  Appropriate exercises can be done daily in the classrooms.  With the right attitude, schools can use these professionals and helpful parents to improve the learning of LD and other learners. 

 

This is why we offer courses to empower teachers, parents and other helping professionals to share the knowledge and acquire the skills needed to implement such programmes.  If you are a parent of an LD child or teach LD children in your classroom, then the first step in truly would be to study what we know and have been successfully implementing for nearly 20 years.

 

More information can be found on the website www.ilt.co.za or write to info@ilt.co.za.

 

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[1] Angela Fawcett, in Pheloung, B. Help your class to learn. Manly: Australia.

Probiotics – why all the sudden hype?

Probiotic has become a new buzzword after seldom having been heard by most of us during our growing years.  The reason for the hype is that they are very necessary for our physical and mental health.  So important, in fact, that they have been termed a ‘new essential food group’[1].  It is possible that in the past, our diets, lifestyles and medications were less harmful to the population of probiotics that we need in our body.  That’s most likely the reason that we haven’t all been as aware of their importance as we are of other food groups, namely proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

 

The term ‘probiotics’ is derived from the Greek: pro as in ‘promoting’ and biotic, meaning ‘life’.  It is a term covering a wide range of different microbes that live in our digestive tracts and doesn’t only refer to the limited few commonly found in or added to some foods, such as natural yoghurt, aged cheese, the recently popular kefir drinks, and so on.  Because our foods might not include all the probiotic strains that we need and because anti-biotics and other medications tend to destroy healthy probiotics, we often don’t have enough of them to really function well.  This also means that other, potential harmful, bacteria can multiply and thrive, causing an imbalance.

 

The result is obviously that our digestive system suffers but the impact goes further.  Our immune system relies on probiotics for proper functioning and if we lack a sufficient supply, our immune system begins to overreact, cause inflammation, allergies, intolerances and frequent illnesses.  A faulty immune system can also turn against the body’s own cells, causing autoimmune disorders, such as eczema, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, asthma, colitis, Crohn’s disease and even ‘ADHD’ [2].

 

Because foods containing probiotics are no longer part of our diets – for example, naturally fermented vegetables – and other popular foods such as sugar encourage the growth of harmful microbes – many of us resort to supplements to try and maintain a healthy gut.  This might not be enough because in order to thrive, probiotics need certain nutrients.  These are called prebiotics. 

 

Every time we eat, even if it’s a quick snack, we tinker with the delicate balance of microbes in our bodies.  We should concentrate on feeding the healthy probiotics while starving the bad microbes.  The best prebiotic is dietary fibre, which is found in fruit, vegetables and whole grains.  We can’t digest fibre but probiotic microbes thrive on it.  Prebiotics can also be found in certain fats, tea, herbs and spices, red wine and dark chocolate. 

 

Many children try to avoid eating the foods their bodies most need.  Because of this, our ‘picky’ eaters are most in need of supplementation.  And it is not surprising that many of these children are prone to health conditions, including brain health, like attention and learning problems.  This can make the situation even worse because frequent bouts of sinusitis, colds, chest complaints, ear infections and the like often result in a prescription for antibiotics, once again depleting the probiotic population.

Taking probiotics with antibiotics

 

Keep in mind that even though your doctor may prescribe a course of probiotics along with an antibiotic, the way you take these may make a difference.  When taking an antibiotic, protect the microflora in the following ways:

  • Once the medication begins, take a total of two or more doses of probiotics during the day.  Don’t consume them with the antibiotics.  If they’re in the stomach at the same time the probiotics will be killed by the antibiotics.  Keeping the digestive system supplied with probiotics is difficult, because many will be killed by the antibiotics even if they are taken separately.
  • Try to eat a wide variety of probiotics.  A supplement should preferably contain at least 10 billion CFU (Colony-forming units, or otherwise, live microbes) and hopefully more than six different probiotic strains.
  • Eating prebiotics to support the probiotics is important.  Try to avoid refined carbohydrates (bread, flour, sugars, pastas, cookies, cakes, etc). This supports the probiotics and helps them compete against the harmful bacteria.
  • Continue taking at least one extra dose of probiotics per day for at least a week after the antibiotic course is finished.  Even though the medication has stopped, there is still quite a battle going on in the gut.

 

What probiotic supplements to buy?

 

You’ll find plenty of probiotics in chemists and health food shops, not to mention on-line suppliers.  It is, however, best to buy supplements from a source where they’re kept under refrigeration.  Also consider if the shop is likely to sell these products regularly and replenish stocks often. Unlike vitamin pills, probiotic supplements contain living organisms.  If they’re not properly stored or stored for too long, they can die even before you buy them. Keeping them cold helps prolong their lives.

