Breaking cycle of academic failure Disabilities: Kennedy Krieger specialists make a diagnosis, prescribe medications and suggest steps to help learning-disabled students.

July 28, 1996|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

At Patterson High School, Kelly Arnold had juggled soccer and band and made the honor roll despite average grades in English. Excelling in the sciences, she was accepted into a medical technician training program at Villa Julie College.

As a freshman, she breezed through the basic sciences but was stumped by the required English course. "I tried really hard, I went to the learning lab and counselors would say, 'You have all the ideas, this will be a great paper,' but then I'd write and get an F. I don't think my professors believed that I was working so hard," Arnold recalled.

She repeated the cycle of failure in English twice more before a perceptive instructor referred the sophomore to a center for learning disabilities. That was the beginning of the end of failure for Arnold, who at 21 became one of the first college students to be diagnosed with a learning disability by Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute.

She and a dozen other students were part of a pilot program, one of the nation's first, that subjects older students to the vigorous interdisciplinary evaluation usually given young pupils. Previously, college-age students had to see private specialists, and coordinate a number of experts' diagnoses to confirm suspicions of a learning disability.

Dr. Bruce Shapiro, director for the center for learning disabilites at Kennedy Krieger, defines the disability as a neurological problem with organization, concentration or attention. He estimates that 1 to 3 percent of the college population has an unidentified learning disability.

Based on the success of the pilot program, Kennedy Krieger officials have decided to continue the college-age evaluations on a case-by-case basis. With the tests ranging in cost from $1200 hTC to $1800, financial assistance is available to those who do not have medical insurance coverage.

Using a battery of tests, including an IQ test and speech and language evaluations, a team of Kennedy Krieger specialists make a diagnosis, prescribe any appropriate medications, furnish a written evaluation and often make recommendations to professors.

For example, they may call for more handouts in class. At Villa Julie, Arnold was given extra time on exams and access to lecture notes. She earned an associate's degree last spring and is transferring this fall to the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Though specialists caution there is no "average" learning disabled student, Sheldon H. Horowitz, the director of professional services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said a typical college student who has an undentified disability is 'very bright, very industrious and through their hard work has been able to compensate in elementary and high school."

It is when these students enter college -- an atmosphere with much less structure and support -- that their problems with concentration, attention or organization hurt their grades.

"Most of these students aren't used to failure. They get frustrated, some get depressed, which leads to worse concentration. Eventually they'll drop out. That cycle of self-denegration, blame and guilt can be broken once the source of the problem is identified -- most of the relief comes in the diagnosis.' said Dr. Marge Fessler, a supervisor at Kennedy-Krieger.

Arnold agrees. When she was diagnosed last year with an inability to express herself verbally and in written form and with Attention Deficit Disorder, her confidence was restored. What she needed was the knowledge that she still "had what it takes."

"I just have to work a little harder, a little differently," she said.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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