Can Learning Challenges Be Gifts in Disguise
It was a great surprise when I realized my clearly bright, gifted daughter struggled with reading, writing, counting… really, with words and symbols of all sorts. In some ways, I continue to be shocked by it though we are years past her official diagnosis and our family’s embracement of dyslexia as a gift. Like most of parenting, approaching how my children learn has forced me to reconsider what my values truly are.
Writing, learning, the world of books has been such a significant part of my life that I began to consider it essential. Not only am I a writer, but the world of books and words helped me find my way through an early childhood marked by poverty and an adolescents coloured by it’s aftermaths. As a young child I escaped into books about the olden days, royalty, or fantasy. As a young adult I escaped with the essays, grades, and scholarships that books also helped bring about. Certainly if the world of words played such an important part in my own life, then being “book smart” must be a value worth pursuing with my own children?
Then again, as any reader will tell you, when the main character holds anything too precious at the beginning of the story, you know the plot crisis will revolve around her needing to reexamine that treasure. And so life is again a bit more poetic than fiction.
What is a learning disability?
One of the benchmarks of a learning disorder is having an above-average IQ but difficulties in processing spoken or written language or symbols. It often shows up as otherwise smart people who struggle with reading or writing or can’t do math. Yet, defining a learning disorder, or even deciding on what language to use, is a challenge and full of controversy. “The new term for learning disabilities is learning disorders,” says Dr. Suretha Swart a Registered Psychologist in Private Practice in Vancouver with a background in clinical and school psychology who provides assessments and therapy to individuals of all ages. She goes on to say that just what to call a learning disability, difference, or dysfunction in itself, “Can be the topic of a thesis.”
If there is a lack of consensus on what to call learning differences, it’s no surprise that there is controversy on just about ever aspect including whether they are becoming more prevalent or whether they are disabilities versus gifts. “Some professionals argue that students are being over-identified, while others attribute changes in the number of students being identified to the relative newness of the field, changing definitions of learning disorders, and an increased openness in society to talk about, and seek out diagnosis,” says Dr. Swart.
What’s a disability versus a difference; a gift versus a disorder? The learning differences we hear about the most these days include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And while all of these are known to be able to affect a person’s learning, ADHD and ASD are not considered learning disorders by the medical and educational communities.
ADHD is called a psychiatric disorder, although it may appear alongside a learning disability. While a child with ADHD may have trouble sustaining attention and sitting still, it’s not always the case says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a NYC neuropsychologist behind the website comprehendthemind.com. “Some may exhibit motor agitation and have difficulties sitting still and others may be the most well-behaved and quiet individual in the group. Typically, difficulties with sustaining attention, concentrating and being easily distracted are the most prevalent symptoms.”
Similarly, ASD can manifest in a form with high intelligence and learning difficulties, but it is not labelled a learning disorder either. Rather it is considered a development disorder with a genetic component: “Typically characterized by speech delays/deficits, deficits in socialization/peer interactions, and behavioural rigidities or peculiarities,” says Dr. Hafeez, who also says that: “Presentation of symptoms… can vary drastically.”
Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are learning disorders according to the medical and educational communities. Dyslexia is the broadest of these “dys-es” and affects the way a person relates to symbols and their meanings; it is often used as a catch-all category for more than 70 other learning disabilities and indeed many children with other learning differences, including ADHD and ASD, will have some symptoms of dyslexia. Dyscalculia could be called dyslexia of numbers and affects a person’s ability to read, copy, and write numbers as well as their ability to comprehend and master math concepts. Dysgraphia affects the mechanics of writing
Dyslexia can overlap into symptoms of dysgraphia and dyscalculia and it tends to be far greater than writing letters backwards, which is what most people seem to associate with dyslexia. Indeed, my daughter wrote her name in a perfect mirror version for many years. Indeed, she describes reading as trying to catch the words that are busy sliding and running off the page. I stumbled upon this web code that simulates this aspect of dyslexia: https://geon.github.io/programming/2016/03/03/dsxyliea.The experts all say that dyslexia is more than the letters moving around the page. It is also associated with difficulty connecting letters with their sounds and vice versa making it a challenge for dyslexics to sound out words, rhyme, or pronounce and write letters in their proper order. It can also make it hard to associate meanings with words and symbols.
Dys-order or the gift of dyslexia?
Some psychologists, including Dr. Hafeez, object to the use of the word dyslexia, preferring to refer to the disorder as a “disability in reading and writing.” The dyslexics I interviewed, including Sue Hall, author of Fish Don’t Climb Trees, Davis Dyslexia facilitator, and the head of the Whole Dyslexic Society in turn object to referring to dyslexia as a disability. They say that it’s a difference shared by as much as ⅓ of the population and one that brings distinct advantages—most notably an ability to perceive multi-dimensionally— as well as the more commonly known challenges. The Davis Dyslexia and Autism facilitators go even further saying that ADHD and even ASD can bring some of the same advantages of dyslexia and the symptoms are correctable.
