Learning disabilities: Assistive tech to help neurodiverse students thrive in a neurotypical world

Doing well, being rewarded, being recognised – these are all basic human needs, especially in children and young people who are just learning how to be and who they are in the world.

Children start their first day of school with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, not knowing where they will excel, what friends they will make, and how their community will respond to them.

For some children, however, the praise never comes and the grades stay low. They can’t seem to keep up with their peers and they don’t understand why.

In Australia, around 4% of students (around 163,000 schoolgoers) have a learning disability, also called a specific learning disorder. Luckily, we live in a modern world and assistive technology is expanding and changing daily to open pathways to success for these students. This month, we’re breaking down specific learning disorders and looking at what tech is out there to help students thrive alongside their learning disability.

In this article, we’ll look at:

  • What are learning disabilities?
  • Types of learning disabilities
  • Assistive tech for Dyslexia
  • Assistive tech for Dysgraphia
  • Assistive tech for Dyscalculia

Let’s dive in!

What are learning disabilities?

A learning disability is a long-term, unexpected and persistent difficulty in certain areas of learning like reading, writing or maths. They are caused by a neurodevelopmental (the way the brain develops) disorder, often as a result of a combination of cognitive, genetic and environmental factors.

It’s important to note that a learning disability is not an intellectual disability, but rather a disorder in how the brains process certain information. Many students with learning disabilities excel in plenty of other areas.

A specific learning disorder is a lifelong condition that can be managed and aided, so that the person does not get held back academically or professionally.

Types of learning disabilities

There are three main types of learning disabilities:

  • Dyslexia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyscalculia

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to read and interpret words, letters, and other symbols. Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, accounting for around 80% of cases.

What it is:

  • Difficulty with reading words accurately and fluently.
  • Difficulty with spelling and decoding words.
  • Difficulty linking the symbol (letter) with the sound or pattern.
  • Difficulty linking the sound with the meaning of a word.

What it is not:

  • Just reading words backwards.
  • A disease that can or needs to be cured.
  • A visual processing problem.
  • An intellectual disorder.

Dysgraphia:

Dysgraphia is a specific learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to write.

What it is:

  • Difficulty with constructing writing in a structured and meaningful way.
  • Difficulty with punctuation and spelling affecting how someone expresses themselves.
  • Difficulty with organising thoughts and ideas into written language.
  • Motor-based dysgraphia is a type of dysgraphia where a person’s motor control affects their handwriting.

What it is not:

  • Just having poor handwriting.
  • Being lazy.
  • Something that can be outgrown.
  • An intellectual disorder.

Dyscalculia

Dyscalculia is a specific learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand numbers and learn maths facts.

What it is:

  • Difficulty with mathematical concepts.
  • Difficulty understanding time.
  • Difficulty using money.
  • Difficulty with basic arithmetic.

What it isn’t:

  • Just being bad at maths.
  • Something that will go away with practice.
  • An intellectual disorder.

Other challenges:

Students with learning disabilities often struggle with phonological and orthographic processing and working memory.

Phonological processing has to do with awareness of the sounds and patterns in the sentences and words we hear, our recall of speech, and how quickly we can identify things we’re familiar with.

Orthographic processing involves how we remember the form and shape of letters and how they sound so we’re able to process written words. It also includes our skill in recalling the spelling patterns and rules of language.

Working memory is where we keep bits of information temporarily as we work with them. For instance, it’s what we rely on when doing maths in our heads or when following instructions. It’s different from just remembering something for a short while because it involves both holding onto the information and actively using it at the same time.

Assistive Tech for Dyslexia

Here are some types of assistive technology designed to support people with dyslexia:

Text-to-Speech (TTS) Software: TTS software converts written text into spoken words, allowing students with dyslexia to listen to written material rather than struggle through reading it. Examples include NaturalReaders, Voice Dream Reader, and the built-in TTS features in many smartphones and computers.

Speech-to-Text (STT) Software: STT software helps students with dyslexia by transcribing their spoken words into written text. This is particularly useful for writing assignments, notes, and emails. Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Google’s Voice Typing are popular options.

Reading and writing assistance apps: These apps offer a range of features designed to aid with reading and writing, such as text highlighting, word prediction, and grammar checking. Some examples are tools like Grammarly, Ghotit, and Ginger.

e-Readers and digital books: E-readers that allow customisation of font size, style, and background colour can make reading easier for people with dyslexia. Some e-readers and apps also include TTS functionality. Amazon Kindle and Apple Books are some examples of this type of tech.

Audiobooks and educational videos: Audiobooks and educational videos can be a valuable learning resource, offering an alternative to traditional reading. Audible, Learning Ally, and Khan Academy provide access to a wide range of audiobooks and video content covering various subjects.

Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software: OCR software can scan printed text and convert it into digital format, which can then be read aloud using TTS technology. This is helpful for converting physical books and documents into an accessible format. Adobe Scan and Microsoft Office Lens are good examples. A scanning pen, also known as a reading pen, is a type of portable OCR that scans and reads printed text aloud.

Assistive Tech for Dysgraphia

Here are some types of assistive technology designed to support people with dysgraphia:

Speech-to-Text (STT) software: As with dyslexia, this technology can be helpful, allowing students to dictate their thoughts instead of typing or writing them down, which can be a game-changer for those with dysgraphia. (See recommended software in the Dyslexia section above.)

Graphic organisers: These tools help with planning and organising writing tasks. They can assist in structuring essays, reports, and stories in a visual format, making the writing process more manageable. Inspiration Maps and Kidspiration are designed to help users organise their thoughts visually.

Digital pens and tablets: Devices like the Livescribe smartpen, which records handwritten notes and audio simultaneously, can help students keep up with notes in class without getting overwhelmed by their handwriting difficulties.

Text-to-Speech (TTS) Software: For reviewing what has been written, TTS software can read text back to the writer, helping them catch errors or awkward phrases. (See recommendations in the Dyslexia section above.)

Assistive Tech for Dyscalculia

Here are some types of assistive technology designed to support people with Dyscalculia:

Graphing calculators: Devices like the Texas Instruments TI series can simplify complex mathematical operations and help visualise equations, which may help students to better understand abstract maths concepts.

Maths software and apps: Programs like MathType or apps such as Photomath allow users to input equations and solve them step-by-step, providing visual aids and explanations for each step, which can be helpful for understanding maths processes.

Digital tutors: Online platforms like Khan Academy offer video tutorials and interactive exercises for a wide range of maths topics, allowing students to learn at their own pace and in a way that suits their learning style.

Number line apps: Apps that visualise number lines can help users understand numerical relationships and operations more intuitively. This can be particularly helpful for younger students or those struggling with the basics of arithmetic.

We hope these assistive tech suggestions help you on your academic journey.

If you’re looking for post-school development to keep building on your skills, sign up for one of our Day Programs. Simply give us a call today or come in for a tour of our premises. P: (02) 8328 0679 www.advancedisabilityservices.com.au

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