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How early can specific learning difficulties be diagnosed?

Specific learning difficulties are usually diagnosed when a child is at school; they often do not become evident until more demanding academic work is required, from the age of eight years onwards.

There have been claims that children who will have specific learning difficulties can be identified in the pre-school years: one psychologist has even developed a test that he claims detects specific learning difficulties in newborn babies. These claims must be regarded with caution.

Children of pre-school age vary tremendously in their abilities, and so tests of development at this age are poor predictors of later ability. Any attempt to identify pre-school-aged children who are destined to have specific learning difficulties will engender unnecessary anxiety in parents, while missing many of the children who will have specific learning difficulties. It is also important to realize that treatment during the pre-school years (known as early intervention) has not been proven to prevent or ameliorate the later development of specific learning difficulties.

Children of pre-school age who are delayed in their development should be seen by a paediatrician and may benefit from early intervention, but they should not be considered to have a specific learning difficulty at this early age. Programmes to detect children with ‘early’ specific learning difficulties, prior to school age, are unjustified in the light of our present knowledge.

In this book, therefore, I shall confine my attention to children of school age.

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