Neglect and learning disabilities


As a tutor, I deal with lots of children with learning disabilities, some more severe than others. After looking at the background of some of these kids, it’s clear that there’s a certain causality to these developmental delays.

Let’s look at a generic example. He was adopted from an orphanage  at the age of 2 from a country not exactly known for its world-class orphanages. He’s currently 15 years old, likes sports, and is bit of a slapstick comedian (a lot of falling over and the like). He probably has the intellectual level of an average seven year old and his social, emotional and physical development is nowhere near where it should be. He has many symptoms which might suggest autism spectrum disorder (that’s the way this armchair psychiatrist sees it, anyway).

This child is in Grade 9, can’t spell the word “told” or write a coherent sentence. Yet he is expected to understand and apply such concepts as linear equations, atomic numbers and Shakespearean literature before the year is complete.

I am at a complete loss as to how to deal with something like this. My “specialty” is math and physics. I am used to helping students understand and apply linear equations and atomic numbers. I am unfortunately not prepared to help a 15 year old write a paragraph. In fact, I tried to do this. It took approximately 30 minutes to coax three sentences out of him. It is extremely frustrating to see someone like this who (in my opinion) is not getting the appropriate level of attention.

I am interested in how to combat a disability such as this, but the easiest way to do so is prevention. So why do severe disabilities like this happen, and what can be done to minimize their effects?

Enter the “Still Face experiment“.

The video is narrated by researcher Edward Tronick, and demonstrates what can happen when an infant is (emotionally) neglected for short periods of time. In the video, we see the stark contrast in behavior when a mother is engaged with her infant, and when she does not present any facial cues to her child. When the infant does not receive any feedback from her mother, she becomes distressed very quickly. As Dr. Tronick says at the end of the video:” The good is that normal stuff that goes on, the stuff we do for our kid….The ugly is when you don’t give the child any chance to get back to the good, there’s no reparation, and they’re stuck in that really ugly situation.”

In 1957, psychologist Harry Harlow began a series of experiments with the aim of studying how isolation affects the  development of baby rhesus monkeys. In these experiments, Dr. Harlow isolated the infant monkeys to varying degrees. Jonah Lehrer summarizes the effect on the monkeys in his book “How We Decide“: ” …the babies suffered from a tragic list of side effects. The brain was permanently damaged so that the monkeys…didn’t know how to deal with others, sympathize with strangers or behave in a socially acceptable manner”. In Harlow’s words, “It’s as if the animals were programmed to seek out love”. As Lehrer points out, when the isolated monkeys grew up and had children of their own, they “perpetuated the devastating cycle of cruelty. When their babies tried to cuddle, they would push them away. The confused infants would try again and again, but to no avail”.

Unfortunately, this perpetual cycle  is seen all too often in humans, and this neglect affects not only social and emotional development (as evidenced by the development of children in Romanian orphanages in the 1970s, as discussed in Lehrer’s book), but intellectual development as well. A 2001 study in the journal Pediatrics found that children who were referred to child protection services at some point in their first four years had delayed cognitive development and smaller head sizes compared to other children. In addition, parental risk factors (such as marital status, maternal age and education) were far more likely predictors of neglect than biological risk factors such as birth weight.

I guess I can rack this information up as future parenting advice, and it does tell me why certain children I deal with are as delayed as they are, but it doesn’t tell me how to deal with them. How do you educate a kid like the one I described at the beginning of the post? Moreover, how do you stop it from happening in the first place? Unfortunately, it is hard to break the cycle of neglect. By the time children are old enough to go to school, their development has been severely delayed, and it becomes difficult to make up for the neglect of the past. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the different approaches to special education. I suppose I have some reading to do…


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