SPECIFIC LEARNING DISABILITIES: INTERVIEW WITH PROF. OGLIARI

Dyslexia, dysgraphia, dysorthography, dyscalculia… apparently difficult terms that until a few years ago only psychologists and experts knew; instead, they increasingly appear in school classes, especially among secondary school pupils. For example, recent data show that specific learning disabilities concern 22.1% of middle school students with disabilities, more than 1 in 5.

As this is theme whose interest is constantly increasing, it is good to clarify: what are the specific learning disabilities? How do we recognize them? What treatments can be implemented to improve the patients’ situation? What prospects do the researches conducted in our University offer? We talked about this with Prof. Anna Ogliari, Associate of Clinical Psychology at UniSR, Specialist in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapist at the Developmental Psychopathology Service, as well as Rector Delegate for Disabilities.

Prof. Ogliari, what are the specific learning disorders?

Specific learning disorders (SLD) are neurodevelopmental disorders that involve the ability to read, write and calculate correctly and fluently.

Depending on the type of difficulty involved, learning disabilities are divided into:

  • dyslexia: specific reading disorder; it implies a difficulty in decoding a text;
  • dysorthography: specific writing disorder; it implies a difficulty in spelling and phonographic competence;
  • dysgraphia: specific handwriting disorder; it implies a difficulty in the motor skills of writing;
  • dyscalculia: specific disorder of enumeration and calculation ability; it implies a difficulty in understanding and/or working with numbers.

SLDs are the expression of the different modes of operation of the functional anatomical bases involved in the processes of reading, writing and calculation.

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Photo credit: ShutterStock

What are the causes of their onset?

There are many etiological aspects that researchers have pointed out: SLDs have a high inheritability, they aggregate in families and both genetic – structural – and environmental aspects contribute to the manifestation of the disorder. They are neither caused by a deficit of intelligence nor by psychological difficulties or sensory deficits. Typically they occur with the start of schooling, in fact, the diagnosis of SLD can be drawn up only after the end of the second grade.

How can these disorders be recognized?

The most important signals are an unexpected difficulty in learning to read and write. Some difficulties or early predictors are sometimes visible already in kindergarten such as:

  • Communication and/or language difficulties (lack of knowledge of words and meanings, poor ability to construct the sentence, mnestic difficulties in learning words);
  • Motor-praxic difficulty (poor drawing ability and fine and global motor difficulties);
  • Visuospatial difficulties (poor organization skills in manipulation games and labyrinths, difficulty in cutting or building);
  • Hearing difficulties (difficulty in repeating and identifying tones, sounds and similar words).
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Photo credit: ShutterStock

At primary school it is instead possible to identify those difficulties that can then arise in a diagnosis, such as:

  • Difficulty in reading (slow deciphering of individual letters and uncertainty in the use of syllables, poor awareness of the meaning of words)
  • Difficulty in writing (poor autonomy in writing words, substitution or elimination of letters, difficulty in writing)
  • Difficulty in the use of numbers (errors in counting and passing from pronunciation to writing numbers, difficulty in calculating in mind)

It may happen that the same subject manifests more than a learning disability and SLDs are often associated with attention disorders. Some individuals with SLD may have difficulties in coordination, fine motor skills, organization of activities and time sequences.

How is the diagnosis made?

The diagnosis must be carried out by specialists using specific standardized and shared tests, in line with the indications of the Consensus Conference. In case of suspected SLD, the subject is administered tests to evaluate: intelligence, writing skills, reading, text comprehension and calculation skills. After these tests a report is drawn up that contains the results of the standardized tests, the diagnosis of the identified SLD and the strategies to be adopted to improve the approach to the benefit of the learning of the subject.

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Photo credit: ShutterStock

Dyslexia and other specific learning disorders often compensate one another, but they can continue having consequences even in adulthood. In adulthood, support measures are difficult to access and assessment and diagnosis are harder to obtain due to a lack of specialized diagnostic services. In recent years, however, standardized tools have been developed for adults that can be administered to resolve a first suspicion, and then continue with neuropsychological evaluation.

What treatments or cures are available for a dyslexic child or boy?

