Students who get distracted in college and struggle to organize thoughts or finish tests in a timely manner aren’t alone, according to a guest speaker at the College of Southern Maryland earlier this month. These students do not necessarily have an undiscovered learning disability, either.
In connection with Disability Awareness Month, CSM held a discussion on what exactly learning disabilities are.
Robb Mapou, a board certified clinical neuropsychologist based in Silver Spring, led the discussion Oct. 16 and explained the signs and symptoms of learning disabilities. He broke down attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and how, while many who have the condition have trouble sitting still and paying attention, there is more to it than just fidgeting.
The discussion was sponsored by the Institutional Equality and Diversity Office at CSM’s La Plata campus.
Learning disabilities are, Mapou said, in general, specific deficits in one or more academic skills, like reading, writing and math, in a person who is of average intelligence.
The disabilities typically run in families, are neurologically based and appear early in a person’s life.
Learning disabilities, he said, can improve if detected early and also can cause problems later, when a person’s workload becomes more difficult.
However, he said, they “do not suddenly appear when you get to college.”
ADHD, he explained, is a disorder that significantly affects attention and behavior, and is characterized by problems with attention, cognitive or motor restlessness and impulsivity. Like a learning disability, ADHD is neurologically based, runs in families and manifests early in childhood.
College-age students often relate to signs of ADHD, such as inattentiveness and trouble concentrating, but many times ADHD can be ruled out by determining other factors causing the symptoms, such as not getting ample or restful sleep, depression, anxiety, excessive drinking or smoking marijuana.
Stress, he said, seems to be a big factor in college students experiencing ADHD-like symptoms.
“I don’t remember the level of stress that there is now,” he said, referring to his own college years.
Mapou, not indicating when exactly he attended the University of Maryland, said he only paid $449 a semester at the time and said there wasn’t as much pressure on students as there is now when it comes to getting into college.
Diagnosing ADHD, he said, involves a comprehensive assessment including a thorough history of the individual, interviews with family members and assessments of academic and neurological skills. The ADHD diagnosis includes an extensive background on the student’s history and academic records.
Mapou discussed how the human brain functions when someone with a learning disability is reading and how the brain functions for a normal person. He said with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, a reading disability involving difficulty sounding out words, the brain is only active in one area, as opposed to several. He said the one area that is working to read is overcompensating, causing more harm than good for the individual.
Dyslexia, he said, is the most researched learning disability, and 80 percent of those with learning disabilities have it.
Mapou said there are several definitions for learning disabilities and that in order for students with learning disabilities to get accommodations in college, their disability must fall under the legal definition of disability, which states that a person is disabled if an individual’s important life activities are restricted in comparison to most people.
Important life skills when it comes to college include reading, concentrating, and thinking, learning and communicating.
With interventions and treatment, which may include medication, learning disabilities can improve. For example, a child with a reading disability can learn to read through intervention, but Mapou said it’s best to start early. Interventions beginning after the fourth grade can work, but he said they will be slow and effortful.
Barbara Link, an associate professor at CSM, said she personally connected to the discussion because she has an adult son who has a learning disability and enjoyed hearing from a professional n the field.
“I particularly enjoyed that [the discussion] was all fact-based,” she said.
Roger Hayes of La Plata runs Learning by the Book, a tutoring company in Charlotte Hall. He said he learned a lot about learning disabilities and that the information might help when tutoring because he will have a better understanding of those who might have learning disabilities.
CSM hosted several activities centered on disability awareness at all three campuses this month.