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|Kids and Lyme Disease "Lyme Times"|
|Written by ldsucs|
|17 June 2009|
Great article from "Lyme Times" on dealing with kids who have Lyme in school.
Tells you your rights and how to help school staff and teachers!
KIDS AND LYME DISEASE
HOW IT AFFECTS THEIR LEARNINGandy Berenbaum, LCSW, BCD
Family Connections Center for Counseling \
Offices in Fishkill and Brewster, NY
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Introduction: There is an urgent need for Lyme disease education and awareness in the schools
throughout the United States. In addition to the "ABC's of Lyme," and the new "Timefor Lyme"
video, Lyme professionals - physicians, psychotherapists, neuropsychologists, need to be seeking
opportunities to provide in-service training to schools, so that teachers and other school
professionals understand and appreciate the difficulties that face kids with Lyme every day. We
need to call on the schools to help these children, and education is the key.
The following is a presentation I gave to the Northern Dutchess County (NY) Support Group in
November 2002. Perhaps it will provide ideas for other presentations to Lyme groups and
schools around the country. Every child with Lyme disease shouldfeel understood and
supported, and be successful in school. Lyme disease may be a handicap that some children
have, but it should not be an insurmountable obstacle.
When my colleague, Lynne Canon, and I started our private practice 16 years ago, we did so
with a commitment to providing psychotherapy and family therapy to adolescents and their
parents. For five years, we did just that, with no thought that a medical illness might be at the
root of the psychiatric, behavioral or learning problems some of these kids might have.
Then, in 1991, a client was referred to us who had a profound effect on us, and on our practice. I
will call him "Jim".
Jim was a 15 year old boy who refused to go to school. He was paranoid, fearing that people
were out to get him as well as his family, and he could not sleep at all. His parents reported that
he had been an honors student up to a few months prior to our first session, but now, when he did
go to school, he failed every test he took. He appeared to be physically fit and well disciplined.
He was even skilled in the martial arts.
On Intake, we asked standard history and family history questions. We found Jim to be a very
verbal and engaging young man, obviously bright, and a deep thinker. We saw agitation,
restlessness, and anxiety, as well as the paranoia reported by his parents.
Toward the end of our initial interview, we asked about his hobbies. With great enthusiasm, Jim
told us about his volunteer work at an environmental center here in Dutchess County, and of his
hopes for a career involving environmental studies.
Jim was a real puzzle to us. We were faced with a set of symptoms and functional problems thatmade no sense, even in examining his history. Realizing that there had been a dramatic onset ofsymptoms at a particular point in time, and that Jim had spent so much time out of doors in what
we now see as the Lyme capital of the universe, we referred him to his family doctor for a Lyme
His pediatrician took a titer, which came back "negative", (any of you parents have thatexperience?) indicating to this doctor that Lyme was not a factor! That road appearing closed,
we continued to see Jim, as well as his parents, and watched a steady decline in Jim's
functioning. He could not go to school, and was placed on home teaching. His parents and we
were completely baffled.
As Jim's symptoms got worse, we thought he might have to go into a psychiatric hospital. In alast quest for a possible medical answer, we suggested that his parents take him for a
consultation to a pediatrician who we knew to be Lyme-knowledgable.
On the day that consulting doctor saw Jim, he called to tell us that he had made a CLINICAL
DIAGNOSIS of Lyme disease, a diagnosis based on Jim's clinical symptoms, NOT on a blood
test. The doctor prescribed Ceftin, a drug that crosses the blood brain barrier, attacking
spirochetes that were in the brain.Within three days, Jim's paranoia disappeared. He admitted to having had hallucinations, and
they too were gone. He was now sleeping 14 or more hours a day, and for the first time, had
joint pain, as part of a Jarisch Herxheimer reaction to the antibiotics, a reaction in which the
symptoms temporarily get worse. Thus began Jim's long struggle with what turned out to be
chronic Lyme disease.
