Allergic Reaction - Learning Disorders

Children frequently complain ”I’m allergic to school!” Parents smile at this whimsy; they know the ”allergy” for what it is. Yet, in a very real sense, children can be allergic to school.

For if a child begins the school day with a breakfast of foods to which he or she is allergic ... and then is exposed to airborne allergens such as classroom dust, the odor of floor wax and industrial cleaners ... and then eats lunches and snacks laden with additives and colorings ... well, schoolwork is bound to be affected.

The child may read below grade level, spell poorly and lag in math skills. He or she may not understand verbal instructions. Handwriting could deteriorate to chicken scratch. He or she may have trouble copying from the board. So he develops school phobia – headaches, stomachaches – anything to avoid the situation.

All of which prevents an allergic child from realizing his full potential. Teachers are likely to say, ”He’d do better if he’d just try.” Allan Lieberman, M.D., a South Carolina pediatrician, says, ”I’m totally convinced that a lot of learning disabilities are caused by kids’ adverse reactions to multiple ecological factors – allergies – and if you reduce or neutralize their total allergic load by altering their diet and environment, most of them can be helped.”

”Allergies affect different areas of the brain in different children,” says Doris J. Rapp, M.D., a pediatrician and allergist in Buffalo, N.Y. ”For example, we’ve seen reading ability plummet from eight to fifth grade level because of an allergic challenge. And in one particularly graphic study, we noticed handwriting changes.

The children’s writing became large, irregular, upside down – there was letter reversal, even mirror image writing.” Learning disabilities can be caused by factors other than allergy, of course: visual or hearing problems; lead exposure; nervous system damage during birth or childhood illness; hereditary problems.

But Jerome Vogel, M.D., medical director of the New York Institute for Child Development, says that over 75 percent of the learning disabled children seen at the Institute have allergies of food sensitivities that interfere with their behavior and learning disorders.

Besides affecting perception directly, allergies can interfere with children’s learning ability by making them hyperactive. Overactive children are too busy to learn. They can't concentrate long enough to listen to the teacher’s instructions, let alone carry them out. Or they simply can't sit still long enough to finish an assignment.

Since hyperactivity so often coexist with learning disabilities, the stock treatment for either is often a prescription for Ritalin, an amphetaminelike drug. But while Ritalin appears to lengthen attention span and enhance concentration in children, it does absolutely nothing for actual learning ability.

What Ritalin does is turn the child into a robot: he may be able to do a few simple task over and over, but he can't respond to novel situations and learn new tasks. Such children soon develop a poor self image and become convinced that they are, in fact, stupid.

Treatment learning disabilities and/or hyperactivity with a nondrug therapy – mainly diet – is a better, safer way to remove the obstacles to learning. And certain foods turn out to be more common obstacles than others. ”Refined sugar leads the list of foods that such children cannot tolerate,” says Dr. Vogel.

”We change a child’s behavior dramatically by lowering his or her intake of sugar,” says Patricia Hardman, Ph.D., director of the Woodland Hall Academy, a school for children with hyperactivity and learning disabilities in Maitland, Florida. ”We had one child who was tested for his IQ and scored 140. three days later, he was tested and scored 100!

It turned out that Grandma had come visit and that morning had made the child pancakes for breakfast; of course they were smothered in store bought, sugary syrup. Well, we waited another three days – three days without sugar – and tested him again. Sure enough, he scored 140. there’s no doubt about it. Sugar makes children poor learners.

”If a child comes to school extremely depressed or complains that nothing is going right, or if he flies off the handle and can't be controlled, we ask him what he’s been eating. It's almost always the case that the night before he had ice cream or soda or some other food with a lot of sugar. ”At Woodland Hall, ’says Dr. Hardman, ”sugar is eliminated from the diet of every child.”

Throwing out sugar often involves the elimination of many highly processed additives laden foods – and with them go many of the most common causes allergy. Robert W. Boxer, M.D., an allergist in Skokie, Illinois, says, ”If every family physician and pediatrician put all of their patients with hyperactivity, learning disabilities or behavioral disorders on a sugar free, white flour free, chemical free and caffeine free diet, I think 80 percent of our problem would be improved.”

Or course, learning disabilities can show up as late as during high school or college years. But some patients notice the child is different at a very early age, even though teachers continue to pass the child along from grade to avoid dealing with him or her two years in a row.

But ignoring the problem only puts more distance between the child’s achievements and potential. If your child is learning disabled and physical causes have been ruled out, you owe it to your child’s future to consider allergies – of any kind. For just as there’s no one curriculum for each and every child, there’s no one diet for learning improvements.

”When it comes to allergy induced learning disabilities, we have to consider the entire world as potentially guilty,” says Gary Oberg, M.D., a pediatrician in Crystal Lake, Illinois. ”If you concentrate on only food, you may miss the boat.” Doctors find that when the allergens are identified and removed, the child performs better.

He’s calmer, pays attention longer, finishes his work, writes more clearly and is less impulsive. When he performs better, he receives praise – and self esteem increases. That, in turn, motivates him to try harder. Allergy control gives learning ability quite an effective boost. If your child is learning disabled, we suggest you also read the entry, Hyperactivity as the two conditions often coexist.

Are Your Child’s Learning Problems Related to Allergy?

This checklist was developed by the New York Institute for Child Development, based on observation of thousands of children over the past 12 years. If you answer yes to at least five of the following questions, your child may have an allergy that’s interfering with the learning process.

  1. Is there any history of allergies in the family?
  2. Is there any history of diabetes or hypoglycemia?
  3. Was your child colicky as an infant?
  4. Were feeding problems (such as frequent formula switching) encountered when your child was an infant?
  5. Did your child have any difficulty when introduced to baby, junior or solid foods?
  6. Does your child have a poor appetite?
  7. Does your child crave sweets?
  8. Is there any food your child craves?
  9. Does your child eat fruits and vegetables infrequently?
  10. Is your child unusually thirsty?
  11. Is your child unusually sensitive to light, noise or touch?
  12. Does your child have many colds, sore throats or ear infections?
  13. Does your child complain frequently of headaches and dizziness?
  14. Does your child have frequent stomachaches, constipation or diarrhea?
  15. Is your child a bedwetter?
  16. Does your child have dark circles under his or her eyes?
  17. Does your child have a pasty complexion?
  18. Does your child suffer from eczema?
  19. Does your child have a short attention span?
  20. Is your child difficult to get along with?
  21. Does your child cry easily for no reason?
  22. Is your child depressed?
  23. Is your child sleepy during the day?
  24. Does your child lack energy?
  25. Does your child feel faint if he or she eats later than usual?

To locate a physician who is experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of allergy triggered learning problems, write to the Society for Clinical Ecology, c/o Del Stigler, M.D., 2005 Franklin Street, Suite 490, Denver, CO 80205.

Source: The New York Institute for Child Development, Inc., 205 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016.