In the last few years, the research in the field of the SLD has allowed a greater etiological understanding favoring an increasing number of early diagnoses. Parallel to the classification and the study of the possible causes, a research line has been developed aimed at implementing and validating different therapeutic protocols. The goal of these protocols is not to report the subject reading parameters with SLD at the levels of a normo-reader, but to allow them to acquire strategies that lead them to learn and study independently. In many cases, dyslexic individuals autonomously develop compensatory strategies to tackle school demands, learning to use their own privileged learning channels so that they can be exploited in the study. There are different types of training aimed at implementing the deficiencies in the neuropsychological areas involved (attention, visual perception, etc.) and aim to improve the automation of learning processes.

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Photo credit: ShutterStock

Furthermore, the compensating instruments mentioned in law 170/2010 aim to guarantee the student’s autonomy. The simplest way to understand the role of compensatory tools is to imagine a parallelism with glasses. “A dyslexic student who uses compensatory tools is like a shortsighted person who uses glasses”. The compensatory instrument is neither a facilitation nor an advantage and it may be changed over time. Many compensatory tools can be used through the use of the PC, but their use must in any case be integrated with the study path, strategies and adequate teaching. When used effectively, compensatory tools become essential to accompany students on a path of autonomy.

The Faculty of Psychology of the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University is at the forefront of our country in the research on dyslexia. What do our studies focus on the most, and what are/have been our main discoveries?

The Faculty of Psychology of our University has been (and still is) the protagonist of several research projects on dyslexia. In particular, many studies have been carried out in collaboration with the Eugenio Medea Institute with which the researchers have explored the role played by some genes (KIAA0319 and ROBO1) in the development of reading, language and mathematics difficulties, both in individual and family studies. The researchers correlated the results of diagnostic tests to the expression of the above-mentioned genes, evaluating the significant association between the gene and learning skills and co-varying them for some anatomical parameters identified by magnetic resonance study. These studies have confirmed the role of such genes in the development of learning difficulties.

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Photo credit: ShutterStock

[Sara Mascheretti, former UniSR Psychology student, is the first author of an important study that explored the role played by the KIAA0319 and ROBO1 genes in the development of reading difficulties, language and mathematics, in particular confirming the role played by ROBO1 in the development of learning difficulties. The news is available here].

Our University adheres to the CALD – Coordinamento Atenei Lombardi per la Disabilità, a collaboration aimed at promoting and affirming a culture of inclusion of disability also in the university system. How are our dyslexic students supported in their path?

Dyslexia in adulthood is an evolving reality. The new dyslexics are aware young men and women, who do not hide the difficulties, but try to address them in a positive way and to make the most of their personal talents. The diagnosis of dyslexia as adults can be experienced as an important moment of explanation and liberation: the scholastic difficulties, the strenuous battles and the great conquests of the period of growth acquire a different meaning.

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Photo credit: ShutterStock

For this reason, in 2001, the Rector Delegates for the disability of the Lombard universities established a network for the Coordination of the Lombard Universities for Disability (CALD) in favor of the full inclusion and participation of students with disabilities and SLD to university life.

The UniSR Disability and SLD Service was founded with the aim of supporting the educational needs of students with needs who, like all other students, have the right of access to the academic world as a privileged opportunity for cultural and human education. Our University recognizes the importance of the autonomy of all students as a formative and not only instrumental value and the profound educational relevance of the process of socialization of the individual through the expansion of their experiences and opportunities to meet and relate with other people.

The Service is the information, reception and activation point of customized solutions and is responsible for the activation and management of services for students with disabilities and SLD directly, or in collaboration with other University facilities. In particular, it manages the didactic and administrative support, it helps to identify and implement individual paths for orientation, study and relationship with the world of work, and it takes care of relations with degree courses, Faculties and teachers.

Regarding specifically the Specific Learning Disorders, given the current provisions of law, our University offers students with DSA what is specified in art. 5, paragraph 4, of Law 170/2010, that is the possibility of enjoying, during each stage of the university education and training course, adequate forms of verification and evaluation, both at the time of admission tests and during the years of study.

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