Jim went from being a teenager who could not attend school, could not participate at all in the
educational process, was failing all tests, to a good student at one of the best colleges in the New
York State system. He went from being a very sick kid, who was on homebound instruction for
a year and a half, to a college graduate. He was helped by a supportive family, a Lyme-literate
doctor, who treated him effectively, a school administrator who accepted the fact that he was,
indeed, ill, and a school system that provided accommodations, to help him succeed.
Most of you know that Lyme disease is a multi-system illness. Someone with Lyme can have
joint pains, heart problems, stomach problems, any kind of physical manifestation. I'd like to
focus this evening on the neurological and neuropsychiatric problems, the ones that have the
greatest effect on learning, and the ones that lead to the greatest misunderstandings between
parents and school professionals.
Most common with children and adolescents who have chronic Lyme are intense headaches that
can last for days, cognitive, attentional and mood problems, profound fatigue, and difficulty
sleeping. Many kids have problems with vision, or visual and auditory overstimulation. Some
have a sensitivity to flourescent lighting.
Some of these symptoms may be very subtle, so it is difficult for the teachers to realize that they
are dealing with a sick child, rather than a child who is daydreaming, or simply trying to avoid
his school work.
Once a child has been diagnosed, and is undergoing treatment, there are problems produced by
the treatment itself. High doses of antibiotics and other medications the child may be taking can
produce gastointestinal problems. The child may be uncomfortable, and complaining a lot,
particularly of stomach aches. Since young children sometimes complain of stomach aches to
avoid academic projects (I remember my stomach hurting in 3rd grade every time I had to speak
in front of the class), it's hard for teachers to discern whether the problem is avoidant behavior,
or the result of illness.
Another problem, of course, is the flare of the symptoms when the Lyme spirochetes are being
killed off by the antibiotics. A teacher who doesn't know much about Lyme disease has a
difficult time realizing that with this illness, once the medication is started. the child will
periodically feel wrose, and have more, rather than fewer, symptoms. My sister-in-law used to
say to me, during my Lyme treatment, when I told her how bad I felt - "Oh, that's right - worse is
better", but that's a hard concept for people who are not personally affected by Lyme to grasp.
Other problems include the frequent need for medications (sometimes at school), the fatigue
caused by the illness itself, or as a result of the lack of sleep, the demand on the child's time for
long car trips to doctors who are Lyme specialists (some kids are even travelling to New Haven,
CT, a 4 hour round trip).Another big problem can be that these very sick kids don 't look sick. The extent of the child's
illness is not reflected in what the teacher sees.
Another, and very important. way to look at kids with chronic Lyme is to look past their
symptoms at their functional impairments. It's the functional impairments that give us the
language necessary to figure out what these kids need in school.
If you have a medical problem, you ask yourself and your doctor two questions:
1. What do I need to do to get better, to get well?
(This question addresses how to get your health back completely, or as completely as
2. What do I need to do in the meantime, to compensate for my current functional impairments?
(This addresses what in school jargon amounts to "accommodations", enabling you to
function on the best level you can, hopefully the need will only be short term.)
You break your leg. Before you broke your leg, you were able to walk, to drive, to go up and
down stairs. You go to the doctor. He develops a treatment plan - puts a cast on your broken
leg, tells you what not to do while it's healing. You get rides to work, maybe use a wheelchair at
home, someone else in the house does the laundry, if the washer and dryer are on a different
level. You have a long term plan and a short term plan. The long term plan is to get
permanently better. The short term plan is for "accommodations."
If a child breaks her leg, the same process is put into place -- the doctor establishes the long term
plan, by "treating" the broken leg. A note from the doctor, gives the child "accommodations" in
school as part of the short term plan, giving her an elevator pass, having someone carry her
books, compensating for her "functional impairments."What's different about Lyme? First, if Lyme is chronic, you probably don't know when you got
sick. Your symptoms crept up on you, until you finally found a doctor who put the puzzle piecestogether, diagnosed you, and began treatment. (You know when you broke your leg!)
When you got the Lyme diagnosis, a light bulb probably went off in your head. You remember
when you were well. You had years of life experience of health, physical and mental. You
know what your brain was like before your first symptom. You want to get back to that point,
and that is your goal, restoring health and restoring functioning.
