Need schooling/career advice for son with learning difficulties
September 24, 2020 7:21 AM   Subscribe

My son is struggling with school and I need some help figuring out what his options are going forward. Would really value input from people who have gone through something similar, or their parents, as well as educators and career counsellors.

We need some help figuring out schooling and career options for our son. Sorry that this is so long - really appreciate your help!

My son is 12 and in 7th grade. He has several learning disability diagnoses: ADHD (inattentive, not hyper), dyslexia, and he's on the spectrum for socioemotional stuff (not physical). I mention these labels for relevant background, not because we see him as damaged or broken in any way - he is a very smart and fantastic boy who we cherish.

The school he is in currently is great - small, understanding and very supportive. He has an IEP and has access to assistive technology such as speech to text and text to speech. We are quite happy with the school.

My son is quite good at math - maybe not a whiz but definitely masters concepts quickly and does well. He excels at and is very interested in science - his teacher sometimes asks him to explain scientific concepts to the rest of the class. He is a deep thinker who is good at understanding abstract theory - for example, in 6th grade he did a project on inflation and did a truly excellent job understanding complex economical concepts. He scores in the 97th and above percentiles nationally for math, and even ranges between 80-90th percentile in reading (his comprehension and retention are very good), but it takes him SO long to complete the tests. When we've had him tested over the years, the same picture emerges - he's very smart, but his processing speed is disproportionately low (5th% percentile).

Currently, one of the biggest issues with school is that he struggles A LOT with writing. He is painfully slow at forming letters, so he mostly uses speech to text and sometimes types. Additionally, he is very, very slow at formulating his thoughts (also verbally sometimes, but especially when he has to write), and what he does produce is usually very short. Unfortunately, as he is getting older, he is expected to do more and more writing, and it's becoming clear that he can't really keep up, even with assistive technology, extra time, and supportive teachers and specialists.

When we ask him what he wants to do when he grows up, he usually says engineering. He's not sure what kind - maybe electrical, but who knows. And the thing is, he is absolutely smart enough to be an engineer, and I think it would suit him well.

So I guess my real question is - how do we help him get there? Are there pathways for someone like him to become an engineer, when his writing ability is so sorely lacking that I don't think he's going to be able to do a regular high school, let alone college? And even if he did somehow get an engineering degree, are there jobs that would accommodate his slow processing speed? What else should we be looking into?

Until now, we have taken it as a given that he would attend college. But right now I'm not sure I see how he could get through the non-science/math parts of high school and college to get there. We are lucky enough to live in a place that has a lot of options for high school, including a tech high school that has hands-on programs like carpentry, electrical, automotive and IT. We'll be gathering all the info this year so we can make an informed decision.

Our #1 goal for him is that we want him to find something he'll be happy doing - we don't care much what it is, as long as he will be happy doing it and can eventually support himself with it. If engineering is too much of a stretch, then we'll help him find a trade instead that doesn't require higher education. It just seems like a shame when he has such a first-class scientific mind... But the most important thing is that he finds something he enjoys and is also capable of doing well.

Sorry that this question is a bit rambling. But basically - can you help us think through his school and career path? He is a fantastic guy with a great sense of humor and I think he has a lot to offer the world!
posted by widdershins to Education (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I had sort of similar problems with university myself - not exactly the same, but I struggled with some of the courses I had to take which were absolutely unnecessary for my major or for what I do now as a career (I never finished and this wasn't the only reason but it was a big part of it).

I now live in the UK, and the university system here is very different from the US and probably would have been a lot better for me than the US university structure I struggled with. If you are studying engineering, you don't also have to take general education classes in literature and history and languages. You study engineering. Here's an overview of what you study for Electronic Engineering at the University of Leeds as an example.

