Understanding developmental disorders

For people with developmental disorders, life can spiral into a vicious cycle where they lose confidence or feel out of sync with others. But sometimes this problem can be lessened or prevented by even just a small amount of understanding and care from people around them.

Akihiko Nagumo went through a massive ordeal as a result of his disorder. The 27-year-old from Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, said he has always struggled to read text, even when he was a primary school student. Glasses provided little help, as the text still appeared distorted to his eyes.

Nagumo said he made a great deal of effort to learn by heart the contents of his classes. Despite this, he was always nervous when he had to write or read in front of others. It was not until just after he turned 20 that Nagumo discovered his condition was caused by a developmental reading disorder.

Thinking about the past, Nagumo said he enjoyed his days in middle school despite the difficulties he faced. Nagumo made many friends, was the school's tennis club leader and was involved in the student council.

But everything changed upon entering a competitive prefectural high school. When Nagumo stammered while trying to read aloud in classic Japanese literature and English classes, his teachers would bark, "That's enough!" and skip past him to the next student. He was given a kanji drill book for third-grade primary school children, and his marks plummeted.

Around this time Nagumo said he began feeling anxious and was unable to sleep at night. In the autumn of his second year in high school, he woke one morning and found himself unable to move.

As a result, he stopped attending classes. Instead he vented his anger by screaming in his room and breaking things. Nagumo was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a monthlong stay. He dropped out of school, but decided to enroll in an evening high school, which was an 80-minute train ride away.

During this time, Nagumo developed the compulsive habit of washing his hands for 30 to 40 minutes at a time. Even while commuting to school, he would have such strong impulses that he would get off the train to wash his hands. But the next train would take an hour to arrive, meaning that he was often unable to attend school. Nagumo dropped out after three months.

But when he was 19 years old, Nagumo had an encounter with a counselor in Tokyo that dramatically changed his life. He restructured his everyday life, and developed a rhythm that enabled him to complete high school via correspondence at the age of 21.

During the same year, he visited an organization that supported people with developmental reading disorders and finally learned about the cause of what had made his life so difficult.

Developmental disorders are problems in brain function that usually exist from the moment someone is born. It causes various problems for sufferers, such as impacting their daily life at school or in society. A sufferer needs help to keep their disorder in check.

Those who suffer from developmental reading disorders have various telltale signs in their reading and writing. Typically they read extremely slowly, tend to skip lines, find it difficult to write neatly and get confused about the shapes of characters. They process text in a different manner than other people.

The number of sufferers in the United States accounts for 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the population, while about 4.5 per cent of Japan's population is believed to have reading disorders.

Hiroki Sasamori, a researcher at the National Institute of Special Needs Education, said, "It's important for those around sufferers to be aware of their conditions, such as feelings of nervousness or worry, and then talk to them in order to find a solution."

For instance, a sufferer from hyperacusia, a condition that often involves over-sensitivity to sounds, may sit at the front of a room so that other noises are not distracting.

Those with development disorders may struggle to form interpersonal relationships because they experience difficulty in trying to understand the facial expressions of others or the atmosphere in group situations. But by discussing their disorder with people around them, sufferers may experience fewer problems.

After his disorder was diagnosed, Nagumo discovered that he could read much better by simplifying font styles and enlarging the size of characters on computer screens and cell phones.

Nagumo said, "If I had known earlier [of my disorder], I might not have had to take such a long time to get to where I am today."

Sasamori said each person has individual characteristics and it is important to accept what they can and cannot do. "Efforts should be made to elevate their sense of self-worth. This helps to prevent a secondary disorder from occurring," Sasamori added.

Hironobu Ichikawa, a child psychiatrist who heads the Japan Developmental Disorders Network, said: "Everybody is suffering from some type of development disorder if we include being clumsy, fidgety and not being good at communicating in the symptoms of these disabilities. Society needs to grow out of the assumption that everyone can perform the same activities in the exact same way."