 

You’ll also need to choose a reputable brand.  Here it may be wise to ask the advice of your pharmacist or do an on-line search for the company producing the product.   Even then, you don’t have any guarantee that products actually contain the stains listed on the label, or that the microbes are still viable, or that they’re free from contamination.  Sadly, some American studies have shown that ineffective products are common.

 

Companies that also produce medications or food may be better sources of a supplement because they are generally held to strict standards for their products.  Manufacturers may include references on their websites to scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals or state that they’ve submitted their products to independent laboratories for testing.

 

Check the expiry date.

 

Look for the number of CFUs in the supplements.  You need at least 10 billion of six or more strains.

 

Finally, be very cautious of cheaper products.  You usually pay more for capsules or packets that contain more CFU and more strains.  This, and assured quality, means that the higher priced options may just be money well spent.

 

The recommendations in this post have been based on scientific opinion but aren’t meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  You may want to speak to your medical doctor about these issues before giving your children or yourself probiotic supplements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Dr Gary Huffnagle, 2007, The probiotics revolution. Vermilion: London

[2] Dr Amy Myers, 2015, The Autoimmune Solution. HarperCollins: New York

Are drugs the best treatment for attention problems?

So many parents are being told that their children have concentration problems, can’t focus or show limited attention span.  Along with these descriptors, they hear that their child daydreams, fails to complete tasks, loses things, fidgets excessively and so on.

 

Seeking medical help usually results in a prescription for a stimulant drug, such as Ritalin, Concerta and Strattera.  We do know that behaviour can be changed using certain drugs.  On Ritalin, for example, children are better able to pay attention, stay on task and sit still but the results are temporary; only with repeated dosages and sustained-release tablets will the benefits last all day.  Increasing the dosage over time brings risk of potential side effects even if these don’t show immediately and prolonged use should be discouraged because of uncertainty about long-term effects.   In addition, the drugs don’t address the basic problem.  They may make children easier to manage but don’t make them smarter or happier.  Children don’t learn any better when on medication – in fact, their work may show a lack of thought and originality.  They help the children get through the day in a mechanistic way but don’t make them better prepared for tomorrow.  Unfortunately, the drugs are often used alone, with no on-going programme to help the child in other ways.  In short, they may be the quickest and easiest ‘solution’ for children with attention problems but they aren’t the best.

Parents – trust your gut!

It’s the end of another term and with that comes the report from school.  Now, as parents, you have to read what one or more other human beings think of your child.  This can be a pleasure but can also cause confusion and even concern.  How seriously should you take the schools’ verdict on your child’s performance, behaviour, growing personality and abilities?

Is food the cause of my child’s problems?

We’ve known for a long time that food can cause us problems.  The well-known adage ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’ was reportedly said by Herodotus in 460 BC.  Later, Hippocrates identified that stomach and skin complaints could be caused by drinking milk.  Yet the link between the food we consume and children’s problems remains stubbornly ignored by many.  Inattention is seen to be the result of ‘unbalanced brain chemicals’ or a symptom of a mental disorder (ADHD).  This is in spite of much evidence that attention and other typical challenges (can’t complete tasks; loses focus; is aggressive; can’t follow instructions  etc) may well be linked to brain function that is disrupted by food substances.

Children not paying attention? Get them moving!

There is a reason why some children are so restless in class.  They are showing a need to move.   While this need may be rooted in some irregularities in the functioning of their nervous systems, it may also be a sign that they need to move in order to focus better on their teacher and schoolwork.  What is this connection between moving and attention?

 

There isn’t any single part of the brain that controls our attention. Instead, attention happens as a result of a web of neural connections that transports signals throughout the brain to wake it up and cue our attention.  This network includes areas such as the reward centre, the limbic (emotional) system, the cerebral cortex (the highest level of the brain where learning and thought takes place) and the cerebellum (the ‘small brain’ responsible for our coordinated movements, amongst other things).  It turns out that there is a lot of overlap between consciousness (i.e. being awake), attention and movement.

 

The neural pathways that enable us to pay attention are regulated by two neurotransmitters: norephinephrine and dopamine.  These are the chemicals targeted by ADHD medications, which stimulate the release of more chemicals being released into the brain synapses.   According to Dr John Ratey[1] the problem for people with attentional challenges (‘ADHD’) is that their attention system is patchy, discontinuous, fragmented and uncoordinated.  The reason might be that the neurotransmitters responsible for efficient transport of impulses through the attention circuits are dysfunctional.  Another reason is that there can be irregular functioning in any one of the brain areas that form part of the attention circuits.  The trouble with the medications is that they are mind-altering drugs with as yet unknown long-term effects and some serious side-effects.  Don’t we have an alternative?

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