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New hope for learning disabilities

But some say the techniques don’t work and cost too much

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When Sophie Stolk was 8, the alphabet was interesting in an abstract sort of way, a series of shapes she recognized but couldn't put to any reliable use. Although she was in the second grade, she read in the tentative, labored way of a beginning kindergartner.

Then, late last summer, just as she was about to enter the third grade, Sophie and her parents embarked on Fast ForWord, a rigorous, 90-minute-a-day computer program for children and adults with "auditory processing" problems. Sophie's brain, it turns out, wasn't able to clearly hear the difference between the simplest of phonemes, those sound elements that turn the alphabet into words. (Pa, ba, da — to Sophie, they all sounded the same).

After playing the Fast ForWord games every day for several months, "the results were pretty profound," says her father, Bram Stolk. At a recent parent-teacher conference, Sophie's teacher reported that she is now at grade level for reading.

Are most reading problems so easily resolved? Yes, say the people who tout such programs as Fast ForWord. Not really, say skeptics. As with most discussions about the cures and theories— and even the definitions — of learning disabilities, there is more controversy than consensus.

Some of the controversy centers on recent research about the underlying cause of learning disabilities. One of the more intriguing theories is that there are clear physiological anomalies involved — and that the brain is "plastic" enough to change.

"It's an appealing idea, although some people say it's too simplistic," says Sri Nagarajan, director of the University of Utah's functional brain imaging laboratory. He was also part of the original team whose research led to the development of the Fast ForWord computer program.

The problem with learning disabilities, Nagarajan says, is that at this point it's hard to figure out how to avoid lumping all those disabilities together. "We can't differentiate the causes from the consequences," he says.

By some estimates, 30 percent of children with reading problems have auditory processing problems, and some of these children are misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). The auditory difficulty sometimes begins when a child spends a significant portion of toddlerhood with either ear infections or stuffy ears, as Sophie did.

"Good readers can hear sounds like ba and da closer than 1/20th of a second and they can tell them apart," says Jeff Lewine, scientific director of U CAN LEARN (the nonprofit Utah Center for Advanced Neuroscience, Learning Enhancement and Resource Networking Inc.) in Research Park. "But there's a subset of poor readers who can't tell them apart at one-half a second." These students aren't able to relate sounds to written letters on a page, he says.

Thirty percent of poor readers have visual processing problems, says Lewine. Trying to teach a child with sensory problems to read is akin to trying to teach a blind child to read, says Lewine. "No matter how long you say, 'Look at the page and read,' it just won't happen. But that's what schools have been doing with these kids," he says. Such sensory input problems can't be diagnosed with standard eye exams or hearing tests, he says.

The most controversial of the current diagnoses is scotopic sensitivity syndrome (SSS), first recognized (some would say invented) by California educational psychologist Helen Irlen. Irlen's theory is that people with SSS perceive the written page as a shifting target that shakes, blurs and even disappears.

In people with SSS, explains U CAN LEARN clinical director Karla Jay, the motion detector part of their brains perceives movement where there is none. People with SSS also are more sensitive to bright light and fluorescent lights. The solution, Jay says, is Irlen's special glasses, whose tints stop the movement and the glare.

Catherine Wilson's daughter was a poor reader whose reading improved two grade levels in the six months since she got her Irlen glasses. Wilson herself also now has a pair of the glasses (turquoise works best for her, blue for her daughter, green for her son), and for the first time in her life, she says, her piano music doesn't move around on the page.

Wilson knows there are plenty of skeptics about the glasses. "Thank goodness they don't have the problem. But there are a lot of children who do, and their parents don't know where to turn."

The skeptics include Dale Sheld, the education specialist who oversees learning disabilities for the State Office of Education. Sheld is also wary of techniques such as Fast ForWord, which he says have not been researched enough and — at $900 for the licensing fee per child, plus hundreds of dollars to monitor each child — are too expensive to purchase and administer.

Although there are school districts across the country who have bought the Fast ForWord software and the training, no Utah public schools have. U CAN LEARN has begun a pilot project, funded by the Dee Family Foundation, at Bunderson Elementary in Brigham City that will test, treat and retest 15 poor readers who are deemed to have auditory processing problems.

Lewine estimates that 70 percent of private speech and language pathologists in Utah are now trained on the Fast ForWord software and half a dozen clinics use it.

"None of the traditional things I tried worked with them," says Ava Pickering of SEPS Learning Center about some of her hard-to-treat poor readers. "Then I went back and worked with them (using Fast ForWord), and I've had tremendous success."

But it's hard to prove whether the techniques work, acknowledges U CAN LEARN's Lewine. "We haven't done as good a job as we could identifying which kids can benefit from Fast ForWord. Some speech and language people are running all their kids through it, and it only helps 30 percent. It's expensive, so that makes people mad."

As for the Irlen glasses, "because this stuff has been out on the fringe, there's not a lot of science that's been done." And the studies that have been done have sometimes tested the wrong thing, he says.

"You need to understand what it is you're fixing, and that's what you need to test. You need to test the rate they're reading letters. You'll see a very dramatic improvement in that. But it's not a magic fix. It's one step in a complicated process." Most children who get the glasses still have to learn "word attack skills," he says.

Plus, he says, there are children whose reading problems don't involve sensory input problems. They have what Lewine calls "more true dyslexia." This is more of a brain "wiring" problem, he says, "but we don't understand yet exactly what's broken." For these readers, and for children whose reading skills are weak but not poor, standard therapies often work, says Jay. In addition, of course, there are those students whose poor reading skills are the result of low IQs.

Other technologies — "interactive metronome" and "neurofeedback," for example — are also promising for learning disabilities, says Lewine, but much of the data so far are anecdotal.

"All of our studies have always lumped all kids (with various learning disabilities) together," he says. "And that plays havoc with the science." But saying that there hasn't been much good research is not the same as saying that the research shows these techniques don't work, he adds. "We need to get the funds to get the right kinds of studies in place. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water."

E-MAIL: jarvik@desnews.com