Learning difficulties – is a diagnosis really necessary?

Girl,Sitting,On,Sofa,Explaining,Her,Problems,To,Female,Psychiatrist

Is your child struggling to focus and pay attention at school? Maybe they are delayed in learning to read, and their teacher has suggested they could have symptoms of ADD/ADHD or dyslexia.

As a result you might be asking yourself “Does my child need a diagnosis?”

The short answer is “Not necessarily”. 

Put simply, a diagnosis is a collection of symptoms that fall into a particular category. This is usually aligned with the medical model, and can be used to help your child to receive specialised medical support. However, you might like to weigh up your options before seeking help.

Can a Diagnosis of ADHD or Dyslexia Help?

Can a diagnosis really benefit your child? Yes, they may receive some individual classroom support and the school may receive funding for this. Your child may also be eligible to receive government funding to access specialised therapies and appropriate medication.

A diagnosis can offer peace of mind for parents. Being able to put a label onto their child’s learning and behavioural challenges can help with understanding. 

Disadvantages of Having a Diagnosis

However, diagnoses can also be stigmatising, inaccurate and harmful. There is a risk of damage to self esteem, with your child taking on a belief that there is something wrong with them.  A child with ADHD, for example, seeing this diagnosis as a part of them, part of their personality, blinding them to their gifts and positive attributes.

A diagnosis can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Wth a focus on the symptoms of the initial diagnosis, behaviours can develop to match the label. Your child might appear to fit into their allocated “box”, matching the beliefs and expectations of that particular “label”.

Applying a diagnosis can also stop us from seeing the many fine qualities inherent in your child, blinding us to their gifts. Removing the label, it’s easier to see the child for the unique individual that they are.

For families in rural regional areas, seeking a diagnosis often involves travel to larger centres for specialist appointments. This can be expensive, and is not always easy to manage with other family and work commitments to consider.

An Alternative Perspective

However, diagnosis is not your only option, and not all parents choose to go down this path. I suggest an alternative paradigm, based on addressing the root cause, looking for what lies beneath the behaviour. 

As a therapist I’m more interested in the person in front of me, than any label they may or may not carry. I see their behaviour as a symptom of something deeper. More than simply “fixing” the child, by addressing the symptoms, I see behaviour within a broader concept of healing, or moving towards wholeness.

Looking through the lens of the Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr Stephen Porges, a child’s behaviour can be viewed as a nervous system response to a perceived threat. In other words, their nervous system is reacting before their “thinking brain” has had a chance to kick in. Exploring more deeply, I usually find gaps or immaturities in early stages of sensorimotor development.

As Deb Dana, clinician, consultant, author and international lecturer said, in her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy “Looking beyond a clinical diagnosis invites clients to see their behaviours and beliefs as adaptive responses in service of survival”. 

An Holistic Approach to Healing

This holistic approach to healing recognises that all parts of a person are interconnected. Your child does not exist in isolation. They are also part of a community and their behaviour is influenced by your family story. This includes wounding from past generations that have been passed on. An holistic approach considers these wider aspects as well.

For children struggling with learning in the classroom, with signs of dyslexia and ADD/ADHD, healing involves addressing all aspects of your child. This holistic or whole child view includes social, emotional, behavioural, physical and academic learning. 

Based on my experience from the last 20 years, I have found that diagnoses of dyslexia, ADD/ADHD and autism share one common thread. All have signs of disruptions to normal stages of early development. Aligned with this, I generally find trauma either in the child’s personal biography, or ancestral wounding that has been passed on through generations. 

Add to this the influences of life in the twentieth century. As a result, we can see the behaviours as indications of a distressed and over-reactive nervous system, responding to perceived threats in the environment.

Child Behaviour in the Context of Family and Community

We can look at the child as part of their wider environment, and their attempt to survive in the world they have been born into. In other words, the issue is greater than your child.

Richard Schwarz, (No Bad Parts) academic, psychotherapist and family therapist noted the importance of family support . He suggests that the best way to help a child, and achieve lasting change, is to consider the behaviour within the family context.

