31/10/2014 08:46 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 06:12 BST

Does My Child Have Learning Difficulties?

Boy writing on paper at table

My amazing son, who I'll call J, is three, and was diagnosed soon after birth with a relatively rare genetic condition. We don't yet know how it will affect him as he grows older, but so far he has battled an array of medical problems. One thing's for sure, our little family's life will never be 'normal'...

I've been trying to work out whether or not J has learning difficulties - and what that even means.
I suppose in my ignorance I have always assumed that learning difficulties equated to not being clever. But there's no doubt that J is very intelligent and also emotionally aware.

What he does struggle with, though, I find myself thinking, is learning new things. He tends to find anything that is unknown to him a struggle. This pattern started back when he was a baby and needed to learn to roll, sit, crawl, and walk. Each of these achievements was not easy for J.

He resisted tummy time and yet he was desperate to move independently. Getting him to realise crawling was the answer took hours of NHS physiotherapy. But once he realised he could crawl and how to do it, he was so excited he was crawling even in his sleep.

We had a similar experience with eating. He was tube fed and orally aversive for his first year and a half - when I say orally aversive, what I mean is that he would not let any food or drink near his mouth. But once he realised how good food tastes and how nice eating is, around 18 months, everything changed and he's now a fantastic eater.

And then there have been all the tiny little things which he resists - like his buggy being pushed in the woods because the ground wasn't smooth. Or having a shower. Or a colourful scarf or parachute handed to him at a playgroup to hold - he wouldn't hold onto it and would wriggle in my lap and cry. New things are frightening for him.

So it doesn't surprise me that having mastered these basic skills, he now struggles with more complex new things. It has been a challenge for me to interest him in playing with anything that's not vehicle-related - for instance, building blocks, cooking, painting, swimming, watching a performance, playing music, or books or TV without trains, cars and planes in the story.

He didn't understand these things at first - he didn't know how to hold a crayon and make a mark, or stack a block, so it was boring to him to try to colour or build. Gradually he has been able to do more and his interests have developed.

He now loves to sing, swim, bake, and even listen to and recite poetry. But it's still a constant effort to encourage him to learn brand new things. And it's occurred to me that perhaps this is the very definition of a learning difficulty.

I still can't work out, though, whether this resistance to learning new skills is connected to his disability, or whether it's more to do with J's personality. On the one hand I know learning difficulties can often go with his condition. On the other hand I'm reluctant to label him as having learning problems.


Maybe he's just one of those people (like me and my husband) who are either interested in something and passionate about it, or not. Maybe he is just a typical three-year-old boy.


What has become clear to me now I have a baby who is developing normally and has no health issues is that she is completely different to J in the way she learns. She picks new skills up just like that. Things come instinctively to her - at five months she is holding her own bottle to feed herself, examining baby toys with interest, loves walks in the woods - she can handle the bumpy ride because she is mesmerised by the leaves in the trees. And she easily takes to all kinds of music, pictures, sensations and play, sitting quiet and smiling on my lap.

Life is so much harder for J. And lovely as it is to have an 'easy' baby as well, in a funny way I truly enjoy the challenge that opening J's eyes to all the great things in the world gives me as a mother.

Children with Learning Differences