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Learning Disabilities (LDs)
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
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May 2023 Newsletter
Latest News | Families & Adults | Educators & Employers | And More!
A Neurodivergent Lens: Study Participants Needed
A Neurodivergent Lens: Recommended Practices for Neuroinclusivity – Be a study participant in this research project which is developing best practices in setting inclusive standards for Canada.
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April 2023 Newsletter
Latest News | Families & Adults | Educators & Employers | And More!
Join us at an Upcoming Event
EXPERT: Randy Kulman, PhD This webinar examines the benefits and risks of digital play and video games for neurodivergent kids. It will focus on children diagnosed with ADHD, ASD, and […]
This webinar will be led by dyslexic and ADHD educator and vice principal Michael Karras who will discuss how to help your student with dyslexia transition to high school. This […]
EXPERT: Dr. Sharon Saline Do they need aggressive reminders to begin tasks — especially those they’ve put off for as long as possible? Is it almost always a struggle to […]
Recent Informational Articles
Learn more about LDs and ADHD, and find helpful information and insights on the assessment, diagnosis and management of these learning and attention challenges.
It’s Not Just Autism
The term neurodiversity has increased in popularity in recent years and is frequently seen on the internet, especially on social media. Neurodiversity, or being “neurodiverse,” is used to describe autistic individuals or autistic behaviours. While autism is one type of neurodiversity, it is not the only type. Judy Singer, an autistic woman, created the term neurodiversity to describe how people experience and engage with the world differently due to brain differences. This includes people with ADHD and learning disabilities (LD), as well as autism and other neurodevelopmental differences like Tourette’s.
One of the reasons she coined this term was to celebrate individual differences and to encourage broader society to acknowledge how we all benefit from the unique perspectives of neurodivergent individuals. The concept of biodiversity, the diversity of all animals and living organisms on earth influenced her in this. Neurodiversity recognizes the similar importance of different types of brains for a thriving human society.
Neurodiversity includes everyone. The idea is not another category to divide people but a way to encourage inclusivity. Individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities such as ADHD, LD, or autism have differences in their brain functioning that make it difficult to access certain aspects of society. This can make them feel excluded and unvalued. In contrast, neurodiversity highlights the importance of including these individuals as equal, valued members of society. Doing things differently than the current norm is not necessarily bad.
It’s Not A Flaw
Research supports that neurodiverse individuals’ brains function differently; however, neurodiversity is not a medical term or a diagnosis. It is a social term. The neurodiversity movement has helped to shift to a more balanced view of neurodevelopmental differences that highlights both strengths and difficulties of neurodiverse people. We especially appreciated the description by Aiyana Balin, an autism care professional and disability rights advocate, that the neurodiversity movement does not deny that these disorders are disabilities in our current society, but it does combat the view that they are flaws or something that diminishes their value or personhood.
It is about understanding differences in patterns of strengths and difficulties that neurodivergent individuals experience. We can use this perspective to encourage a more flexible approach to supporting neurodivergent people. Individual differences play an important role in a thriving society, making it essential to include and welcome diverse individuals. If everyone is expected to think and act in the same way, we limit creativity and miss opportunities for growth and perspectives that may help us to find innovative solutions to problems.
It’s More Than Just Challenges
When someone is diagnosed with ADHD or learning disabilities, we often focus on the challenges they experienced. This makes sense because individuals typically seek out information or receive an ADHD and/or LD diagnosis because challenges have interfered with their ability meeting their goals. Understanding these challenges is an important aspect in determining supports, but focusing only on the difficulties can leave us with an overly negative view of ADHD and learning disabilities that can negatively affect people with these disabilities. Taking a neurodiverse approach allows psychologists, teachers, parents, and the individual themselves to simultaneously support their needs and celebrate their strengths. Additionally, a neurodiverse perspective can help challenge stigmas about ADHD and LD. Celebrating neurodiversity does not downplay the challenges they face, but it provides a more balanced view.
It’s Got Positives
Unfortunately, it can be hard to find information about specific strengths in those with ADHD and LD. A small study by Sedgwick and colleagues interviewed adult males with ADHD to understand common positive aspects of ADHD. These adults with ADHD viewed their strengths as including adventurousness, energy, divergent thinking, and hyper-focus. The participants felt that having ADHD increased their creativity because it increased the number of ideas they had and helped them think “outside the box.” They explained that having ADHD also made it easier to take risks to try new experiences. While some individuals with ADHD will agree with these findings and see these strengths within themselves, others will not. This is only one small study so it can’t capture everyone’s experience. Just like most things, having ADHD is not a universal experience. It is complex with many possible combinations of strengths, symptoms, and behaviours.
There is even less research focusing on strengths for those with learning disabilities, but one study examined character strengths of students with LD and demonstrated that those students exhibited love of learning, honesty, fairness, appreciating beauty, and excellence. Even though they are likely to struggle with specific aspects of learning, they also have strengths that can support their learning and to contribute to the broader classroom.
