For an increasing number of children returning to school this fall, the experience of learning is a guilt-ridden, fear-inducing and often pointless exercise. The numbers of children considered to have learning difficulties of one sort or another have skyrocketed over the past 25 years, so much so that it’s a rare school these days that hasn’t set up a special-needs unit to deal with the growing numbers of children who cannot follow the ordinary curriculum. Although many reports are unofficial, parallel trends have been reported all over the world.
The broad-brush label ‘learning difficulties’ is used to describe any one of a number of symptoms: difficulty in reading and writing, a short attention span, poor concentration and an inability to retain information. The more severe learning disorders go by the labels ‘dyslexia’ (inability to process words), ‘dyspraxia’ (physical clumsiness), ‘dyscalculia’ (inability to process numbers), attention-deficit disorder (with or without hyperactivity) and even autism. However, more and more children with no obvious learning problems are struggling with the accelerated, fast-paced curriculum of today’s schools.
The diagnosis of learning difficulties is complex as the condition often results from disorders that may have several root causes and a wide range of other symptoms. A child may find it difficult to learn or retain information because of behavioural problems that may be due to as yet unidentified psychological or physical factors. The problems may also be the result of a physical handicap, such as poor hearing or eyesight, that has not yet been recognised in someone so young.
Nevertheless, an increasing body of evidence now shows that the root cause of so-called learning difficulties for the vast majority of children may be biochemical - something fundamental that is either lacking or causing a chemical insult to the body.
The simple and outrageous fact is that children labelled as ‘learning disabled’ may simply have extra needs for certain nutrients, or suffer from one or another food or chemical intolerances, causing a biochemical reaction in the brain. An inappropriate and medical-sounding diagnosis may label a child as somehow mentally defective for life.
Indeed, in many instances, it may be that modern medicine lies at the root of the problem - drugs given too early that have injured the bodies of these children, making them more susceptible to further chemical insults.
In the UK, some 2 per cent of children in the UK between 6 and 16 years of age are diagnosed with ADHD (69,000 severely so), 10 per cent are considered dyslexic (375,000 severely so) and 0.6 per cent are said to have an autistic-spectrum disorder. In the US and Australia, up to 10 per cent of children in both countries are labelled as ADHD. Some researchers estimate that as many as 20 per cent of children in both the UK and US are now considered hard-core problem learners.
In the case of autism, The Lancet presented evidence of a massive 1700 per cent increase in the incidence of autism between 1979 and 1992 (Lancet, 1999; 353: 2026-9).
The medical approach to disorders that give rise to learning difficulties are mostly treated as a social problem or a ‘sick brain’. Doctors tend to treat behavioural aspects with drugs to suppress symptoms and ignore the learning problems, often to the detriment of the child concerned.
Since the 1960s, the drug methylphenidate (MPH), more commonly known as Ritalin, has been prescribed to thousands of children. Currently, up to 20 per cent of all American school-age children, and 10 per cent of Australian children, are taking long-term prescriptions of this drug.