Ministering to Latter-day Saints with Learning Disabilities

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With this third article in this series, we hope to provide another resource to help ward members better serve individuals with special needs. Individuals with disabilities and disorders can be vital, contributing members. And remember that by ministering to ‘the One,’ we serve all.

There is a wide variety of learning disabilities. For members with these disabilities, the effects may not necessarily be visible. In fact, as a church leader, you may not even realize that a member of your organization has a learning disorder. Many are able to function admirably within society by utilizing helpful coping mechanisms which help them to lead normal lives. Others, however, struggle more apparently. For example, learning disabilities may overlap with other physical, behavioral, or psychiatric conditions.

Questions to Ask and Address

There are several questions to ask as we seek to serve these individuals:

  • What stigmas may ward members hold about learning disorders?
  • How many need to be aware of the individual’s more personal information, and how many need only know the basic facts in order to provide effective assistance?
  • Who are the most important people in the member’s life, and who in the ward has the potential to become such?
  • What interests does the member have that will help them develop connections?
  • What tools are available to help guide members who serve those with learning disabilities?
  • What opportunities will allow members with learning disorders to be able to participate in the ward?

There are many resources that can help answer your questions about a particular disorder. Note that each disorder has it’s own inherent set of symptoms. No two people are the same, and although there may be similarities exhibited between disorders, how the disorder affects an individual often greatly differ.

Welcoming Members into the Ward

  1. Assess the Needs of the Individual and Their Family

When ward leaders seek to assist members with special needs, they must first come together with a “spirit of love” rather than a goal to fix. Says Sandra Smith, Day Service Director of Cache Employment and Training Center in Logan, Utah, “Don’t formulate a plan ahead of time. Take ideas—but listen to family members. No one needs to be fixed.”

Even though members may see these individuals at church functions, regular communication is a key part of forming an initial plan. Where there is a lack of communication, misunderstandings can occur, which can result in hurt feelings and even severed relationships within the ward. Always approach these members with humility and love.

As a leader or teacher, be willing to listen and to take advice from professionals, family members, and caregivers who work with these individuals regularly. They often have key information that could help a particular individual, and which may be beneficial in classroom situations or with peer interactions. Other key helpers include home and visiting teachers. The families of these individuals often have their own needs that need to be met, and home and visiting teachers who are fulfilling their roles faithfully have the insight necessary to instigate needed help for any given situation.

Jan Farr, Cache Employment and Training Center in Logan, Utah, says,

When you understand the family’s needs and help them—not just the individual—you serve everyone. Caregivers need rest too!

Ward and stake specialists should help train leaders and teachers. Specialists are there to mediate, to ask the questions that need to be asked, to find the answers and work to find gospel-centered solutions, and to help resolve any additional problems that may arise.

For anyone involved, however, the best plan of action is the a gospel-centered plan as found in Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.”

  1. Provide Opportunities for Spiritual Growth

Spiritual growth and learning happens at different rates; there is no set timetable for any of us. That said, parents, caregivers, and leaders should all be prayerful when helping people with learning disabilities grow in the gospel. Implement and adapt learning strategies into your teaching strategies and lessons. Prepare prayerfully. A last-minute attitude isn’t conducive to a learning atmosphere whether one has normal learning styles or not. If a teacher is frustrated it only fuels more frustration for every class member, especially those with special needs.

Christ Himself taught this principle. He knew that we all learn step by step, “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30).

I watched this principle come to life in my own ward when a middle-aged man with learning disabilities showed incredible progression. He’d been baptized, received the priesthood, served as a home teacher, gone through the temple, and served in the Bishop’s Storehouse as a church service missionary. When he received his missionary plaque, he proceeded to bear his simple testimony. There was not a dry eye in the congregation, because all of us had watched him grow and develop. We knew for ourselves that he is a choice son of God. He exemplifies love better than most of us. He now serves in the Primary.

Jan Farr relates another example of a young man with Down syndrome, who is difficult to understand when speaking, but who faithfully exercises his priesthood duties by blessing the sacramental bread. As one sister said to her son who complained about not being able to understand him, “Open your scriptures and follow along!” This young man’s struggles have touched many a visitor as he or she witnessed his efforts.

They teach us.” says Jan. “His efforts are pure.”

  1. Set an Example of Service

Marie Holst, Employment Services Director of Cache Employment and Training Center in Logan states, “Have the same simple expectations you would expect of normal individuals, just with some accommodations. You never know just how much these individuals are truly capable of. They continually surprise everyone.” She further states, “It’s difficult for youth who have their own challenges with wanting to fit in to be accepting of someone who is different.”

It’s true that teenagers may find it difficult to relate to those with special needs. You might be surprised, though. If given the chance to get to serve their peers, many of them will step up.

