Author: Tamarah Kagan-Kushnir, MD, FRCPC, and Jay Rosenfield, MD, MEd, FRCPC

As pediatricians our ultimate goal is to optimize the health and well being of children and facilitate their growth and development. Learning disabilities threaten a child’s quality of life in a variety of spheres, including educational achievement and social/emotional development. As such, helping a child and family to recognize and manage a learning disability as early as possible is an important part of comprehensive Pediatric care.

In many ways, pediatricians are in a unique position to be able to identify developmental risk factors which might be the early precursors of a learning disability. The pediatrician is often the first person parents consult when they have concerns around their child’s development and learning. Furthermore, pediatricians see children over time and therefore have the opportunity to make repeated observations of a child, thus forming a more accurate and complete picture of their development. This, along with parents’, teachers’, and other caregivers’ observations, allows for early recognition of any difficulties. Having knowledge about normal and abnormal development, the pediatrician can then put these concerns in perspective and identify what further measures need to be taken.

As pediatricians are often the first professionals to be aware of a child’s difficulties, they are often responsible for selecting and coordinating a multidisciplinary team to address a child’s needs, including early and accurate diagnosis and intervention. As the medical professional on the team, ruling out medical problems causing or contributing to a child’s developmental picture is a key role. This includes deciding what, if any, medical investigations or procedures are necessary, and whether or not specific treatments, such as medications, are required.

Moreover, a significant number of children with learning disabilities have coexisting problems, including attentional and emotional difficulties such as depression or anxiety, which might benefit from medical intervention. To enhance communication between team members, pediatricians often liase with the other professionals involved in the child’s care. As they see the child regularly, they are also in a position to provide follow up and reassessment of the efficacy of interventions as well as the need for further evaluations and referrals.

Acting as a support and resource to parents is an integral part of what a pediatrician does for all children, especially those with special needs. This includes providing parents with information and helping them to access resources, not only for assessment and therapy, but also for further education and support. Pediatricians can also assist parents in putting together the reports from the variety of professionals interacting with their child so that they can develop a comprehensive understanding of their child’s strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, parents are a child’s most important advocates. Empowering them to do this effectively and helping them negotiate “the system” is an on-going process between the family and the pediatrician.

Working together, parents and pediatricians can accomplish a great deal in helping the young child maximize his/her potential and future success. Parents will always know their children best, and therefore often recognize difficulties before any professionals do. To benefit from their pediatrician’s expertise and support in this area, it is important for parents to discuss their concerns with their pediatrician. Effective communication is a critical aspect of the care and advocacy for the learning disabled child, and can be a powerful tool in achieving early and accurate diagnosis.