Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Sentenced to Shelter-in-Place?
As parents, we all appreciate the extra time with our kids that COVID-19’s “shelter-in-place” orders have provided. But for families who have children with learning disorders, the extra time and new at-home learning programs have also given parents a lot more insight into the confidence-killing impacts these neurologic challenges have on the ones they love most. It’s not that parents weren’t aware of the impacts before COVID-19, but their increased teaching role and being together 24-7 in one location without life’s distractions has brought them into clearer focus. One proactive parent I recently spoke with, a pediatric physical therapist from Atlanta, GA who has two children with learning difficulties, commented on this point:
"It's just so heartbreaking to watch them struggle through what should be a relatively simple task. It takes Ben three hours to do what his peers are accomplishing in 1 hour. I knew he was working hard, but this experience brings it front and center. It’s like my kids will have to “shelter-in-place” with their learning disorders for the rest of their lives – they’ll never get a break from the challenge.”
Thanks to recent discoveries in neuroplasticity, there is new hope that kids (and adults) won’t have a life-long shelter-in-place sentence with their learning difficulties. These discoveries have given parents a powerful and growing new toolbox of options that can be used to help their children reduce, or in some cases, eliminate many of the challenges they face. They work by addressing the root cause of the core learning disorder, which means life can get a lot easier for everyone in the family, without the side-effects of pharmaceuticals. To understand more about this toolbox and how the treatments work, it’s helpful to first learn a little about neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
These findings have overturned 400 years of thought on how the brain functions. Thanks to pioneers in the field like Dr. Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel Prize in 2007 for his research proving neuroplasticity and Dr. Norman Doidge, who has published 2 books documenting the science and highlighting effective treatments, a paradigm shift in how to treat neurologic dysfunction has occurred. The healthcare field is undergoing a transition from a compensation-based approach where the focus was on treating the symptoms of a disorder, to one focused on recovery and regaining functionality, which is both physically and emotionally empowering. And because these treatments work by gradually changing the brain’s functionality, they don’t have the side-effects that often come with using a symptom-oriented pharmaceutical-only approach. It’s an exciting time for anyone who has lived with a brain or nervous system dysfunction. Clinicians, therapists and technology providers are working to apply this new approach into effective treatments and learn how to incorporate older treatments that we know are also effective. While we are in the early days of this transition, there are existing treatments that can provide benefit today.
Treatments for Learning Disorders
So, what neuroplasticity-based treatments are in the new toolbox for learning disorders? The list provided here, created by The Neuroplasticity Alliance (www.NPAllies.org) provides some well-documented treatments that parents can consider. The majority of these treatments have been around for several decades and are supported by extensive evidence-based results that are now being documented with more traditional research. As parents consider which new tool, or treatment to try, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:
Neuroplasticity works by changing the brain's functional capability and areas of the brain often process more than one function, so treatments often have a positive effect on a range of neurologic challenges. You will likely see cognitive improvements in more than one area and may experience improved physical coordination as well.
While most patients will start to see results from these treatments within several weeks of initiation, they may require several months, or years, based on severity of the disorder, to see the maximum benefit. As a result, plan to put in some hard work. Based on the amount of time your clinician thinks it will take to see results, you may want to continue to leverage the more traditional learning strategies most therapists still rely on.
While we can continue to improve our brains throughout life, which means these treatments can help anyone at any age, it does take more effort the older we get, so treatments can be more effective in younger patients, especially in prepubescent children.
Traditional therapists and physicians may not be aware of or fully equipped to evaluate or implement neuroplastic treatments. Be sure you find a provider that is knowledgeable and has enough experience to be able to evaluate your child’s specific profile against the treatment’s potential.
Each person's brain is unique, and there are stages of neuroplastic healing that need to be taken into consideration. Some treatments that prove to be effective on one person, may not show similar results on another person and multiple treatments may be needed.
Lastly, it’s important to note that while neuroplasticity proves the brain can heal itself, this doesn't mean that it always will. Neuroplasticity offers hope for recovery where there was none before, but like the skin, bones and liver that heal themselves, there are injuries and developmental delays that cannot be overcome. Most challenges however can experience some level of improvement with these treatments.
As scientists and clinicians continue to discover the dynamics of brain plasticity, new treatments will continue to be developed. As they do, neuroplasticity offers the promise that our kid's “shelter in place” order, like the COVID-19 order, may eventually come to an end.
To learn more detail about these treatments and find suggested providers, visit The Neuroplasticity Alliance at NPAllies.org/treatments. The Neuroplasticity Alliance is a not-for-profit dedicated to accelerating awareness of, access to and development of neuroplastic treatments. You may also want to read Dr. Norman Doidge’s two book: The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity and The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. His books provide a detailed account of the science behind neuroplasticity and the treatments recommended by NPA.
Sherry Odom is the Founder and Executive Director of NPA and a caregiver to family members with learning difficulties and neurodegenerative disease.