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Learning curve: about five million school-age kids and teens have been diagnosed with some kind of learning disability-and that number is on the rise. With climbing stats, it might seem like everyone has a learning disorder. But is that really the case? Experts say some girls are being treated for disorders they don't actually have. Here's what you need to know ...

Megan S., 11, was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) when she was in first grade. Her teacher told her parents she had trouble focusing in class, was prone to outbursts and didn't work well with her classmates. She was often sent to sit in the hall or to the school office. She was also said to be "hyper-focused" when it came to reading.

"I wouldn't hear the teacher when I was reading a book, I was just so lost in it. I love to read," says Megan.

According to Megan's teacher, this all added up to Megan having ADHD. The teacher suggested she take Adderall, a drug that helps calm the hyperactive behavior associated with ADHD. Megan's doctor agreed and prescribed the medication to Megan, without even testing her. There were immediate side effects. "I felt really upset and I'd cry a lot. It was awful," Megan shares.

Even though her teacher said she could see a difference in class, at home Megan's outbursts became more intense and frequent. "It did not help. It just made me more emotional and did not 'fix' my hyperactivity," she says.


Finally, Megan's mom took her to a specialist, a behavioral pediatrician, who had her teachers answer a series of questions. He also interviewed her parents and gave Megan an IQ test.

The results? Megan didn't have ADHD. She was gifted.

"Gifted kids often get bored in class and exhibit signs that seem like hyperactivity or an inability to focus," says Patrick Garland, co-founder of Tandem Teaching, an education consulting group in Los Angeles. "If they aren't being challenged enough, they sometimes act out."

Missed Diagnosis

Megan's experience isn't uncommon. Some experts think as many as 1 million kids have been misdiagnosed as having ADHD when they don't.

According to specialists, ADHD and ADD (Attention-Deficit Disorder) are the most commonly diagnosed learning disorders. But because their symptoms--hyperactivity, inability to concentrate, forgetfulness and disorganization--are so similar to many other conditions, experts say it's easy to make a misdiagnosis.

"Everything from poor eyesight to stress over things going on at home to simply not mixing well with a teacher can all cause symptoms that seem like a learning disability," Garland says.

But the real tragedy is that teens who need help for a specific problem, such as anxiety or Asperger's syndrome, get treated for the wrong thing. Like Megan, lots of girls are given drugs they don't need, which could have dangerous side effects.

"Ritalin can make children hyper and cause sleeping or eating disorders," warns Dr. Gordon Sherman, executive director of the Newgrange School in Princeton, N.J., which works with students with LDs. For many girls who are going through puberty, hormonal changes and these medications don't mix.

Garland says that in many cases, students may not have a disability at all.

"Food is a huge factor," he explains. "I've worked with kids who had concentration problems, couldn't sit still and had other ADHD-like behavior, but the problem was they were having too much sugar, caffeine and processed foods, which were causing hyperactive behavior. Once the junk was cut out, the ADHD subsided drastically."

Sleep is another possible culprit. Not getting enough of it can make it difficult to focus in class or have enough energy. And those who suffer from sleep apnea, which causes pauses in breath or very shallow breathing during sleep, may also struggle during the day.

"So many things can play into why a girl might be having trouble in school," says Garland.

What's Going On?

Experts say there are many reasons for the misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis of leaning disabilities. Part of the issue is that learning disorders were misunderstood for many years. Often, girls who had LDs weren't diagnosed until it was too late--or not at all. Now there's a huge push to ensure that doesn't happen.

The numbers support this theory. A new study says the number of kids with a developmental disability increased from less than 13 percent in 1997 to more than 15 percent by 2008.

Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler is a clinical psychologist and author of Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure. She says one factor contributing to misdiagnosis is the increased pressure to do well in school and get into elite colleges. When girls don't pull in amazing grades, parents search for answers. LDs can provide an explanation.

"If parents see that girls aren't excelling in every single area, they become concerned and wonder if it signals a learning disability," says Cohen-Sandler. "Sometimes girls are not impaired--just average."

A Quick Fix

Cohen-Sandler says sometimes parents are so intent on finding an immediate remedy to help their daughters, they often turn to drugs first rather than looking into other options.

"Some families are anxious to get their girls 'fixed,'" she says. "They opt for medication, sometimes skipping the crucial step of finding out what's really going on and pinpointing what will help."

She says for girls whose learning issues are the result of difficulties such as anxiety, depression or eating disorders, treatment needs to focus on therapy, not just tutoring or drugs.

Finding Answers

For Kate J., 17, it wasn't that she was misdiagnosed-it just took a long time to figure out what was going on.

"No one believed I had a learning disorder because I did so well in school," she says. "But my spelling was horrendous. I'd ask my parents how a word was spelled and my little brother would spell it perfectly the first try. It made me feel so dumb to have to ask."

The worst part was Kate's teachers thought she just wasn't trying hard enough. Finally, when Kate was a junior, her mom got her tested for dyslexia.

"No one wants to find out there's something wrong, but the diagnosis helped me to realize how much I could accomplish, even with an LD."

Now, Kate uses special books to help her read. It's made a big difference. She's getting all A's in advanced classes.

An Easy Excuse

For some parents, finding out their daughter has a learning disability can be a relief. But Garland says recently he's noticed a disappointing trend.

"For some parents, labeling their daughter as having ADHD or a learning disorder becomes an excuse for their daughter's behavior or for not doing as well in school," he says. "And that's so not true because girls with learning disabilities can work hard and actually do well."

Kylie M., 14, agrees. "I think many girls use learning disabilities or talk about themselves having a learning disability to attempt to cover up their mistakes."

Getting Help

For Megan, learning she was gifted was a relief. Enrolling in challenging honors classes helped her behavior.

"I am fine now," she says. "My brain works a little faster than my friends' sometimes, but people treat me like a normal girl most of the time."

Now that Kate is receiving the proper treatment, she's excited about her future.

"I want to show others struggling with dyslexia that it's possible to be intelligent with a disability, you just need to adapt to and overcome the obstacles in your path," she says.

Sherman says for any girl who is struggling, thinks she might have a learning disorder or believes she might have been misdiagnosed with an LD, she should talk to her parents, a trusted adult, guidance counselor, psychologist or tutor. Keep at it until the concerns have been heard and addressed.

Kate says her experience showed her how important it is to speak up. She did, and let her parents know the treatment didn't feel right.

"You need to take charge and find out what learning disability you really have, if any. Do research online or reach out to a doctor," Kate advises. "And just know that no matter what's wrong, you can get through it if you try your hardest. Don't let any disability hold you back."


International Dyslexia Association *

A.D.D. Resource Center *

The Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support (OASIS) Center *

The Lowdown on LDs

According to a GL online survey, more than 50 percent of girls have wondered if they have a learning disability. Here's a rundown of the most common ones and their signs ...

ADHD/ADD: Trouble sitting still, staying focused, following instructions, being organized and doing homework

Autism/Asperger's: Difficulty making friends, reading body language, empathizing and making eye contact

Dyslexia: Difficulty reading, writing, spelling and speaking

Dyscalculia: Problems with math and understanding time and money

Dysgraphia: Poor handwriting and spelling challenges

Dyspraxia: Lack of hand-eye coordination, balance and dexterity

Auditory Processing Disorder Problems with reading, comprehension and language

Visual Processing Disorder: Trouble processing maps, charts, symbols and pictures
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Title Annotation:GL SPECIAL REPORT
Author:Lundsten, Apryl
Publication:Girls' Life
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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