As a father of two, I want the best future for my kids. But the path isn’t quite as clear as it once was. The pandemic, social and emotional challenges and many recent global events are affecting how our kids grow up and see the world. This is certainly the case with children who have learning disabilities — also known as learning and thinking differences, or LTDs.
Many parents ignore or downplay the symptoms of LTDs, or believe myths or falsehoods. This has an impact on their child’s ability to reach their full potential.
LTDs are real, innate differences in how the brain processes information, often impacting skills such as reading, writing, math and focus. Many kids with LTDs face academic challenges. But their learning differences also affect them emotionally. Kids with LTDs are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, especially in this new, unpredictable world.
More than 70 million people in the United States have learning disabilities. That’s one in five of us. So chances are you know someone — a family member, friend, neighbor or co-worker — with a learning and thinking difference. And as someone with ADHD, I can say that one thing has not changed since I was a child: the stigma associated with people with LTDs.
While 90 percent of parents believe that LTDs are real, many are still influenced by myths, stigmas and false narratives about LTDs. According to our Understood.org Neurodiversity and Stigma Study, nearly one-third of parents falsely believe that the school system contributes to a child having a learning difference. And two-thirds of parents believe that kids are too easily diagnosed with LTDs these days.
Something must be done.
Ignoring, downplaying or belittling the realities of these differences hurts kids with LTDs, making them more likely to experience challenges with self-confidence, managing emotions, social anxiety and more. In fact, kids with LTDs are 31 percent more likely to be bullied (Rose & Gage, 2016). And they’re two to three times more likely to drop out of school (NCLD).
I know what that lack of acceptance or awareness can do to a child who is facing challenges. I remember what it felt like to be pulled out of my general education class for “special” classes. To be singled out for learning differently. To be shamed by adults for not being like everyone else. Luckily, my mother — a true force of nature — was determined to surround me with support and an environment that celebrated my learning differences.
Stigma often prevents parents from leaning in and observing what’s truly happening with their children. I was luckier than some kids. I didn’t have to convince my mother that the challenges I was facing were real.
Today, as our kids face unprecedented emotional, social and academic challenges, they’ve never needed our help more. But many are facing these challenges without support or understanding from the adults around them. As their parents, we need to take the onus off kids and address stigmas ourselves.
Parents have the power to change the conversation, and it all starts with awareness. Eighty percent of parents of kids with LTDs said their child’s life improved after they took action to engage their child and provide support. Here are a few ways to help:
- Learn and share the truths about learning and thinking differences. There are a lot of myths out there that couldn’t be further from the truth. LTDs are not a limiting factor for a child. Everyone learns, thinks and interacts in a variety of ways, all of which are valid and increasingly valued. In fact, employers are now making significant efforts to hire from neurodivergent groups. They’re putting together truly diverse teams. And that leads to stronger outcomes for all.
Becoming more informed and understanding of what your child is going through will help you identify the best way to support your child.
- Talk with your child. “What are you really good at?” “What was the highlight of your school day?” Asking your child questions like these may start a dialogue that’ll give you insights about skills and strengths that you can encourage. It may also illuminate what your child finds challenging — and what makes them feel seen and understood.
- Find resources like Understood.org that match your and your child’s needs. There are a variety of resources to empower you to better understand and support your child. Joining a community and having another parent to talk with can often demystify and normalize what you’re experiencing with learning differences.
Through small steps like these, each of us has the opportunity to ensure that our child isn’t shamed, singled out or left behind simply for learning and thinking differently. Instead, we can be the reason our child thrives.
Understood.org, a resource for the 70 million people with learning and thinking differences, has launched its “Be the Reason” campaign to move parents from skeptics to supporters of their neurodivergent children. The campaign kicks off with a film centered on a child’s perspective of when her neurodiversity is ignored. Additionally, a #YouCanBeTheReason social media challenge, led by The Holderness Family, asks parents to share how they’ve been the reason their child thrives.
Link to watch the film: understood.org/articles/be-the-reason
Nathan Friedman is the father of two young children and the co-president of Understood.