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Supporting Science Centers’ Visitors with Dyslexia and ADHD

By: Inas Essa

Supporting children who struggle with learning disabilities has always been a necessity, even if it has been overlooked for years. Recently, the awareness of inclusion and equity for all children has risen through different ways; campaigns, conferences, among other means. It has also been included in the 2030 agenda for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Yet, for better results, the role of institutions and informal learning programs, like the ones developed by science centers and museums, should be more in line with these exerted efforts. That would require some special practices to achieve better results.


Dyslexia and ADHD

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that affects the ability to read, spell, and pronounce words. Dyslexic children are smart and hardworking as their peers; yet, they have trouble processing written and spoken language. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. Children with ADHD may have trouble with attention, controlling impulsive behaviors, or being overly active.

ADHD and dyslexia are different brain disorders, but they often overlap; about 3 in 10 people with dyslexia also have ADHD. They are often tied together as 50% to 60% of children that test positive for ADHD are also diagnosed with dyslexia. Additionally, current research indicates that 70% of children with ADHD also have Learning Disabilities (LD).



Dyslexia and Literacy Acquisition

One of the main difficulties dyslexic learners have is the difficulty in literacy acquisition, which makes it even more difficult for a child to succeed academically in the typical instructional environment. In a more detailed context, dyslexic children may experience different issues that include an evident inefficiency in working or short-term memory in the form of:

  • Problems retaining the meaning of a text;
  • Failure to sort learned facts effectively;
  • Disjointed written work or omission of words;
  • Inadequate phonological processing skills that negatively affect comprehension; and
  • Difficulties with motor skills or coordination, such as listening and taking notes at the same time.


Best Practices to Overcome Barriers for Children with LD

Since each dyslexic learner is likely to experience different combinations of these difficulties, each one is likely to have a different and unique coping strategy. This adds to the stress a dyslexic child may face resulting in a doubled unrecognized stress by the educators because it is hidden.

Supportive requirements for specific learning difficulties (SpLD) that should be implemented in science centers’ and museums' programs to help dyslexic children might include:

  • Providing notes and session outlines on the center website in advance. As many science centers and museums have been providing online programs, it could be easier to provide the material online as well.
  • Creating handouts and notes accessible to a wide range of disabled visitors, using accessible fonts with good line spacing, clear headings, and avoiding cramped layouts.
  • Ensuring that booklets, flyers, or any written material are delivered in an accessible way and are available in a non-PDF format. Also, ensuring that background colors are set to a neutral shade, not white.
  • Additionally, it would be of high importance to make some tweaks with using scientific notations and symbols since they could be confusing and present a barrier for children with learning difficulties: There should be enough space between symbols and text
  • In handouts and notes, the figures and graphs should be on the same page as the text so that the reader would be in no need to go back and forth between several pages;
  • Different symbols used for different variables can be confusing for those children. Developing some uniformity between modules and across subject areas so that the same notation is used for the same variable or concept would be helpful.

Besides the aforementioned tips, these practices would help in generating better results:

  • Providing a glossary in a booklet; this could include items such as technical vocabulary, notation, etc., as well as providing a visual diagram for technical words.
  • Prioritizing reading lists, with the most essential reading at the top of the list, to ensure that learners who may take longer to read are reading the most important information first.
  • In live sessions and shows, it is helpful to introduce new words, especially technical ones with a visual representation or pictures.
  • When interspersing notation into notes, texts and slides, ensure that they are in a logical order and that the notation relates directly to the text around it, to create a logical flow through the material.
  • When presenting data on spreadsheets, use alternate coloring of columns, rows, and/or cells in data tables and spreadsheets to aid clarity to read.



Supporting Children with ADHD

By customizing programs and the environment for ADHD/Dyslexic children or other learning disabilities, they may very well stand out from others.

Challenges faced by ADHD visitors include:

  • Difficulty in staying in their seats during long sessions, shows, etc.;
  • Getting easily distracted by any noises in the center setting;
  • Struggling with following directions and focusing.

Nevertheless, there is a silver lining in the above-mentioned struggles that may seem a hindrance for those children to carry on in STEM. Children with ADHD have the propensity of being energetic. When working on STEM-based tasks or experiments, like programming or robotics, these can be time-consuming and cause physical and mental fatigue. However, students with ADHD possess the ability to sustain their energy through such long, complicated tasks that would be tiresome for another person.

Moreover, students with ADHD tend to be creative and inventive; they tend to be able to reason problems out intuitively. The reason beyond that is that those people have the area of the brain where intuition happens more fully developed. This intuition permits the child to look at problems from a different perspective and on a deeper level, resulting in analyzing and reasoning problems more quickly since the enhanced sense of intuition guides the brain to the most critical aspects of the problem more quickly.

Some professions, like engineering, need such skills to be successful in working on complex programs they face in their careers. Employing these skills to unleash children’s potential could be through designing the ‘flipped classroom’ used in STEM education—a type of blended learning where learners are introduced to content at home and practice working through it at labs, classrooms, or a science center. This flipped model alleviates the pressure from children with ADHD who may need to take more breaks during the direct instruction to refocus themselves by getting up and moving.


Creative, Energetic, and Inventive

Students with ADHD/Dyslexia have many required skills in the context of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education and related careers. They are creative, energetic, and inventive. Supporting them during childhood to gain the fundamental knowledge while not stressing them with extra challenging requirements would help them get where they dream of and help science centers and museums reinvent themselves by providing more inclusive and equitable environments and programs.