Learning Disabilities & Attention Deficits
Learning disabilities are a common problem in children with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1). Over half of children with NF1 have difficulty with academic performance, which can cause them to repeat a grade in school.
A learning disability can be thought of as a short circuit or problem (dysfunction) in one or several of channels in the brain. Dysfunction in any of these channels can make it harder for a child to perform up to their potential.
These channels are important for getting information into the brain (input), processing that information, or communicating information (output).
As a result, children with NF1 may have difficulty with reading, writing, math, and memory or have difficulty staying focused in the classroom.
Children with NF1 who experience difficulty getting information into the brain have a perceptual disability.
These children may reverse letters, have problems with positioning objects in space, or have difficulties distinguishing subtle differences between similar sounds.
In addition, they may misunderstand social cues and body language. They can end up feeling confused, anxious and/or frustrated, and this can impact negatively on their school performance and social interactions.
Children with NF1 can also have trouble processing information once it gets into the brain, and their brains may have difficulty making sense of the information they receive. These integration problems can include problems putting things in an order that makes sense, figuring out the meaning of symbols and words, and organizing new information.
Children with NF1, particularly boys, may additionally have difficulty communicating what they have learned. This is a problem with language and motor output. Children with this type of language problem can talk on and on, often with a great deal of intelligence and expression about a wide range of topics, and then freeze when asked a specific question.
Children with motor output problems are often regarded as clumsy or uncoordinated. Typically, these children have difficulty with gym activities or with the fine motor coordination skills needed for writing.
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in NF1
In addition to these learning problems, a large number of children with NF1 have attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity. Attention problems often co-exist with other learning disabilities.
While attention deficit disorder may be obvious in some children with NF1, subtle, but still highly significant, problems with attention may be uncovered in many children with NF1 only after formal testing.
Those children with attention difficulties and/or hyperactivity benefit from behavioral modification or stimulant medication as well as special accommodations at school.
Despite these problems, most children have relatively normal intelligence. Importantly, children with learning disabilities are not stupid or lazy. They have significant problems with the way they learn and perceive the world, and require alternative strategies to support their growth and learning.
Their problems should be formally evaluated by a professional either privately or in the school district to develop an appropriate individualized education plan (IEP). Those children who do not qualify for an IEP may receive services through a 504 plan. Children with NF1, who receive these intensive services, will have the greatest chance of living up to their potential.