“There are huge blessings to all when ward members are accepting of those with special needs and learning difficulties,” says Marie. “Even when dealing with adults who are socially awkward, and whose negative behaviors have been reinforced, it can be difficult. But, we should never give up!”

Leaders can show by example how to be accepting of a person, no matter what their challenges may be. It only takes one person to positively affect another’s life. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true and can happen with even faster results.

General List of Disabilities

ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)

Individuals with ADD struggle with things like inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. As a result, these individuals frequently come up against various learning problems.

They may have difficulty understanding, processing, or expressing information. These signs are often seen in their early school years, and can make it difficult to assimilate into a church classroom and congregational settings. They can also make both teaching and learning the gospel principles feel impossible for everyone. 

Dyslexia and Language Processing Disorder

Dyslexia is frequently described as a language-based learning disorder, but differs from language processing disorder. While Dyslexia affects reading fluency, comprehension, writing, spelling, and especially retention, language processing disorder affects the processing of language (what is said) and the reception of language (how it’s understood). LPD is not the same as auditory processing disorder, which we will discussed later.

People with dyslexia need extra time to read and answer in written form. Alternate forms of spiritual learning, such as listening to audio versions of the scriptures, may prove to be more effective, as could providing time for the individual to read lesson materials in advance. As teachers, be sensitive when calling upon individuals to read aloud in front of other classmates, as they may feel too uncomfortable to do so.

People with LPD often have difficulty putting thoughts into verbal form, can’t find the right words to say, or have a hard time naming a specific object, even if they can describe it or even draw it. Be patient when these individuals answer questions in class.

Peer mentors and ‘extra’ teachers are also great way to help and support these individuals, no matter their age or the organization they belong to. Remember that there is always more than one way to learn. 

Auditory Processing Disorder

Members who struggle with APD often have difficulty recognizing variances between similar sounds, even if they are loud. Figurative language may be confusing, and staying focused during talks and lessons may be difficult if they get distracted by background noise.

Examples of coping strategies may be to show rather than tell, use visual clues with explanations, or allow students thinking time for responses when questions are asked. Use follow up questions to help with reinforcement and understanding of concepts and gospel principles.

Visual Perceptual and Visual Motor Deficit

Persons with visual perceptual and visual motor deficit have problems recognizing shapes and/or letters of the alphabet. They have difficulty writing and copying, and lose their place frequently when reading.

Auditory options for learning rather than written ones also work well for this disability. Lessons which are pre-recorded or can be sent home may be very helpful for these individuals.

Non-Verbal Disorders

Individuals with NVD or NVLD have trouble recognizing cues like facial expression and body language. They generally have high verbal skills, and tend to ask a great many questions, which can be disruptive to a class at times. They can also have difficulty with fine motor skills and coordination, and are often tardy or get lost due to difficulties with spatial and directional orientation and concepts.

Minimizing transitions between activities, changes in schedule, or places of meetings helps to limit confusion and sensory overload. Adding extra verbal explanations is frequently helpful in these situations.

Sensory Processing Disorder

Those with sensory and tactile disorders can be either under or overly sensitive to everything from touch to taste, smell to sight. Texture is frequently an issue with foods. Showing affection in ‘normal’ ways like hugging can send a child with this disorder into panic. Normal physical interaction with other classmates may be difficult, but children can be taught to respect another’s ‘personal space.’

Asking permission to do something as simple as shaking hands will show that you care. Simple acceptance of a person’s feelings goes a long way toward helping them feel as if he or she belongs.

Down Syndrome

Down syndrome is the most common genetic disorder. It varies in severity from person to person. While there are general similarities that span the Down syndrome population, each individual has differing levels of cognitive function. As with other disorders, learning comes at its own pace. However, many people with Down syndrome go on to receive post-secondary educations and live long and productive lives. 

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (Syndrome)

FASD is a spectrum disorder which can be prevented by parents’ abstaining from alcohol. Victims suffer with physical anomalies as well as cognitive and behavioral problems. There is no cure, and difficulties last a life-time.

Alcohol affects an unborn fetus’s part of the brain where memory, self control, coordination, and judgment develop. The damage can create a slowed development process, difficulties in fine motor skills, and emotional control issues. Some victims have been known to experience hyperactivity and even seizures.

“When Ye Are in the Service of Your Fellow Beings . . .”

Don’t ignore these individuals; they have the need to be recognized as important people, just like anyone. Service should come from a place of fellowship and friendship.

Remember the words of King Benjamin, who taught that all can have hope and healing in despite their challenges:

And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God (Mosiah 2:17).

Athena now works and lives on an old family farm homestead in northern Utah, after working in the public school system, for non-profit organizations, and in the fashion industry. She enjoys western living after having lived and moved 25 times around the Inter-mountain West. She loves writing, art, gardening and thrift shopping. She adores all her kids-the 'Grands' and four-legged variety.