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Health & Parenting

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Label Conscious

Fashion designer Dana Buchman refuses to brand her learning-challenged daughter as disabled-and she wants to educate others to do the same

Learning Curve

Charlotte is just one of some 4.6 million children diagnosed with learning challenges in the United States. Roughly 7.5% of American children between the ages of 3 and 17 have been assessed as having some type of learning difference, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But they're not all the same. "It's different for every child, and each child's specific issues emerge over time," Buchman says. "I wish I had known this at the beginning, that understanding her learning differences was going to be a process. It's not like being told you have the flu."

In A Special Education, Buchman is unsparing in describing the mistakes she made. A critical one: silence. "We've only recently gotten better at talking about Charlotte's learning differences," she says. When the girls were younger, Buchman and her husband didn't know what to say, or how to answer questions, when it became clear that little sister Annie could do things-like read books, play board games, and participate in sports-faster and easier than big sister Charlotte. Today, Buchman wishes they'd started talking sooner.

You can make conversations about learning differences appropriate for your child's age, says Ann Miller, MSpEd, assistant director of education at the Stephen Gaynor School, a leading New York school for children with learning differences that Buchman's daughter attended. "Don't put labels on a child too early. For your children, 'dyslexia' or 'auditory processing disorder' are just words without meaning. Just begin by talking with them about what's easier for them to do and what's more difficult." As your child gets older, she adds, you can talk about how people have different learning styles, and what those learning styles might be.

"Just make learning differences a part of normal conversation. Say: 'You learn differently than other children, and we're going to stay on top of it and work with it. You're smart and beautiful and you will be a success and have a happy life, but you learn differently.' Spouses should talk to each other, you should talk with the child, and with their siblings. It takes away the poison and the anxiety, and you can learn to become more comfortable about it so that learning differences don't become a source of shame, embarrassment, or confusion."

Buchman also advises parents to teach their learning-challenged children to be their own advocates. "I've known parents who are unwilling to admit their children have difficulties, who do their homework for them. You have to support your child, but the child has to become a student of her own disabilities, learn what's hard for her, and how to speak out."

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