How to help children with ADHD, autism and dyslexia learn better

Neurodiverse children process the world differently, but can thrive with the right support

Simone says when her son Theo, 11, was formally diagnosed with ADHD it was a starting point for getting him the additional support he needed. Photo: Himaya Quasem
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Theo, 11, loves science, maths and exploring the mysteries of the underwater world. He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. While he can focus intently on beloved subjects, the ADHD poses challenges, too.

“It makes me get distracted easily and lose focus a lot,” says Theo. “Removing distractions and having brain breaks — when I get a short time to do what I want for a bit — helps.”

Theo is one of many children in the UAE who need additional support at school because they don't learn in the typical way. According to a report published in 2020 in the British Medical Bulletin, between 15 and 20 per cent of the global population are neurodiverse, meaning they process the world differently. Neurodiversity includes conditions such as dyslexia, autism and ADHD.

Find out whether a child with autism is sensitive to certain sounds or fabrics, then remove or reduce any that cause discomfort
Eman Abushabab, community awareness manager and behaviour analyst, Dubai Autism Centre

When Theo was formally diagnosed at the age of eight, it almost came as a relief to his mother, Simone, 35. It meant the family finally had answers and “a starting point for getting Theo the additional support he needed”, she says.

But most children with ADHD symptoms aren’t getting the right treatment, according to a study published in Jama Network Open last month, which recognised there is “an urgent need” to increase awareness.

Dr Suzette Ebersohn, an educational psychologist at KidsFirst medical centre in Abu Dhabi, says there are different types of ADHD. “A child with an inattentive type is often late and forgetful,” she explains. “He or she faces difficulties following instructions and finds it hard to complete tasks if not interested.

“The children with the hyperactive-impulsive type fidget frequently and might walk around during a lesson, interrupt others and generally have excess energy.”

A combination of both types is most common among children with ADHD, she says.

After his diagnosis, Theo received medication and support from educational psychologists, occupational therapists and specialist teachers at school. Over the years, he’s made great strides, says Simone, who wants people to know children with additional needs have their strengths and can thrive with the right support.

Ebersohn says focusing on a child’s strengths and establishing an individual education plan are essential. An IEP is a tailored programme of learning, including classroom activities, strategies for adjusting the way the classroom is set up, work assignments, instructions and tools to meet a child’s needs.

“Concentrate on a child’s strengths, not weaknesses,” says Ebersohn. “A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein is: ‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’”

Cultivating a culture of deep-seated acceptance at school can open doors for neurodiverse children, says Riya Agnihotri, a teacher who has supported children with additional needs in the UAE and UK for more than 20 years.

“There are a million ways to deal with any disruptive behaviour, but the first should be complete acceptance, love and warmth,” she says. “Once this is taken care of, the child will grow and flourish both academically and emotionally.”

For teaching staff to fully support children, they need to be well trained, adds Briony Emery, head of inclusion at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.

“Schools need to invest in training to ensure their staff are up to date with Send [special educational needs and disability] in an international context,” says Emery, who compiled her answers in collaboration with BSAK specialist inclusion teachers Rachel Hinds and Lucy Haverty.

The National spoke to education experts about building a framework of support for children with ADHD, autism and dyslexia in school. While this is not a comprehensive list of learning difficulties and every child is different, it provides a snapshot of helpful strategies.

Plan sensory breaks for children with ADHD

According to Emery and her colleagues: “Regular movement and sensory breaks help a child relax and cope with the demands of a school day.

“Adults should also understand the child's difficulties with executive functioning — the ability to plan, set goals and feel motivated — to avoid becoming impatient or expecting more than a pupil is capable of.

“Finally, they should offer support with emotional and social needs, often the most challenging thing in school for someone with ADHD.”

Establish a routine for children with autism

About one in 100 children has autism, according to the World Health Organisation, and autism can vary greatly from child to child. However, common challenges include difficulty with communication, atypical patterns of activities and behaviour, difficulty making transitions from one activity to another, a focus on detail and unusual reactions to sensations.

Eman Abushabab, community awareness manager and behaviour analyst at Dubai Autism Centre, offers some tips to help an autistic child in mainstream school. “Establish a routine and create a visual timetable. This consists of images and simple words in chronological order that outline planned daily activities to make the child feel secure and limit anxiety about transitions.

“Consider the learning environment. Teachers should find out whether a child is sensitive to certain sounds or fabrics, for example, then remove or reduce any that cause discomfort.

“Communicate clearly. Some people with autism find interpreting meaning hard, so teachers should avoid metaphors and rhetorical questions, and keep instructions simple.”

Use multisensory teaching methods for children with dyslexia

Children with dyslexia have difficulty learning words accurately and understanding sentences, says Ebersohn. Signs of dyslexia are often spotted only once the child has reached reading age. Some useful strategies include having an inclusive classroom environment with built-in support for dyslexic pupils. “For example, use accessible fonts and make sure the school has age and interest-appropriate books for all reading ability levels,” says Ebersohn.

Other tips include: using off-white or yellow paper or coloured plastic overlays to help children process text and reading rulers to assist in maintaining focus; and using multisensory teaching methods such as creative visuals, songs, dance and tactile techniques such as forming letters and words using sand or textured fabrics.

Finally, use technology such as spellcheckers, text-to-speech software and audiobooks to support children to develop their independence and reading skills.

The price parents and pupils pay

Although support and strategies are available, parents should be aware of the potential costs in the UAE. Schools may require parents to pay for one-to-one learning assistants for their child. Medical insurance doesn’t always cover the cost of speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and educational psychologists. Simone, Theo’s mother, adds that co-ordinating the support can be a “huge challenge”.

Another hurdle is the stigma that can surround neurodiverse children, who can end up feeling “different”, says Ebersohn. Children with learning difficulties, and their parents, can also feel excluded from wider society.

“This can bring emotional distress of low self-worth,” she says. “However, many children can overcome these challenges with the right strategy, training accommodation and emotional support.

“The more we understand learning disabilities, the less likely we are to hold stigmatising views.”

Updated: May 23, 2023, 9:34 AM