Because of limited research on the strengths of individuals with ADHD and LD, these positive characteristics are not often ignored. However, personal accounts can also focus attention on strengths and encourage a neurodiverse perspective of LD and ADHD. This can provide a more balanced view of brain differences and potentially reduce the stigma around having ADHD or LD. Philip Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, has a learning disability in reading (often referred to as dyslexia). In Shultz’s memoir “My Dyslexia” he explores his strengths and struggles with dyslexia and how it influenced him as a writer. Jessica McCabe, a popular ADHD YouTuber, created a video celebrating her 10 favourite things about having ADHD. She listed creativity, enthusiasm, spontaneity, and resiliency as some of the positive aspects of her ADHD. Thousands commented in agreement of these ADHD strengths and shared ADHD-related strengths of their own. Shultz and McCabe’s experiences are only two examples of how ADHD and LD brain differences can have positive effects. Neither of these individuals denied the challenges they faced because of their differences, but they also understood their strengths and how ADHD or LD shaped who they are.
It’s Just a Difference
Having brain differences, like LD, ADHD, or autism, is not a personal flaw or failure. Neurodiversity helps us to remember this by directing us to respect and value differences in brains as a vital part of our society. The next time you hear or read the term neurodiversity, remember that while it includes autistic individuals, it encompasses others including those with LD and ADHD. Neurodiversity empowers us to be proud of the uniqueness that we all contribute to our world.
What’s the right question? How does special needs coding work in Alberta schools, what can it do for your child with a Learning Disability or ADHD, and what do you need to know about high school graduation and transition to college or university?
Alberta Education Disability Codes
First, let’s talk about codes. Education disability codes are unique to Alberta (other provinces do not use this system and have other processes to determine eligibility for additional support). 54 is for a Learning Disability, 58 is for a medical disability, which can include ADHD but not always, and if your child happens to have both a LD and ADHD, they may be coded with a 59 for a Multiple Disability. Codes are supposed to be applied to a student’s file by the school administration based on an assessment by a qualified professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or physician. They can’t be applied based on a teacher’s reading or math assessment or because you as a parent want them to be; there must be a proper assessment.
Do I share the assessment?
Since the coding relies on an assessment, and if you paid for that assessment, you are able to decide whether or not to share it with the school. Sometimes, parents don’t agree with everything an assessment discovers because they have seen their child perform some behaviour that they didn’t perform for the examiner. And it’s true, this is a snapshot and won’t capture every detail about your child’s functioning. But a well written assessment report also presents the findings in ranges to cover the possibility that there may typically be more (or less) than what your child accomplished during the testing sessions. This is also why some psychologists like to do classroom visits, interview the parents and teachers, and send surveys and behaviour rating scales to both since they have much more information and insight to offer.
If you agree with most of what the report presents, share this important information with the school. Teachers are not mind-readers, and rather than experimenting to figure out what exactly is preventing your child from learning as easily as others, help them along by sharing the findings. The assessment report will detail what your child does well, what they struggle with, how to help them and if their struggles are severe enough to qualify for the designation of a specific learning disability or ADHD. Not sharing the results will mean your child will not get the support they need to succeed.
IPP Accommodations vs Modifications
Once the school applies the appropriate code, the next step is to create an Individual Program Plan (IPP) sometimes also called an Individual Education Plan (IEP) or a Learning Support Plan (LSP) depending on the school division you live in. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s a roadmap of how your child will be accommodated so they can learn more easily and show progress. Let’s clarify what an accommodation versus a modification is, though. An accommodation means your child will meet regular curricular outcomes but perhaps the information is presented differently by the teacher or the child can use alternate methods of showing their learning. They might also use a screen reader if they have reading difficulties, speech-to-text software if their printing is problematic, or a behaviour chart with rewards, a wobbly stool instead of a chair, more frequent brain breaks, extra time on exams, a separate testing room, noise-cancelling headphones, etc. The important point is that they are learning the same information and skills as the other children in their class.
A modification, on the other hand, is a significant change in what your child is allowed to learn because they are deemed not to have the capacity for it; they are NOT going to learn the same curricular outcomes. This is the difference between learning your multiplication tables in another format, versus not learning them at all. If your child has a LD, they should only be getting accommodations, not modifications.
Are there benefits to coding?
Coding comes with services and supports. Firstly, it’s the classroom accommodations, but depending on the type and severity of your child’s difficulties, it could also include pull-out sessions for extra instruction, the services of an aide, speech-language or occupational therapy, assistive technology, special furniture, or even smaller classes with more targeted instruction specifically for LD students. These supports and services do depend on the capacity of the teacher and the school to provide them, but they can only provide them with a code and an IPP. This is true whether your child is in Grade 4 or Grade 11.
Is Coding Really Necessary in High School?
Unfortunately, some parents have erroneously decided that having a code in high school is detrimental to their child’s current and future success. Since no parent would want to remove supports that help their child’s progression towards achieving a high school diploma and graduating (and their continuing journey to college or university), there are obviously some myths breathing life into this idea. Let’s unpack each one and see what is actually happening.
