Buyer Beware – Controversial Assessments And Treatments For Learning Problems

I must admit I am constantly appalled at the number of highly questionable products and services advertised which claim to diagnose or treat learning disorders but which lack scientific credibility.

Even more disturbing is the way that some organisations are misleading the public by claiming their interventions are effective and citing pseudo-scientific research in support of their dubious claims.

In some cases parents are being persuaded to spend thousands of dollars on programs that claim to treat dyslexia or other learning disorders!

Parents naturally want to find solutions to help their children overcome learning problems, but it’s important to realise there are no “quick fixes” and any such promises should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

What to look out for…

Bold claims based on small or isolated cases. Individual case studies or testimonials claiming that a child was helped or “fixed” after several sessions. (Even if there is a plethora of such case studies, this is not scientific evidence that a treatment or procedure really works.)

Lack of independent research. If all the research is done by the people selling you the product then beware!

One-size-fits-all programs. Programs that claim to help learning difficulties, reading, auditory processing, attention, regulation, sensory processing, speech, language AND autism (I got this full list directly from ONE website!) really are too good to be true.

Pseudo-scientific claims. These are claims which sound vaguely scientific but lack specific details of the mechanisms involved. For example, “Our unique system naturally ‘reprograms’ neural pathways to help your child overcome [any given learning disorder]!”

Coloured glasses to treat dyslexia (reading disorder). Sure, they may have a placebo effect (like taking a sugar pill to treat a headache and believing or wanting to believe that it is working), and the promoters point to a large body of ‘evidence’ which gives the illusion of scientific credibility but is in fact mostly based on anecdotes and individual case studies (where are the large, controlled, peer-reviewed studies?). Furthermore it amazes me that girls choose rose or pink classes when the boys have yellow or blue!

Diagnosis of a learning issue without a cognitive (IQ) assessment. A new breed of “educational consultants”  have popped up. These are typically not Educational and Developmental Psychologists, or any type of psychologist for that matter. They are offering to diagnose learning issues using educational achievement tests without assessing a child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

[Sidenote: Learning issues such as dyslexia were traditionally diagnosed by looking for a discrepancy between IQ and scores on an academic achievement test, but it is now more commonly accepted that kids with a low IQ can also have a learning disorder and such a discrepancy is therefore no longer generally required for a diagnosis. Nonetheless, a cognitive assessment will provide extremely valuable information about the underlying cognitive weaknesses that may underlie a specific learning disorder. Furthermore, a complete picture of a child’s learning profile is vital to inform and guide effective intervention programs.]

Cheap assessments. I have written about this before. The bottom line is you get what you pay for. Some (otherwise reputable) institutions are offering low cost assessments. The only way they can offer the service at such a low cost is by using unpaid students who are still learning to interpret and administer assessments. The main problem is that there are often a large number of students working under the supervision of a single fully qualified academic or practitioner.

But don’t just accept what I say. Do your own research. Be sceptical. And choose your help wisely.

Caveat emptor!

My top five things to look for…

  1. An experienced child psychologist who specialises in the assessment of educational and developmental issues. 
  2. A comprehensive assessment (including a cognitive/IQ test) tailored for your child’s specific issues.
  3. Interventions that have a solid body of independent scientific research to support their effectiveness.
  4. Intervention programs that are informed and guided by a qualified educational and developmental psychologist working in conjunction with other relevant professionals, such as occupational therapists, speech therapists and teachers.


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