How to help children with ADHD, autism and dyslexia learn better

Theo, 11, loves science, math and exploring the mysteries of the underwater world. He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although he can concentrate intensively on beloved subjects, the ADHD also poses challenges.

“I get distracted easily and often lose my focus,” says Theo. “Removing distractions and having brain breaks—when I get a short amount of time to do what I want—helps.”

Theo is one of many children in the UAE who need extra support at school because they are not learning in the normal way. According to a report published in 2020 in the British medical bulletin, between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s population are neurodiverse, meaning they process the world differently. Neurodiversity includes disorders such as dyslexia, autism and ADHD.

Find out if a child with autism is sensitive to certain sounds or substances, then remove or reduce the sounds that cause discomfort

Eman Abushabab, community awareness manager and behavioral analyst, Dubai Autism Centre

When Theo was officially diagnosed at age eight, it almost came as a relief to his mother, Simone, 35. It meant the family finally had answers and “a starting point to give Theo the extra support he needed,” she says .

But most kids with ADHD symptoms don’t get the right treatment, according to a study published in Jama Network onn last month, acknowledging that there is “an urgent need” to raise awareness.

Dr. Suzette Ebersohn, an educational psychologist at KidsFirst medical center in Abu Dhabi, says there are different types of ADHD. “A child with an inattentive type is often late and forgetful,” she explains. “He or she has difficulty following instructions and finds it difficult to complete tasks if he or she is not interested.

“The kids with the hyperactive-impulsive type often fidget and may move around during a lesson, interrupt others, and generally have excess energy.”

A combination of both types is most common in children with ADHD, she says.

After his diagnosis, Theo received medication and guidance from educational psychologists, occupational therapists and subject teachers at school. He’s made great strides over the years, says Simone, who wants people to know that children with additional needs have their strengths and can thrive with the right support.

Ebersohn says focusing on a child’s strengths and creating an individual education plan are essential. An IEP is a tailored learning program, including classroom activities, strategies for modifying the way the classroom is set up, work assignments, instructions, and tools to meet a child’s needs.

“Focus on a child’s strengths, not the weaknesses,” says Ebersohn. “A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein is: ‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it to be stupid.’”

Cultivating a culture of deep-rooted acceptance in school can open doors for neurodiverse children, says Riya Agnihotri, a teacher who has been supporting children with additional needs in the UAE and UK for more than 20 years.

“There are a million ways to deal with disruptive behavior, but the first should be complete acceptance, love, and warmth,” she says. “Once this is taken care of, the child will grow and thrive both academically and emotionally.”

To fully support children, teaching staff must be properly trained, adds Briony Emery, Head of Inclusion at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.

“Schools need to invest in training to ensure their staff are up to date with Send [special educational needs and disability] in an international context,” said Emery, who compiled her answers in collaboration with BSAK inclusion teachers, Rachel Hinds and Lucy Haverty.

The national spoke to education experts about building a support framework for children with ADHD, autism and dyslexia in school. While this is not a comprehensive list of learning disabilities and every child is different, it provides a snapshot of helpful strategies.

Schedule sensory breaks for children with ADHD

According to Emery and her colleagues, “Regular exercise and sensory breaks help a child relax and cope with the demands of a school day.

“Adults also need to understand the child’s issues with executive functioning — the ability to plan, set goals, and feel motivated — to avoid becoming impatient or expecting more than a student can.

“Finally, they need to provide support for emotional and social needs, often the most challenging thing in school for someone with ADHD.”

Create a routine for children with autism

About one in 100 children has autism, according to the World Health Organization, and autism can vary greatly from child to child. However, common challenges include difficulties with communication, atypical activity and behavior patterns, difficulty making transitions from one activity to another, a focus on detail, and unusual responses to sensations.

Eman Abushabab, community awareness manager and behavior analyst at the Dubai Autism Centre, shares some tips to help an autistic child in mainstream school. “Make a routine and create a visual timetable. This consists of pictures and simple words in chronological order that outline planned daily activities to help the child feel safe and limit anxiety about transitions.

“Think of the learning environment. Teachers should find out if a child is sensitive to certain sounds or substances, for example, and then remove or reduce the discomforts.

“Communicate clearly. Some people with autism find it difficult to interpret meaning, so teachers should avoid metaphors and rhetorical questions and keep instructions simple.”

Use multisensory teaching methods for children with dyslexia

Children with dyslexia have trouble learning words accurately and understanding sentences, says Ebersohn. Signs of dyslexia are often not noticed until the child has reached reading age. Some helpful strategies include having an inclusive classroom environment with built-in support for dyslexic students. “For example, use accessible fonts and make sure the school has age- and interest-appropriate books for all reading ability levels,” says Ebersohn.

Other tips include: using off-white or yellow paper or colored plastic overlays to help children process text and reading rulers to maintain focus; and using multi-sensory learning methods such as creative imagery, songs, dance, and tactile techniques such as forming letters and words using sand or textured fabrics.

Finally, use technology such as spell checkers, text-to-speech software, and audio books to support children in developing their independence and reading skills.

The price parents and students pay

While support and strategies are available, parents should be aware of the potential costs in the UAE. Schools may require parents to pay for one-on-one learning assistants for their child. Health insurance does not always cover the costs of speech therapists, occupational therapists and educational psychologists. Simone, Theo’s mother, adds that coordinating support can be a “huge challenge”.

Another hurdle is the stigma that can surround neurodiverse children, who may feel “different,” Ebersohn says. Children with learning disabilities and their parents may also feel excluded from wider society.

“This can cause emotional distress from low self-esteem,” she says. “However, many children can overcome these challenges with the right strategy, training accommodation and emotional support.

“The more we understand learning disabilities, the less likely we are to hold stigmatizing views.”

Updated: May 23, 2023, 9:34 AM

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