Teaching students with specific learning difficulties and disabilities
Common specific learning difficulties and disabilities and how to support students affected by them.
Types of common specific learning difficulties and disabilities
The word dyslexia comes from the Greek meaning ‘difficulty with words’, which can lead us to consider dyslexia purely in terms of reading and writing. However, it is useful to look beyond this immediate association with words and consider the underpinning cognitive skills which are required in literacy related tasks.
Dyslexia is often linked to difficulty with working memory and visual processing. Therefore, it can be more helpful to recognise that literacy difficulties are the manifestation/presentation of dyslexia and that a student who may have had difficulty learning to read at school, will not automatically struggle with reading to learn at University. The process is simply more exhausting because of the associated difficulties with the organisation, assimilation and recall of information.
Dyslexia is often accompanied by emotional stress linked to trying to conceal difficulties because of fear of embarrassment. Unfortunately, increased stress and anxiety can often make the effects of dyslexia more pronounced and this can create a negative cycle which undermines self-esteem and confidence linked to academic performance.
The terms Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be misleading as they suggest a shortfall or a deficiency in attendance, whereas in reality “it is not that ADDers do not attend - they just attend to everything!” (Derrington, C., 2017). There is also a tendency to associate ADD/ADHD with becoming easily distracted. Again it can be useful to flip this notion and recognise that if your brain ‘attends to everything’, this results in having to work much harder to avoid distraction. This ‘distraction’ can take the form of external stimuli, where environmental factors compete for attention, or the individual’s own thought processes, which can be hard to screen out.
Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC)
Our understanding of ASC is often focussed on the difficulties associated with social communication and social interaction. However, this can lead us to focus on the presentation of difficulties associated with ASC, rather than considering the lived experience which underpins the day to day interactions of many students with ASC.
We all rely on our senses to navigate and make sense of the world. Recent definitions of ASC have been widened in recognition of the fact that many people with ASC experience hyper or hypo (under) -sensitivity linked to the five senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. Therefore, many individuals with ASC often have to work harder to channel out or process environmental factors which may remain un-noticeable to others; noise, smells and even lighting can reduce functioning and make it harder to focus on communication, learning and the actions of day to day life at university.
Some students identify that they can also have a heightened awareness of patterns which leads to greater skills in analysis and seeing the fine detail in their subject. Whilst there is growing recognition that this ability can be viewed as a gift, if this hyper sensitivity or hyper focus remains unmanaged it can lead to increased feelings of exhaustion, anxiety and depression.
We often think of a hearing impairment in terms of the physical hurdle this presents linked specifically to the function of hearing being reduced or removed. However, many of the consequences of a hearing loss or deafness, are, in fact, hidden. Factors such as tiredness caused by the intense concentration needed to lip read, or the stress and distraction caused by associated conditions such as Tinnitus can cause difficulties beyond those that are most apparent.