What are the First Signs of a Mental Disability?

When was the first time you were aware of the fact that your sibling or child had a learning disability? Most diagnoses are around three, as was with my sister. It takes awhile to observe slow learning and to identify what is the causation of this behavior. Yet, for most of us, we suspected that something was wrong with our sibling or child fairly early, noticing something is off, but unsure why.

I remember the first time I felt something didn’t seem right with my sister when she was about fourteen months old. It was during a photo shoot of her and me for the family Christmas card. Propping up my baby sister Lisa as we sat on the carpet in front of the breakfront, it took many shots before we realized that she needed a pillow to sit up. The photographer would say, "Cheese" (never understood why they used that word) and right before the shot, she would roll over. By the time he took the final shot that was used as a family Christmas card, I was not smiling. This is the photo I use for this blog.

Even though this was many years ago and now just another memory from my childhood, the experience is deeply embedded in my psyche as if it just happened yesterday. It was the first time I felt overwhelmed by my inability to help my sister. She just couldn't pose for the shot. There was a vacancy in her eyes that I even noticed as a child. She just didn't seem responsive or connected to our world.

When I held her there wasn't any warmth or passion. At the time I thought I was doing something wrong and worried that my baby sister, who I had been excited about all through my mother’s pregnancy, didn't like me. Feeling foolish for even considering this, I blamed it on her issues with her club foot and all the pain she had experienced early in her life. Of course, she loved me, I was her sister.

And honestly, we did bond but in a strange way. She shared a room for almost five years. She slept in a crib right next to my bed. Always a light sleeper, I could hear every breath see took.  I felt responsible for her under my watch. Even as a baby, she wasn't a good sleeper. She'd sit in her crib and would stare at the ceiling late into the night. When I got up to go to the bathroom, she would watch me in silence.

What was she thinking? This was always on my mind. Because she wasn't talking or smiling much, it was so difficult to tell what was going on in her head. "Why couldn't I reach her?" Really, no one could, except for her mommy who she attached herself to like a bee to honey. She was her lifeline and her seemingly only source of pleasure. She didn't like sharing our mom.

Because she was my baby sister with health issues, my mother became consumed taking care of her. She required so much help. Everything Lisa did was difficult for her. She walked slow, didn't say a word for a couple of years and wetted her bed all the time; potty training was a chore.

What was wrong with my sister? As the years went on, it became apparent something was not right. She looked normal, but was not keeping up for her age. The anxiety for all of us was difficult to bear, knowing in our hearts that something was wrong with my sister, we just couldn't admit it.

This is a common occurrence with a mentally handicapped person who is either brain damaged, has Autism,or Asperger Syndrome. Because they look normal, no one knows they are handicapped until they start falling behind in walking, talking and basic tasks children should be doing at a certain age. They are also mostly self-absorbed and don’t bond easily with anyone.

When did you realize that your sibling or child had a learning disability?

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    Terri Lee Ryan

    Chicago Career Coach Terri Lee Ryan is an expert on career issues. A former executive search recruiter and outplacement specialist, Terri uses her experience to prepare and repackage job seekers for a new job or new career.

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