For a child, here is the profound complication - she had little or no life experience before Lyme.One of my clients is in 5th grade. Her doctor speculates that she's had Lyme since the age of 4.
What do she and her parents know about her cognitive abilities, her attentional abilities, before
Lyme touched her life?
This is the problem for so many kids. They have no baseline.Having no memory of a tick bite or a rash, they really don't know when normalcy ended, andLyme began. Or, even if they do remember, they were so young when they got bitten that there
was no evidence of their ability to do schoolwork and to concentrate before the illness began.
It's not clear to them how competent they would have been had they not gotten Lyme disease.
It's a very puzzling picture for these children, and hard for them to be self-confident, in the face
of this illness.Now, let's look at some of the FUNCTIONAL IMPAIRMENTS in children and
adolescents who have chronic Lyme disease?
One can see functional impairments at home, in school, and among the peer group. The child'sphysical problems, unpredictability of symptoms, and feelings of helplessness can lead, IN SOMEKIDS, to a self-focused view of life, understandable given what these kids are trying to cope with.
I'd like to show you a slide that I used in a presentation at a Lyme Disease Association medical
conference. It highlights what some of the functional impairments are, and points to how the
school can help.In this chart (See Slide #1) I give an example of some of the common impairments we see:
• Problems Sleeping
• Attentional problems, such as distractibility, impulsivity, problems focusing
• Depression or anxiety, including obsessional thinking
or racing thoughts, "brain never stopping" (thinking constantly)
• Problems with eating (due to gastrointestinal symptoms, either from
the Lyme itself, or secondary to the antibiotics.)
• Behavioral problems, severe at times
• In adolescent girls, by the way, PMS symtoms can be QUITE severe, as well.
Let's look at some of what the functional impairments might LEAD TO.We can see the process here. The functional impairments that are the original problems
produced by Lyme (and when I say Lyme, I include, of course, the co-infections) result in further
problems for the child. (see the second column)
• Poor school attendance
• Chronic lateness
• Incomplete assignments and tests
• Behavioral problems at school
• Withdrawal from peers (particularly when peers fail to understand how sick
the Lyme patient is)
• Situation-induced mood problems (aside from the mood problems coming
from the infection itself)
• Weight gain or loss, at times, dramatic
• Mood swings, inappropriate verbal outbursts,
increasing conflicts in all settings
(In general, kids and adolescents do not have a high degree offrustration tolerance.
We all know that. Lyme disease severely challenges the child's already-limited
What, then, might the child do to COMPENSATE for what is going on?
(these are what I call the "self-selected solutions")All that I have discussed so far is distressful for the child. She may try to cope with all of this by
doing any of the following:
• As school performance falls, and they're less involved with activities,
Lyme patients might shift to a lower-functioning peer group, cut classes,
and, in the extreme, they might drop out of school (if over 16), to avoid
the frustration of dealing with academic demands
• For the kids with GI problems, they might severely limit
their food intake, or begin gorging and purging
• For energy, or to self-treat the attentional problems,
they might use stimulants or coccaine
• To calm them down, or to keep them from thinking about all that
is going on, alcohol, marijuana or other drugs might be chosen
I have seen all of the above in adolescents with chronic Lyme in my practice.
Any of the functional impairments can lead to any of the results, and to any or all of the selfselected
Functional impairments in school are often very significant, and calIon the educators to develop
creative plans to help the student with Lyme succeed. Without the support of the school, the best
efforts of the parents might not be enough to keep a kid on track, in school, and successful! !