Physician, author and international speaker on child and family health, Gabor Mate, (Scattered), describes ADHD as reversible and developmental. He sees it as rooted in multi-generational family stress and disturbed social environments. 

In other words, the issues your child is facing today didn’t start with you or your child, and it doesn’t belong to you alone!

We are all Part of a Family Story

We all exist as part of a family story. This began before us, and will continue after we are gone. Mark Wolyn (It Didn’t Start with You) suggests that trauma can be inherited from our parents, grandparents and even great grandparents.

In my clinical experience, it’s not unusual to hear parents say things like “I had dyslexia too”, or “his father has ADHD too”. Clearly these comments point to a hereditary component within a family story, as the wounding passes through generations.

Stages of Child Development

Looking at behaviour through a developmental lens, this wounding often appears as gaps or immaturities in early stages of sensory-motor development.

Child development happens in a specific hierarchical sequence, with each subsequent stage building on the foundations of the previous one. This means that if the lower stages are a bit “wobbly”, the following ones are likely to be a bit “wobbly” too.

Think of a tower of Jenga blocks. When the lower levels are incomplete, the tower will eventually topple. Something similar happens to children when the lower development stages are incomplete. They often “topple” as they struggle to achieve to academic expectations at school. We see this in their behaviour.  When it all becomes too overwhelming, they usually act out or shutdown. These behaviours are bringing us a message.

Supporting Holistic Healing Through Sensorimotor Development

I bring an holistic, relationship and development-based approach to supporting children and their parents. Many of these children come with diagnoses such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. An assessment is a good place to start, and can identify immaturities in early stages of sensory and motor development. From here we can work together to “fill in the gaps”.

I use a graded set of basic movement exercises designed to replicate missed stages of early development. In this way, we work at the child’s pace, addressing immaturities where necessary. Sessions may also incorporate counselling, sensorimotor development, play and art therapy. Meeting with parents is an important part of your family’s healing process, as we work together to help your child.

The aim of therapy is to help a child to realise their potential to take their place in the world. Healing is based on acceptance of your child for who they are and what they bring to the room, recognising their gifts rather than empathising negatives. The focus is on healing, or moving towards wholeness. 

Outcomes include closer family relationships, improved behaviour, reduced anxiety and depression. Children do better at school, and form more supportive friendships. 

Support for a Development Movement Program in Schools

Personal conversations with classroom teachers indicate that disruptive behaviours have escalated since the bushfires and Covid lockdown in 2019/2020. They are saying that increasing numbers of children are struggling with social skills and academic learning in the classroom.

I would love to see the benefits of a generic sensorimotor development program being offered to children in schools to support their learning in all its forms – social, emotional, physical, behavioural as well as academic. 

Children with delays in early stages of development often struggle to learn in a traditional classroom, many finding the volume of sensations is simply too overwhelming. As a result they can easily go into sensory overload. The behaviours we see are the response of their dysregulated nervous system. 

Financial and time constraints make it difficult for many families to seek help. I would love to see a development movement program into schools so all children can benefit. They don’t need a diagnosis to access this generic support, and there is a body of research supporting in-school programs.

With so many children struggling, now is the time to create change, and if not now, when?

Conclusion

Diagnosis is useful as a way of understanding behaviour traits, and seeking financial and other supports. However, there are other options to consider before embarking on this process. This article has highlighted an alternative holistic paradigm, stepping away from the traditional medical model of labels and pathologies.

This invites the question “Is it the diagnosis that’s important, or is it how you deal with it that matters?”

The good news is that you don’t need a diagnosis or a referral to see a Counsellor or Psychotherapist.

Related Articles

Understanding ADHD – an Holistic approach to healing

Dyslexia and Sensory Processing

ADHD and Links to Listening or Auditory Processing

 

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About Rosalind

Since 2005 I have been helping children with learning and behavioural challenges such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD and other sensory processing difficulties. I use an holistic, or whole child approach combining counselling with a development movement program, known as The Extra Lesson. This program addresses underlying immaturities in early development that are contributing to their learning and behavioural challenges. Sessions are available online and at Moruya South Head.

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