Health Notes 2; Health Editor Sarah Stacey Asks the Experts for Answers to Your Health Queries

Article excerpt

Q My little boy has been diagnosed with learning difficulties. The doctor has suggested drugs but I've heard these can have side effects. Are there any alternatives? I've also heard that the cause can be eye-focusing problems

A Since your child has been offered drugs, this points to attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The most common drug is ritalin, an amphetamine-type drug somewhere between cocaine and 'speed' chemically, according to Dr Alex Richardson, senior research fellow at Oxford University and director of the charity Food and Behaviour Research. Possible side effects include heart problems in susceptible children, stunted growth, loss of appetite, and a range of personality changes from unmanageability to almost catatonic calm. 'While these drugs can be helpful for some children, they should be a last resort, in my view,' says Dr Richardson.

Any child with learning or socialising difficulties at school should be tested for underlying disorders. Visual problems, including focusing, can underlie some cases, including ADD/ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. There may be complex but correctable problems such as poor eye coordination (binocular instability), or the child may simply need reading glasses, says Edinburgh optometrist Dorothy Crystal, who specialises in vision-linked learning difficulties. 'Some people may also benefit from [individually prescribed] coloured filters or eye exercises,' says Professor Bruce Evans, director of research at the Institute of Optometry.

Basic NHS eye tests are available from ophthalmic opticians in any town centre, but Professor Evans says these are not likely to be adequate, because of lack of funding (particularly in England). Detailed visual investigations are available from specialist optometrists (contact the Institute of Optometry on 020 7234 9641,

Hearing problems often go with faulty vision, so auditory testing is vital too, via your GP, says former headmaster and behavioural expert Dr William Marshall of the Learning and Development Centre (LADC) in Scotland. He also recommends the Listening Program from Advanced Brain Technologies (

Intensive tests and solutions are available privately from clinics such as Dr Marshall's LADC (tel: 01350 727244). Teachers can also help identify problems through an award-winning software package called Snap (special needs assessment profile) devised by an expert team (download it from snapassessment. …