What THERAPEUTIC SOLUTIONS might we offer, to help deal with the FUNCTIONAL
Please note that these solutions do NOT directly connect with any particular item in the previous
There are different categories of therapeutic solutions, but for now, I'd like to focus on what the
school can do. They can make the difference between success and failure for a child with
chronic Lyme.We see several listed on this slide. I'll mention others later. They DO WORK. and most of them
are not very costly for the district or the state:
• The length of the school day
• Time school day begins and ends
• Length of homework assignments
• Length and location of tests
• Physical education requirements
(as well as other accommodations)
I'll just mention briefly another important area where there can be therapeutic solutions, the
Always keep in mind that when your child has chronic Lyme, he needs to be both SUPPORTED
and ENCOURAGED. It's important that you base your expectations of him on how he is able to
function, on a day to by basis, but you don't want him to feel like, or function like, an invalid.
Have expectations o~him, but keep them in line with where he is in his medical treatment, as
I • well as whether he's having a good day or a bad day.
Some families need help dealing with children with Lyme, particularly if it effects their brain,I and their school functioning. That is where psychotherapy and family therapy can be helpful.Therapy can serve art important role for kids and families with chronic Lyme, but it's important
to find a therapist wtio is at least Lyme-open, if not Lyme-literate. The kid and the parents
should be involved, ih a combination of individual and family therapy. The therapy should be
concrete, focusing oJ the problems.
Now lets look more specifically at school.
As I mentioned earlier, cognitive problems are common with kids with Lyme disease, as are
Kids with chronic Lyme might find it hard to retain new information. Lyme also can effect
receptive and expressive language, visual-spatial processing, abstract reasoning, processing
speed. Just as Lyme disease can effect any part of the body, it can effect any cognitive process.
These kids may appear to be distracted easily, have poor concentration, appear scattered, havejust about any symptom of attention deficit disorder. Or if the child had ADD before she got
Lyme, her ADD symptoms are often exaggerated by the illness.
These symptoms might be intermittent and transitory, given the nature of Lyme disease, making
it even more difficult to develop an education plan. When I speak to teachers' groups, I tell them
that when they have a child with chronic neurological Lyme in their class, the child may appear
learning disabled one day, seem normal the next. She may act like she's got ADD on another
day, and may appear withdrawn and fatigued the next. It's a real challenge for the classroom
So what can be done to educate these children?
First lets look at the issue of free and equal public education, a wonderful and radical gift our
democracy has given us.
Free and equal public education gives all children a right to an education in this country, thisstate, this county. The law protects the disabled through entitlements, to level the playing field,
so that they can benefit from an education, just as those who are not disabled can. There are
state and federal bodies of law that provide for those entitlements, and they are available to allthose who are disabled. They are not granted at the discretion of anyone - the teacher,
administrator, school superintendent!!
Some of these benefits are costly. There is always a push on the part of those responsible for
balancing budgets to protect our tax dollars. There is always controversy regarding which
programs should be prioritized. The result is that not all entitlements are easily gotten by those
entitled to services. But parents of kids who are seriously ill with Lyme disease need to knowthat these entitlements exist, and that it is YOUR CHILD'S RIGHT TO HAVE ACCOMMODATIONS, AS
LONG AS THERE IS EVIDENCE THAT THEY ARE NECESSARY.
I'd like to discuss three stages of supports the schools can provide. Most children will only need
the first stage, and when a school is cooperative, coming from an understanding that these
children are indeed ill, and that the school can be a partner in their recovery, the first stage might
be all that is needed.
The first stage is "Informal Educational Supports." These are supports that can be given to
children without any formal plans, without classification, without formal meetings.
A school administrator, for example, knowledgeable about the child's illness, and the resulting
impairments, might carefully select a classroom teacher or teachers that can develop flexible
schedules for a child, permanently excusing a percentage of the required homework, giving extra
time for testing, seating a distractible child near the source of instruction. These teachers give
support and encouragement, without blaming the child for erratic performance.
Depending on their teaching styles, some teachers have an easier time providing this flexibility
than others, and if the administrator realizes this, and appropriately matches the child's unique
needs to the particular teacher, problems can be avoided from the beginning. Late assignments
can be accepted, without penalty, misspelling on tests that are not spelling tests can be excused.
There is no battle ground here between the school and the parents. All are partners in providing
this child with the education she deserves, and there is little if any cost to the school district, or to
There are two reasons why informal accommodations don't always work.
