Learning Disabilities Increase Risk

January 12, 2018

Research has suggested that athletes who have a learning disability, such as dyslexia, may influence concussion risk. In fact, a 2016 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that learning disabilities are related to a heightened rate of concussion. As a result, athletic trainers are searching for ways to better identify these conditions in athletes.

According to an article in Popular Science, Rebecca Wiseheart, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at St. John’s University, has launched a pilot system for athletic trainers to screen for dyslexia in student-athletes during other concussion baseline tests. The screening method uses a rapid automatized naming test.

“We chose that test because it’s really predictive of dyslexia and easy to use,” Dr. Wiseheart said.

Concussion baseline screening tests often include a self-report question asking student-athletes to disclose any learning disability. But because individuals may hesitate to report a learning disability, Dr. Wiseheart believes it’s important for athletic trainers to include screening during baseline tests. This also allows researchers to further examine reasons why learning disabilities may be linked with increased concussion risk.

“The majority of research studies about concussion exclude people with learning disabilities,” Dr. Wiseheart said. “It’s a subgroup we really don’t know much about at all.”

At the conclusion of the one-year pilot at St. John’s, Dr. Wiseheart wants to expand her efforts to include other types of learning disabilities.

“We want to look at dyslexia versus ADHD and see if there are differences over time and really parse out those groups,” she said.

Meanwhile, at Texas State University, the athletic training team works to ensure concussion testing protocols are effective for all student-athletes. One way they do this is by having athletes with learning disabilities complete their baseline tests one on one instead of doing it with their teammates.

“We’ve seen much better scores and scores that are much more true to what I think their cognitive abilities are,” Missy Fraser, PhD, Assistant Professor of Athletic Training at Texas State, said.

In the future, including a wider range of individuals in further concussion research will be helpful as it will allow scholars—and athletic trainers—to learn how to best treat all of their student-athletes. Along with having a better idea of treatment, being able to draw upon normative baseline scores would help athletic departments that don’t have resources to screen all student-athletes or if an athlete has a concussion prior to screening.

“Athletes are regular students and human beings,” Fraser said. “Inclusion of those people in your studies are very important, so you can generalize your studies to those populations as well.”

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