In today’s rapidly changing world, patients with ADHD and other learning disabilities; and patients who are suffering from cognitive impairment resulting from depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder; are at a distinct competitive disadvantage, regardless of how intelligent they may be. These conditions result in millions of people suffering from the debilitating effects of chronic disabilities which hold them back from achieving their full potential, whether at school or in the workplace; or when taking standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, LSAT, MCAT, GRE or GMAT. The good news is that proper psychological assessment by a clinical psychologist, and supportive documentation requesting what are known as reasonable accommodations, can make the difference between success and failure in life; and the development of healthy self-esteem as opposed to deep feelings of defectiveness.
A clinical psychologist studies the human mind in order to understand its functions and capabilities, and how to effectuate desired changes. Psychologists work to discover the root cause for maladaptive behaviors and may administer psychological testing to help distinguish between various diagnoses and help guide an individual to answers about what is wrong with them, and help them and their psychiatrist or psychotherapist identify priorities and a starting place for treatment.
The ADA, Learning Disabilities, and ADHD
Recent research has determined that one in five children will display learning or attention deficits. Some of these children (as well as adults with these conditions) will qualify as suffering from a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), when their degree of impairment substantially limits one or more of their major life activities.
It has been estimated that about three to five percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD and about thirty to fifty percent of those children have a learning disability as well. ADHD used to be considered a childhood disease with the belief that symptom severity would decline as patients approached adulthood. We now know that the symptoms of ADHD persist into adulthood and affect about fifty to sixty-five percent of adults who first exhibited these symptoms as children. These patients may experience high levels of irritability, frustration, and anger, especially when the cognitive demands of school or work exceed their ability to focus and effectively process the information. Patients may also struggle with regulating their emotional states and be prone to mood swings and explosive outbursts.
Over and extended time period learning disabilities can create a sense of failure and feeling like “damaged goods” for those afflicted by them. These disorders not only negatively impact one’s ability to learn, they may also interfere with relationships with family and friends, as well as impair one’s ability to function in the workplace. Learning disabilities are often referred to as “hidden disabilities” as they may go unnoticed. Individuals may present as “normal” and be highly intelligent, but their daily challenges may be more difficult than initially realized.
The Specific Learning Disabilities that are recognized under the ADA are described below:
- Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit: This affects how a person interprets information that they see, or how they draw or copy. Tracking difficulties and poor hand/eye coordination are also common symptoms.
- Auditory Processing Disorder (Central Auditory Processing Disorder): A person with APD has a difficult time interpreting unrestricted sounds, causing the individual to struggle with identifying where sounds are coming from, ignoring background noise, or distinguishing differences in sounds in various words.
- Language Processing Disorder: This falls under the category of Auditory Processing Disorder, however, these individuals will display deficits in attaching meaning to sounds that create words, sentences and stories.
- Dysgraphia: People may display difficulties in handwriting abilities and fine motor skills. This may present as illegible handwriting, poor spatial planning, spelling deficits and having a hard time with thinking and writing simultaneously.
- Dyslexia: Individuals that present with this specific learning disability will exhibit poor reading comprehension and fluency, struggles with recall, and what appears as a lack of writing and spelling skills.
- Dyscalculia: Adverse effects in one’s ability to comprehend numbers and learn math- related topics. An individual may exhibit deficits in telling time, and trouble with symbols used in math.
- Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities: Typically characterized by problems surrounding social skills. Individuals may not recognize social cues which can lead to misunderstanding others and difficulty with making and keeping friends.
Dr. Marlena Wu, a psychologist who specializes in psychological testing, shared this observation, “One thing I would note is that while ADHD is the more commonly known diagnosis that is parallel to learning disabilities, this often means that people undervalue the presence and impact of having a learning disorder either in themselves or in others. People often just accept that they are weak in a particular academic area without knowing that they can be assessed and diagnosed with a learning disability, and that their academic/work performance in relation to such a diagnosis is protected by ADA law. For example, how often do people assume that they are poor at math or writing, and absorb messages from themselves and others that they are just ‘not trying hard enough’ in these areas?”
Dr. Wu continued, “Like ADHD, this can lead people to believe they have low intelligence or are lazy when it is not the case. In fact, if learning disabilities are not uncovered earlier in life, it is often due to the person being so resourceful and intelligent that they were able to hide or compensate for the learning disability by developing their own organizational techniques. They often hit their ceiling in terms of academic and work performance when they are required to carry out more complex tasks, and that may be in a college environment and beyond into the workplace. It can be very validating for people to be tested and receive acknowledgment that they do have significant weaknesses in a particular area and that it is appropriate for them to ask for accommodations. They can then move on from the question of ‘do I have?’ to ‘how do I work with this?’”
Many academic institutions and standardized testing organizations (that publish the GMAT, GRE, SAT, ACT, etc.) will work to accommodate students that have disabilities, but all require medical and/or clinical documentation. In order to provide the most effective accommodations, psychological assessment can document specific areas of weakness as well as meet the requirements of clinical documentation.
In next week’s Tip I will discuss the advantages conferred by psychological testing, tell you the story of Jeremy and the impact of these assessments on his life, and provide you tangible steps to take if you or a loved one may be suffering from ADHD or other learning difficulties and wish to seek accommodations in school or the workplace.
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