This would be expensive and it doesn't mean he would never have to write or type papers or exams, and UK universities seem to require a lot more self-direction than the US system (for example for many courses you could literally never step foot in a lecture and still be OK if you somehow still managed to produce good coursework on time and pass your exams). But it's something to consider, anyway.
posted by cilantro at 7:44 AM on September 24

Has he had an occupational therapy assessment? That can help make writing less arduous. Occupational therapists have an amazing range of rehabilitation techniques and adaptive gadgets to make writing easier. I work in special education and so many of my students have issues with writing that have been helped immensely by OT.
posted by corey flood at 7:51 AM on September 24 [5 favorites]

It sounds like there are two separate things you need to address. First, his handwriting ability. As mentioned above, if he hasn't had an OT assessment, that needs to happen. It is very, very common to find that a student previously diagnosed with dyslexia that struggles to write has some sort of dysgraphia going on - having an occupational therapist help them re-train their brain and body to write more efficiently is incredibly beneficial. He may not ever be a quick writer, but he will be functional - this is all it really takes thanks to proliferation of keyboards and other input devices he'll have in life. Just a side note on this: I had one student that was diagnosed with dysgraphia and dyslexia and was assigned some pretty intense OT - he bounced off of it but the parents did some independent testing and found that he actually had a rare vision problem that caused the letters to skew together. Once they addressed that, he flew through OT and did great. Totally anecdotal, but just something to keep in mind.

The second issue you've brought up is processing speed. In my experience, the most beneficial tool in this area is the LearningRx/PACE systems. We've seen great results with them in our schools and utilize them extensively, to the point of having multiple people licensed and trained at each campus just on this specific program. It won't eliminate the struggle, but it will very likely help quite a bit. It is based on training the brain to quickly react through a series of structured exercises that feel a lot like games. Kids tend really love it and I've had kids assigned to it until they graduated.

In the next few years, you'll need to start laying the groundwork for his college applications. The most immediate thing is grades, but based on your question I'm assuming his grades themselves aren't really an issue. Most schools and IEP case managers are very understanding and don't let struggles like this impact a student GPA-wise - ultimately, his grades shouldn't be penalized because he struggles with something the school has acknowledged as a disability.

In addition to his grades, you need to start thinking about standardized testing. There is a trend of moving away from it, but with his age, the reality is that having a decent score on your ACT/SAT will still open doors. The biggest challenge most kids have on these tests is running out of time, but there is good news: your student very likely qualifies for extended time on these tests. Start working with his IEP case manager this year to add extra time on all testing (as needed) to his IEP - when it comes time to petition CollegeBoard or ACT, you can show that it has been a standing accommodation on his IEP and they will very likely grant your request. This could be a game changer for him - pair it with some basic ACT/SAT prep and he'll probably do great.

With regard to college itself, the reality is there are a LOT of students that struggle to write. In fact, it's one of the biggest lamentations of professors regarding new students - and this trend seems to be growing by what I've seen published. I bring this up because this deficiency has resulted in new structures in place at most colleges to support student writing. I know both of my universities had an open-door writing center that was staffed by professors and grad students that would spend as much time as you needed working on your writing and was open nearly 24/7.

Sorry if this information is overwhelming - I tried to keep it as coherent as possible but there is a lot to consider. I've worked in K-12 education at the academic program/director level for 12+ years and am happy to answer any other questions you may have - please feel free to memail me if there is anything else I can do to help.
posted by _DB_ at 8:36 AM on September 24 [6 favorites]

I agree with the OT assessment. I would just like to emphasize that if he is scoring that high in math and science, he is entirely capable of getting through school and going to college, with accommodations, and he absolutely sounds like a kid that could excel in engineering later on. College is so different from high school, and once he completes his gen eds he won't need to focus on writing so much. He'll be able to hone in on engineering and will likely excel.

What specific area of processing does he struggle with? Is it auditory? I have a family member who is perfectly intelligent--has a master's degree and had a successful career--who has absolutely terrible auditory processing. It's to the point where he almost can't process information unless it's shown to him, either in writing or pictures. Figuring out where your son struggles with processing and where he excels more is going to be key to getting him the right accommodations. He sounds like the kind of kid who does very well with visual information--pictures, charts, etc--but has a difficult time processing auditory information and then formulating a response. Figuring this out will allow you and the school to modify information so it is presented to him in a way that he can understand best, which should improve his performance.

