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Q: My son's teacher thinks he might have a learning disability called "incoding". Can you give me some information about it -- how to have his tested to see if he has this, etc. Thank you.
A: Your son's teacher is probably referring to an "ENcoding" difficulty. People with learning disabilities may have difficulty in either using or understanding spoken or written language. Difficulties in understanding often have their roots in problems with "DEcoding." People who have problems using language may have a disability that affects ENcoding. A child who has a problem with decoding may have difficulty sounding out (decoding) words using phonics. Or, in order to understand a long set of verbal instructions and act on them, a person has to decode (make sense of) the message. Kids with poor phonics skills or who have poor auditory memory may have trouble decoding written or spoken messages. For children and adults with learning disabilities that are characterized by problems with decoding, it's like being sent messages in a foreign language or in hieroglyphics.
On the other hand, learning disabled children or adults who have problems ENCODING have difficulty putting their ideas into messages they can deliver and that can be understood by other people. In your son's case, this may mean that he has a good idea floating around in his head, but he can't put the ideas into a written story that makes a lot of sense. It may be out of sequence or lack references to cause and effect, or may contain errors about the characters or their deeds. If this is a problem with encoding spoken language, your son may have an idea about what he wants to say, but can't put it into words. He may want to say "spaghetti" but instead he says "busketti." Or he may have just seen a movie and although he enjoyed it, he can't retell the main ideas; he may get them confused. Or in order to get it right he may need to retell the entire story, from beginning to end. This may tire out or turn off listeners who don't understand that he has this kind of disability.
To get a better idea about the specific nature of your son's learning disability, how if affects him in school and at home, and what can be done about it, make sure that he has a comprehensive evaluation by someone who is specifically trained in the assessment and treatment of learning disabilities. This might be a school psychologist, or learning disability specialist, or a neuropsychologist. Your son may need to have an individual educational plan (IEP) in order to get help for this problem. But there is hope. With the right kind and amount of special help, your child can learn to improve his encoding skills.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.