- Having any kind of disability code will prevent admittance into post-secondary. False. The Alberta coding system is only for students in Kindergarten to Grade 12. Post-secondaries don’t use codes at all. So if your teen had a code in high school, it doesn’t transfer anywhere after they graduate. If your young adult wants accommodations for their LD or ADHD after high school, they need to apply at their institution’s accessibility office and start the process from the beginning. They need their assessment report to prove they have a learning difficulty or ADHD (though every institution has different requirements as to how current it needs to be so check their websites), and they can choose to show their IPP for past accommodations (or not), but codes mean nothing anymore.
- Coded students only get high school diplomas that don’t qualify for admittance to a post-secondary. Nope. An Alberta High School Diploma is based on required courses to be completed and credits earned, not whether the student was coded. However, earning a high school diploma isn’t an automatic guarantee of post-secondary acceptance either. Institutions have specific requirements for their programs and it’s certainly possible that your teen didn’t choose the correct courses. For example, the high school diploma only requires a 20-level Math (usually Grade 11) to graduate, but a post-secondary engineering program will require a 30-level Math for application.
- The Certificate of High School Achievement is the same thing as a High School Diploma. Big NO. The certificate requires fewer credits, and fewer courses of a far less academic nature to be completed (-2, -3, -4 courses). This certificate is for students who really struggle in academic subjects and are steered towards more occupational type experiences. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s a simple transition to technical programs like at SAIT, either. You can check with a high school counsellor to determine if your teen is on their way to a Certificate or a Diploma.
- Students with disability codes are not allowed to take -1 courses. Wrong. -1 courses are the most academic ones a high school can offer but that in no way precludes a student with a LD or ADHD from taking them. However, if your teen was diagnosed in high school, rather than elementary or even junior high, they have probably struggled (quietly) for a long time and have missed developing strong academic skills along the way. It will make a -1 course more challenging but not inaccessible. They could decide to get extra help through a school learning strategist, tutor or academic coach. They could take fewer courses per semester to give them more time to learn the material and make it up with a summer course. They could decide to take a -2 course to gain more basic skills and then move up into a -1 so they have the requirements needed for their post-secondary future. This route will also extend their high school years to 4 but at least they will have a full high school diploma and a post-secondary future to pursue.
- They shouldn’t need codes, IPPs, accommodations or supports by high school anymore. Not true. A Learning Disability or ADHD are life-long conditions and how they impact your child will change as your child grows, matures and experiences life. High school will be full of new challenges and though their code might not change, their IPP, accommodations and supports should. What worked well in elementary (having a scribe) may be unnecessary in middle school (now using speech-to-text software) but will require formal testing accommodations for Diploma exams in Grade 12. More importantly, this is an excellent time for your teen to gain skills in advocating for themselves which they will need to do in college or university. Once they turn 18, they are now considered an adult and your role as a direct parental advocate in their education comes to an end. Your teen in high school will still need to learn as much as they can about how to manage their disability which is best done with guidance and support.
Ultimately, coding in high school can continue to be advantageous to your teen, so this is not really the issue. Rather, it’s figuring out which course progression will lead to the desired graduation results, and which accommodations will best support those results for your teen’s future success.
Calgary’s Poet Laureate, besides delivering a visceral spoken word performance, was open about sharing his struggles with addiction, mental health and relationships throughout his youth and as an adult with ADHD. Though he is now many miles away in a better space, it was a potent reminder that early identification and support can make a huge difference in the trajectory of a life.
This same message was clear throughout the documentary film “The Disruptors”, which followed five families with ADHD. Despite initial disbelief, misunderstandings and many trials, parents came to an important turn on the ADHD journey (though some sooner than others), aptly summed up by expert Dr. Russell Barkley, “Accept the child you have, and not the one you thought you wanted…and focus on the relationship.” Easier said than done, but not impossible and ultimately the best strategy. And though this film focused on ADHD, many of the same experiences resonated with families of children with Learning Disabilities.
Professional help in the shape of psychologists, therapists, literacy coaches, doctors and knowledgeable educators and agencies exist to make ADHD & LD journeys better ones. Some of that help was available through our information table hosts and our expert panel answering questions from the audience.
A special Thank You! to our table hosts:
CanLearn, CADDAC, Calgary Academy, Foothills Academy, Rundle Academy, Amicus Recreation, SAIT, Mount Royal University and St. Mary’s University.
Hope to see you next year!
About The Learning Disability
& ADHD Network
The Learning Disabilities and ADHD Network is a collaborative of a broad group of organizations and individuals in Calgary, which is operated through Foothills Academy Society.
Members of this long-standing Network regularly present at conferences, provide workshops and courses, undertake research projects in the field, collaborate with each other on various initiatives, and jointly create content for the website. Most importantly,
we are people whose lives have been touched by Learning Disabilities & ADHD, and whose life’s work it has been to support individuals with learning and attention challenges.
Disclaimer: The Learning Disabilities & ADHD Network does not support, endorse or recommend any specific method, treatment, product, remedial centre, program, or service provider for people with Learning Disabilities or ADHD. It does, however, endeavour to provide impartial and, to the best of our knowledge, factual information for persons with Learning Disabilities and/or ADHD.