Wednesday, December 03
PITTSFIELD — Learning disorders can be complex in origin and definition. But at Tuesday's Hillcrest Educational Centers conference on the topic, they were summed up on the side of a candy bar.

Each of the 135 participants yesterday were given a familiar-looking chocolate bar in dark mocha-colored wrapper. But instead of the bold-faced silver lettering reading "Hershey's," for example, the bar was labeled "Dyslexia."

Printed beneath it were the "ingredients": Neurological in origin, difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition, poor spelling and decoding abilities, problems in reading comprehension, reduced reading experience, etc.

"The important thing for society to remember is that these are invisible disabilities. People don't choose to have these disorders. A child doesn't want to be dyslexic. There is a neurobiological reason for it," said Dr. Kevin Blake.

Blake was the key speaker at the conference giving a presentation titled "I Pulled an All-Nighter for My High School Graduation and Other Adventures of a Hearing-Impaired, Dyslexic Psychologist."

Indeed, Blake was inspired to pursue a career as an authority on learning disorders by his own learning disabilities. It was because of lack of understanding and field research that Blake wasn't diagnosed until age 26.

The participants in Tuesday's conference largely included Hillcrest employees, as well as representatives from local private and public schools and parents.

Several people commented on how helpful it was to hear Blake's first-hand experience with learning disorders.

"It helps to see someone who has gone through this in their life. It's a reminder of what we as teachers need to do for our students," said Nicola McMahon, who teaches at Hillcrest's day school program at Housatonic Academy.

According to clinician Thomas Lusignan, clinicians and teachers often work together as a team to tailor interventions for students.

In addition to reading disorders and dyslexia, Blake also spoke about attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), the neurobiology of the disorders and both alternative and integrated medical treatments for them.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 4 million school-age children have learning disabilities. Of these, at least 20 percent have a type of disorder that leaves them unable to focus their attention.

Blake and conference participants noted how learning disorders can cause a person to be labeled as "lazy" or a "late-bloomer" or worse yet, "an idiot."

"Kids are still absolutely stigmatized. They're seen as trouble, especially if they end up removed from school and coming to us," said Metta Burpee, director of clinical services at Hillcrest.

In some cases, the solution can be teaching a person an alternative way of looking at a math problem or checking to see whether one needs glasses or a hearing aid.

Michele Morin, Hillcrest's director of workforce development, who helped organize the conference, noted that schools are more than ever equipped with knowledge and support and research of learning disorders, but that society at-large is not as informed.

"I've been in classrooms where kids know what other kids have and will work around that," she said. "The real challenge is finding continuing support for adults. We can all do a better job with that."