Dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism spectrum

Dr. Madeleine Portwood on how families can recognise the symptoms


We talk to Dr. Madeleine Portwood, director of clinical services and specialist in education psychology and clinical psychology at Ebdaah, about the ins and outs of these conditions.

Tell us a little bit about each condition - Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Autism Spectrum
These conditions are all neurodevelopmental difficulties and have common roots. They may be mild or severe within an individual, who may also exhibit more than one of them. They tend to be more common in boys than girls, and within a family there may be more than one manifestation.

Dyslexia – specific problems with written language skills (reading and spelling).

Dyspraxia – problems in planning and execution, poor motor coordination, attention and perception.

Autism Spectrum Disorder – impaired social and communication skills. ADHD can manifest itself as hyperactivity, impulsivity and/or attentional problems.

What are the signs that a child may have any of these problems?
A diagnosis should be obtained from an expert, since there are many factors that might indicate a problem. Some of the more common ones are listed below:

From birth children may show hyper or hypoactivity and be extremely irritable with feeding problems.

They may require constant attention and have poor weight gain.

There may be evidence of delayed milestones, such as independent sitting, crawling and walking. The majority of dyspraxic youngsters fail to go through the crawling stage, preferring to bottom-shuffle before they walk independently, usually between 16 and 18 months of age.

They may well have difficulty acquiring language skills, or may be developing well but suddenly plateau.

In school, they may be frequently in trouble (not due to poor training and lax discipline), and their oral ability does not match their written output.

They may be able to read or remember something one day then the next day have ‘lost’ the learning.

What can parents do if they suspect their child may suffer from a condition?
Whether or not the parent suspects their child has a difficulty of some kind, all parents can support their child’s development by giving them the opportunities they need to practise skills. For this, it is important to understand the stages that children go through as they develop, and to provide lots of opportunities and experiences. That doesn’t necessarily mean hiring a tutor, but spending time with their child talking, reading books together, playing and exercising, as well as providing healthy diets and setting up good sleeping patterns.

In these things, prevention is better than cure. But if a parent suspects there may be a problem, then it is important to intervene early. And parents are often the ones who spot from a very early stage that there is something not quite right about their child. Friends and professionals will want to offer reassurance but parents would benefit more from an acknowledgement of these difficulties so should seek advice from suitably qualified professionals.

What symptoms or downfalls can parents face if they don’t seek help for their child?
When conditions are left without treatment and support, children will experience failure and frustration that will ultimately result in poor self-esteem that could lead to mental health issues. Individuals react in different ways, but typically result in one of three possibilities:

Defiance – developing behavioural issues; becoming confrontational

Detachment – losing all interest in education; opting out

Distress – becoming increasingly withdrawn or depressed.

Are they conditions for life or can they be cured?
These conditions are always with an individual, but much can be done to help and reduce their impact.For many, knowing how their mind and body works enables them to make adjustments and wise choices in life that avoid some of the more challenging aspects to them.

Exercises, changes in diet and lifestyle, and technology can enable an individual to manage very well. A focus on a person’ abilities rather than disabilities also helps, but this requires society to shift. We would all hope to be treated in the same way, with opportunities provided based on what we can do, rather than being excluded from opportunity because of what we can’t do.

What professional advice do you give parents?
By the time that a parent decides it’s important for their child to see an educational psychologist, they will have concerns about a whole range of issues. It may be the child’s learning or their emotional wellbeing.

The role of the psychologist is first of all to listen to the parents’ concerns and on that basis, examine the child, then work specifically with the parents to improve the child’s outcomes. A parent is the person with the greatest responsibility for the child since the child is in school for only 13 per cent of the time.

The first part of the assessment is getting to know the child. Then we undertake very specific assessments to see whether for example they have difficulties just with learning, with processing, with language, and so on. By finding the key to the problem, we can be much more successful in determining how that child can best be helped. We would then provide programmes to support in those areas that have been identified.

How much help would they need each day?
This varies depending on the severity of the condition and what the individual is required to do. Skilled helpers know when and where the child needs support and what that support looks like. But they should always be mindful that they are supporting the child to develop their own skills, and are providing a helping hand to get over any barriers created by the condition. To use a different example, a visually impaired person may need help from a seeing individual where sight is required, but not to think and speak for them. Their helper would also need to help them learn the skills to manage in their absence so they are capable of independent activity.

How do conditions affect a family’s life?
As above, this varies depending on the severity of the condition and what the individual is required to do. Some things may take longer or need more preparation that needs to be built in. Families may need to adjust their communication to help the child with difficulties, and recognise where anxiety might arise. Provide routines and predictability, particularly with preparing for sleep or something new. Give visual supports in the form of charts and pictures.
Dr Madeleine Portwood is Ebdaah’s Director of Clinical Services and is a specialist education psychologist & clinical psychologist. She has written several books on the subject of dyspraxia, including Developmental Dyspraxia: A practical manual for parents and professionals, which has sold more than 60,000 copies in the UK and internationally.

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