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A Timeline of Learning and Attention Issues

By Amanda Morin

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Explore the history of learning and attention issues, from their discovery to advances in research and special education law. Also find out when some famous people went public about their learning and attention issues.

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A Timeline of Learning Disabilities and ADHD

Was ADHD always called “ADHD”? How has special education law advanced over the years? Get to know the history of LD and ADHD with this timeline.

1800s to mid-1900s
Trends: Learning and attention issues aren’t on the public radar. But they are a topic of conversation among scientists and doctors.
In 1877 German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul coins the term “word blindness” for “a complete text blindness...although the power of sight, the intellect and the powers of speech are intact.”
In 1887 German physician Rudolf Berlin uses the term “dyslexia” to improve the definition of reading problems.
In 1904 the British medical journal Lancet publishes the poem “The Story of Fidgety Philip.” It may be the first thing ever published about ADHD. Philip “...won’t sit still, He wriggles, And giggles, And then, I declare, Swings backwards, And tilts up his chair.”
In 1905 W.E. Bruner publishes the first report of childhood reading difficulties in the U.S. The term “dyslexia” wasn’t commonly used in the U.S. until the 1930s.
In 1955 the FDA approves the drug Ritalin for treatment of depression and fatigue, but not for ADHD—a condition that wouldn’t be recognized by the medical community for another 13 years.

1960s and 1970s
Trends: The education and medical professions in the U.S. recognize learning disabilities (LD) and what will later be called ADHD. Public schools and the federal government start paying attention to learning disabilities. But most kids with LD are taught separately from their peers. Inclusion is not yet a common practice.
In 1961 Ritalin is first used to treat “hyperkinetic” symptoms in children.
In Chicago in 1963, psychologist Dr. Samuel A. Kirk becomes the first to use the term “learning disability” at an education conference.
In 1964 Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (ACLD) is created. Now known as the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), it has chapters in every state.
In 1968 what is now called ADHD first appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). It’s called “hyperkinetic impulse disorder.”
In 1969 Congress passes the first federal law mandating support services for children with learning disabilities.
In 1973 Congress passes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal funding.
In 1975 Congress passes the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which requires “free, appropriate public education” for all students.
In 1977 Pete and Carrie Rozelle found the National Center for Learning Disabilities (known then as the Foundation for Children with Learning Disabilities). As parents of a child with LD, the Rozelles strive to help other families.

1980s and 1990s
Trends: The education and medical communities strive to understand learning and attention issues—and how to help kids who have them. ADHD becomes more widely known. There’s controversy over whether kids are being over diagnosed.
In 1980 “hyperkinetic impulse disorder” is renamed attention deficit disorder (ADD). The DSM definition assumed that attention difficulties weren’t related to impulsivity and hyperactivity. ADD was defined as a problem of inattention that could be accompanied by hyperactivity.
In 1985 singer/actress Cher talks about having dyslexia and what she calls “math dyslexia.” A decade later, she writes in her autobiography about having dyscalculia.
In 1987 ADD is renamed attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in a revision to the DSM.
In 1990 Congress passes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It bans discrimination against people with disabilities in the public sector and workplace. EAHCA revises and renames the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the new version, “disability” replaces “handicap.”
In 1996 the National Institute of Mental Health team identifies regions of the brain that work differently in people who have dyslexia. LD Online launches as the first web resource for parents and teachers.
In 1997 there are big changes to IDEA: Students with ADHD now under “Other Health Impairment” category and eligible for special education services. General education teachers made part of IEP process. Students get more access to regular education and take statewide assessments.

2000 to Present Day
Trends: Awareness and research of LD and ADHD issues takes off. Federal law more clearly defines special education services and gives parents more rights. Researchers start using brain imaging to study the causes of LD and ADHD.
In 2001, Elementary and Secondary Education Act is renamed No Child Left Behind Act. It holds states and schools more accountable for student progress.
In 2002 researchers at Yale University use fMRI technology to show that the brains of kids with dyslexia work differently than their peers’ during reading tasks.
In 2003 actor Henry (The Fonz) Winkler introduces the book character Hank Zipzer, a mischievous hero with dyslexia. Winkler, who has dyslexia, wanted to give kids with learning and attention issues a hero with whom they could identify.
In 2004 IDEA is reauthorized again. It gives parents more rights and better defines schools’ responsibilities. IDEA is more closely aligned with the No Child Left Behind Act. Response to intervention (RTI) programs are introduced to help struggling students before they’re referred for special education services.
In 2005 Yale University team identifies a gene associated with dyslexia.
In 2007 the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education releases a “Dear Colleague” letter. It says that denying kids with disabilities access to accelerated academic programs is a civil rights violation.
Also in 2007, researchers at University College London use brain imaging to identify the area of the brain that doesn’t work as effectively in people with dyscalculia.
In 2010 a GfK Roper survey finds that 80% of Americans agree that “children with learning disabilities are just as smart as you and me.” Researchers at the M.I.N.D. Institute identify differences in electrical patterns in the brains of kids with ADHD. This shows a biological reason for trouble with attention.
In 2013 the DSM-5 broadens its definition of term “specific learning disorder.”
Also in 2013, The U.S. Department of Labor passes federal regulations requiring contractors and subcontractors to set a goal that 7% of their workforce be individuals with disabilities.
In 2014 Understood.org launches. The initiative provides parents of children with learning and attention issues with hands-on, personalized and actionable information to understand and meet their family’s needs.
Graphic of A Timeline of Learning Disabilities and ADHD
Graphic of A Timeline of Learning Disabilities and ADHD

It’s been over 100 years since dyslexia was first “discovered.” We have since learned—and continue to discover—much more about learning and attention issues. Find out more by getting to know learning disabilities by the numbers.

About the Author

Amanda Morin

Amanda Morin

A parent advocate and former teacher, Amanda Morin is the proud mom of kids with learning and attention issues and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

More by this author

Reviewed by Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. Mar 30, 2014 Mar 30, 2014

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