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A third of families have kids with learning disorders

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: December 16, 2003

One in every three American families has had to cope with a child with a learning disability or a mental illness and most people believe such problems are increasing, according to a poll by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

In a national survey of 1,054 people, 65 percent said they believe learning disabilities are becoming more common and 72 percent said mental health problems are becoming more common.

Thirty percent of poll respondents said they have had a child under age 18 in their family _ a brother or sister, son or daughter, niece or nephew, grandchild or first cousin _ diagnosed with a learning disability. Eight percent said they have had more than one child diagnosed with a learning disability.

More than 12 percent said they have had a child in their family diagnosed with a mental illness, and 3 percent said they have had more than one child diagnosed.

"Those are staggering numbers," said Shelly Hearne, executive director of the nonpartisan Trust for America's Health. "The implication is that we have a significant problem out there that we are not adequately addressing."

Inevitably, such disorders take a personal toll on the children and their families and a larger toll on society.

Joan Iovinio, for example, was identified in second grade by school officials as both mentally "gifted" and learning disabled. She liked to read Mark Twain and conduct science experiments with plants. On certain intelligence and aptitude tests, she scored in the top 1 percentile.

When it came to math, however, Iovino felt like she was in a foreign country where everyone spoke a language she didn't understand. All but the simplest calculations were beyond her grasp. The worst was when the teacher would ask students at random to solve an equation.

"I would sit there and think, 'Don't call on me, don't call on me, don't call on me,' " said Iovino, 20, of Bethesda, Md. "At the time, I didn't know why I couldn't do this. I thought, 'What's wrong with me?' At least if another kid got it wrong the answer was sort of close, but I was having to guess at random."

Iovino _ now an honors student at a community college _ was eventually diagnosed with dyscalculia, which is the inability to learn to calculate. By sixth grade, she was in a class for the learning disabled that included severely retarded and emotionally disturbed students. Angry and alienated, she dropped out of school the following year in favor of home schooling.

No one knows for certain why some children have learning disabilities, attention disorders, autism or emotional disorders like anxiety, depression and bipolar.

What's clear is that these disorders appear far more prevalent in children than was generally thought a generation ago. Whether their actual incidence is on the rise is a matter of fierce debate among scientists, parents, educators and doctors.

There is a huge gender gap for many of the disorders. Studies have shown that boys are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. Boys are also two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with attention and learning disorders.

Many children are diagnosed with multiple disorders. About half of children with attention disorders also have at least one learning disability, and more than a third have an emotional disorder like anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, which is characterized by mood swings.

"These labels are like grasping at straws," said Dr. Martha Herbert, a pediatric neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "They are getting at some surface differences among the kids, but they don't get to the deep essence of what's going on with them."

Prescriptions to children and adolescents for psychiatric drugs more than doubled in the decade ending in 1996, according to a study by Dr. Julie Zito of the University of Maryland. Prescriptions for antidepressants used to treat emotional disorders like anxiety, depression and bipolar rose even faster than prescriptions for stimulants used to treat attention and hyperactivity disorders.

Another recent study of pharmaceutical industry data by Yale University researchers found that prescriptions to children and adolescents for anti-psychotic drugs used to treat severe mental illness went up 138 percent and other antidepressants were up 43 percent between 1997 and 2000.

Some parents, scientists and public health advocates are convinced environmental influences ranging from viruses to chemicals such as alcohol, lead, PCBs, pesticides and mercury are interfering with brain development in children.

"This is an epidemic," said Jo Rupert Behm, a nurse and past president of the Learning Disabilities Association of California. Behm's son, Sean, was diagnosed at age 8 with three learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. "The public is only now becoming aware of this."

But some experts believe there is no real increase in the prevalence of any of the disorders, except perhaps autism. Rather, they say there has been a re-labeling of students who are perhaps less intelligent or less industrious to explain their lack of academic success.

Increases in prescription drugs are because of aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical makers, reductions in insurance coverage for mental health counseling, and parents and teachers looking for a quick fix for unruly students, said Arthur Caplan, chairman of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Also, parents seek learning disability diagnoses for their children so they can get extra help or consideration, Caplan said.

"They get more time on tests or it becomes a reason to give an affirmative action look at a school admission," he said. "It tends to be used more as an explanation or an excuse."

Greg Rosenthal, 39, a software developer in Rockville, Md., whose 10-year-old daughter has been diagnosed as both intellectually "gifted" and learning disabled, said he finds the suggestion that some parents use learning disabilities to leverage the educational system "highly offensive."

"No parent wants to have their child coded for a learning disability," Rosenthal said. "When you realize that your child has issues you sort of go through a process that is like grieving ... The idea that someone might seek this to get extra services or some dispensation ignores the whole emotional journey of a parent."