The first is that the school refuses to believe that this child, who looks healthy, or is laughing
with his friends in the hall, is in fact sick. Parents should certainly be prepared with
documentation, to back their assertion that their child has an illness that effects her learning -
clear detailed letter from the treating doctor, neuropsychological evaluation, even brain SPECT
scan, if there is one. The child has a right to an education, but the school has a right to the
evidence that a medical problem that effects learning DOES exist.
The second reason that informal supports might not work is that the child needs more than can be
provided without a formal plan. If this is the case, a 504 committee needs to be convened, and a
504 plan is put into place.
Section 504 is Federal civil rights legislation. Under it, a child with a disability has a right to
accommodation to compensate for the disability. And, as I said earlier, it is an entitlement.
By law, a letter from the treating physician should be all that is needed in order to convene a 504
meeting, and develop a 504 plan. This is the easier of the two types of accommodations to put
into place, and usually leads to a quicker meeting, therefore accommodations begin more
If the 504 does not seem to be working, if it does not provide for adequate accommodations, then
a parent can request the Committee on Special Education to meet. A child with a health problemqualifies to be classified Other Health Impaired, an lEP (the plan for the child), is put into place,
and supports are written into the plan. Supports available with an IEP that are not usually
available under 504 include Resource Room, regular counseling for the child with a the school
social worker, and school psychological evaluation every three years, as long as the child
Here are some of the accommodations that might be put into place, and how I've seen children
helped by these accommodations. Some may require that a neuropsychological evaluation
document the particular learning problem that leads to the need for the accommodation.
• Unlimited time for testing - a child is afforded extended time to take tests. Some children
with Lyme have problems with the speed of processing information. These children get
exceedingly anxious, trying to take a timed test. This accommodation removes the anxiety,
literally gives them enough time to think.
• Separate testing location - this is appropriate for children who have problems with focusing
and concentration, and are easily distracted. There are fewer children taking the test, in a
• Tests read to student - this is for students who have particular verbal learning problems, in
which their auditory learning is less impaired than their visual learning.
• Excused from a percentage of their homework. Children with profound fatigue, who have a
difficult time just getting through the school day, benefit greatly from having less work to do
at home.Keep in mind that more school work is not necessarily better. If a child is fatigued and has
problems with memory and organization, of what use is hours worth of homework, at the end of
the school day, or on the weekend? Of what benefit is increasing the child's anxiety by requiring
that he/she perform equal to the children who are well? Are they really being treated equally, if
the child who is well can do the work in 114to 112the time as the child who is ill? Shouldn't the
sick child have at least an equal right to down time, time to relax, and recover, to face the next
There are long lists of accommodations, designed to fit the needs of disabled children. Those
with chronic Lyme, where documentation supports the problems and the need, are entitled to
these accommodations. Those who say it gives these kids an edge, rather than levelling the
playing field, have never known someone with chronic Lyme. I suggest to those people that if
these accommodations provide an edge for these kids, then so do hearing aids and eyeglasses.
Ask everyone with those disabilities to do their work without those particular accommodations,
One more thing - you parents have a very important job in this process with the school -
advocating for your child.
Meetings with the school professionals can be very intimidating. They've got formats to follow,
protocols, guidelines required by law to follow, for the very design of the meeting. They areused to these meetings. You are NOT - often leading to a very uncomfortable situation for
Go into the meeting prepared. Take your documentation, know what your child's needs are, and
DON'T GIVE UP!! If you don't get support from the school the first time around, find a support
group for parents of classified kids, attend meetings, network with parents who have been
dealing with their children's schools for years. They have an expertise in education law, and they
are very willing to help you. Someone from the group may even be willing to attend the meeting
with you. You are entitled to bring anyone you wish. Take advantage of it.
It's not always an easy path, but you already know that about Lyme disease. It's unfortunate that
yet another part of the environment can be so difficult to negotiate for families with Lyme, but
for right now, until there is a greater understanding of Lyme in the education community, that's
the way it is. So just remain in your child's corner, and don't give up!!
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