Bright, but Falls Asleep in Class

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006; 1:36 PM

Parents of children with learning disabilities all have complicated stories to tell, but Paula Lazor may have set some kind of record for twists and turns, victories and defeats. Her most frustrating moment came two years ago when she found the perfect program for her son John, a special education student, only to be told by her school district that he could not enroll because he was a special education student.

From time to time, I use this column to tell stories of individual special education families because that is the best way to cut through the confusion and bewilderment associated with learning disabilities. Just reciting all the inexplicable legalities is not enough. The rules are too hard to comprehend and a huge bore. But a single family's story can shed light on what actually goes on, and why.

In my Feb. 14 column I told the depressing tale of the Henck family. Their son has a disability that made him a bully magnet, but his school did not do much about it. A legal battle ensued that did not accomplish much, other than get the school's principal briefly indicted for perjury.

This time, as sort of an antidote, I have a hopeful special education story, what happened to Lazor when she hit the wall that such parents often encounter. She and her husband and son had to go through the usual torture of regulations not well understood, but in this case the public school system they dealt with, Arlington County, Va., proved not to be the villain, the usual role for school districts in these dramas, but one of the heroes. The way Arlington reacted to Lazor's distress, and to its own clumsy rules, should be a model for other school districts.

From kindergarten through sixth grade, Lazor said, her son John was an average student. Since first grade, he had been designated as learning disabled, with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) because his teacher had noticed his reading was below grade level. But he was also very bright. His own quick wits, plus small accommodations such as sitting near the teacher and letting John type his homework allowed him to keep up with his class.

It wasn't until seventh grade that the work load got too much for him. Eventually his parents learned that his disability was slow processing speed and audio-visual integration. "That meant," his mother said, "when he listened to you speak to him, his brain processed the information a split second after he heard it. Note taking, in particular, was a nightmare for him because he wasn't able to look at the teacher while he was taking the notes. Since he couldn't keep up with the teacher's pace of talking, he missed information."

The class assignments piled up at Swanson Middle School. John's backpack became more cluttered. "Papers were not in their folders," Lazor said. "He forgot assignments. Even when he completed his homework, he often would forget to hand them in on time, if at all."

"Then the night before the start of his second grading period, John has a meltdown," she said. "He stayed awake half the night crying uncontrollably. He said he could not go back to school. We were at a loss of what to do. We called the pediatrician. When John, again in tears, refused to go to school a second day, the doctor referred us to a child psychiatrist."

The family began the long bumpy succession of recovery followed by heartbreak followed by recovery followed by heartbreak that special education children and their parents know too well. The psychiatrist was able to treat John's school and social anxiety. His guidance counselor got his homework load reduced. But a few days into eighth grade he began falling asleep in class. A pediatric neurologist discovered the delayed auditory processing and suggested a more regular sleep schedule. This did not cure the upset stomachs he was having and the classroom sleeping resumed.

John reluctantly agreed to switch to math and English classes just for special education students, but that did not stop the nodding off in class. He transferred to Arlington's Interlude program -- small, nurturing classes that at first he liked, even as his mother teared up when she had to sign a new IEP that changed his special education designation from "other health impaired" to "emotionally disturbed."

The sleeping problem persisted, but a summer internship at a talk-radio service thrilled John and he remained in good spirits when told he could transfer for ninth grade to the New School of Northern Virginia, a tiny private school that has had success with bright children who have learning disabilities. A severe ear ailment and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks delayed John's start at the new school. He did well for a while, but began falling asleep.

The New School's headmaster, John Potter, suggested John be tested in the sleep laboratory at Children's Hospital. The specialists found he had an abnormal sleep pattern, with very little rapid eye movement (REM) during the night. They said he was sleep deprived and diagnosed him with narcolepsy, a neurological disorder caused by the absence of neurotransmitters in the hypothalamus region of the brain. He began taking a drug, Provigil, for that condition, but the sleeping in class eventually resumed. He had to leave the New School and go to Arlington's Washington-Lee High School. He was placed in the Interlude program there, but the high school version did not seem to him nearly as friendly and nurturing as the middle school program had been.


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