How is he physically? How is his core strength? A lot of kids who struggle with handwriting have low muscle tone, which starts in the core and then goes outward. Making sure they have the right seating--knees and hips at 90 degrees, arms resting comfortably on the desk, feet flat on the floor--can really help improve their handwriting. If he has low muscle tone, working on getting him stronger--STARTING WITH HIS CORE and then going outward--should also really help with his handwriting, both the quality of it and speed. This can be addressed with OT and PT.

Finally, everyone has different processing speeds and that doesn't mean he can't go on to be wildly successful. He sounds very bright and full of potential. It's okay if it takes him twice as long as his peers to complete work. All of the research shows that kids or adults with slower processing can learn just as well as their peers with fast processing as long as they stick with whatever it is they're doing. Be patient. He'll get there.
posted by Amy93 at 10:22 AM on September 24

Thank you so much to everyone who has responded so far. To answer a few questions:

He has had some OT assessment, but it sounds like it's an area that can be revisited. I'm much less concerned about his physical writing - he can type or use speech to text - than I am his difficulty in composing answers in any reasonable period of time.

I will definitely look into LearningRX/PACE. Anything that can help him improve his processing time is really welcome. We have tested him for where the processing difficulties lie, but I can't remember the result off the top of my head.

His grades are A/B+ for math and science, B for most electives, C for English and social studies. I feel that there's a college for everyone, and with his documented learning disabilities I'm not so worried about him getting accepted into college as I am him not being able to handle the coursework.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has been in similar situation, especially how it impacted them in the professional world.

Thank you all for your reassuring words.
posted by widdershins at 2:19 PM on September 24 [1 favorite]

It is conceivable that your college-age son will have more peers at his writing level (in an engineering program) than you might initially expect. While I can't speak to what the political climate will be like in a few years, historically, engineering and STEM programs have numerous students whose first language is not English. In addition, there is sadly a large number of U.S. high school graduates who, despite speaking English as a first language, haven't had good writing instruction.

You will probably have a better sense when he is in high school about the education path that will be best for him. A fair amount will probably depend on whether he ends up as a slow ok writer or a slow poor one. A sufficiently motivated slow ok writer could probably find some sort of college trajectory that minimizes timed writing. And if applicable, you would have a better sense whether a college/ university abroad or in the the U.S. would be be a better fit. While American schools tend to have some sort of writing/ gen ed requirements, they usually do a better job supporting other accommodations (extended time, use of a note taker, etc. ) than universities abroad.

Landmark College specifically could be a post-secondary option or one of their summer camp for middle/high school students. There are also colleges with programs specifically for students with learning disabilities.
posted by oceano at 6:03 AM on September 25 [1 favorite]

Also nthing the OT recommendation. There is most likely going to be some activities in his future that will involve paper and pencil. The more he can write legibly/ quickly, and have the endurance to do so, the easier he will find certain aspects of his future academic and professional careers.

Specifically, based on his other challenges, your son might also want to work on the skills and methods he needs for note taking, particularly in STEM contexts. Individuals with slow processing speed can be particularly disadvantaged by poor note taking as the concepts (and associated notation) get more complex. Knowing LaTex (or Lyx) could come in handy here.

In addition, if he hasn't been explicitly taught already, your son might want to learn general study skills and time management techniques that work for him. (Your son is probably never going to be the one with a perfectly color coded handwritten study guide.) But there are other techniques that will probably work better for him.

I know this comment didn't specifically address your concern about other kinds of writing. And of course you know your son better than some internet stranger. As I'm sure you know, twice exceptional students are often "resistant" to the developmental milestones that educational institutions impose. Your son's brain is still developing and will be different in a few years, so there's no way to know now what his writing skill level will be. However, I have reasons to suspect that on his current trajectory, your son may hit a lurking iceburg. AKA the point where he is no longer able to compensate for his learning differences in his STEM classes. I think this is potentially a larger problem since this could derail him entirely from the college track.
posted by oceano at 9:14 AM on September 25

Thank you so much everyone! I feel better! Particular thank you to oceano for mentioning Landmark - I had no idea that colleges like that existed. That one doesn't offer an engineering program, but at least now I know there is something like that out there. Really, thank you, thank you, thank you. _DB_, I may take you up on your kind offer!
posted by widdershins at 10:05 AM on September 25

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