Neurodiversity is a term thrown around these days in communities of people and parents with learning differences. It represents the idea that neurological differences are a result of normal variations in human genetics. In other words, that people whose brains function differently aren’t wrong, worse-off, or disabled. Indeed, as we learn more about how our brain’s work, this becomes increasingly backed by science. In Proust and the Squid author and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf says that “Human beings were never born to read.” She explains that not only is reading “not laid down genetically” but, significantly, “the genes associated with dyslexia have survived robustly.” She goes on to refer to dyslexia as an “untidy mix of genetic talents and cultural weaknesses.” And look at the gifts it has supplied to human culture. She mentions: Picassos’ Gurnicas and Gaudis La Pedrera, but look too at Einstein’s theory of Relativity, Rudolf Steiner’s development of Waldorf education, and the creative empire built by Walt Disney. Not to mention the books, music, theories, and inventions of the many other dyslexics throughout history.
Dr. Wolf isn’t the only one to point to the many gifted individuals who have significantly contributed to society despite or because of their dyslexia. Sue Hall, who is adamant that “dyslexia is a gift,” also points to numerous inspiring figures who have used their dyslexia to track (almost magically) various actions on a playing field or to comprehend theories not yet understood by current science. These individuals include athletes such as Magic Johnson and Muhammad Ali; artists such as Pablo Picasso and Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven and John Lennon, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, Lewis Carroll and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and famous great thinkers such as George Washington, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, Rudolf Steiner, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein.
Tosh Harvey is 16 and if you were to ask around the rural community where he lives “Whose a responsible young person that might lead a mixed-age wilderness course” or “Who is the brightest young person you know?” or “I’m curious about the sea lion that washed up dead on my beach,” They would say: “Talk to Tosh.” He’s also the one who gets up without asking from the table and clears everyone else’s plates, washes and dries them, and then happily goes outside to do all the substantial evening chores. “Because at some point I realized that doing chores was just another way to spend time, so I might as well.”
He’s a remarkable young man. He is also diagnosed with dyslexia and “would probably be considered to have ADHD.” He says he dropped out of school in the middle of grade one, despite his farm-based school being “alternative and really great” because he felt he was losing confidence in himself. “It was in this beautiful setting on a farm and I just wanted to be outside, playing, and doing what I wanted to do in the natural world. I couldn’t see the point in what I was doing [sitting at a desk].” Since grade one, Tosh has been homeschooling.
Tosh says he feels that there is more to dyslexia than “words flying off the paper or backwards.” He says that he sees the words fine, “but trouble happens between how I see them and what my brain does.” Often, though he knows the letters, they are “meaningless pictures and symbols.” He emphasizes however that it is difficult to describe how his own brain functions: “To me how it looks, is how I think it looks to everyone else.”
The view that dyslexia is a gift is behind the Davis Dyslexia program taught by Sue Hall and created by Ron Davis, author of a The Gift of Learning and The Gift of Dyslexia, and the founder of a dyslexia correction program and a similar program for autism spectrum disorder. Davis was deemed autistic and abandoned by an educational system that didn’t know what to do with him or his inability to read. He graduated at the bottom of his class with a label of “mentally retarded.” Despite this, he was able to go on to become a successful engineer, but it wasn’t until he was 38 that he taught himself to read. Davis experimented on himself and worked with other severely dyslexic individuals and an educational psychologist to create techniques to correct the visual “disorientation” that come along with dyslexia. His programs are now taught and used all over the world for those with dyslexia and autism spectrum disorder.
Is it a gift? I asked Tosh and my own child about their dyslexia. “I don’t know if [being dyslexic] has made me who I am but I am happy with who I am. If it’s dyslexia that has given me the talents and skills that I have and if it’s dyslexia that has made it so that I can’t read, then that isn’t a bad trade,” says Tosh.
My own daughter, who is ten, says: “Some parts of it feel really nice, like being able to see things three-dimensionally is kind of fun, but when it comes to reading or writing, it’s just no fun anymore.”
But what about school?
If these learning differences are a gift, why do so many children with them struggle in school? Hall and Davis would put that blame with the education system as it exists. “Many so-called learning challenges exist purely because our current education system ignores the innate learning style of one-third of the population,” says Hall. “There is nothing wrong with their brains,” she says of dyslexics, and she includes herself in that.
The problem, says Hall, is when this gift of perception collides with an educational system that assumes verbal processing—connecting letters and sounds aka phonics— is the “right” way and isn’t able to provide meaning in a three-dimensional form for the words that we read. “In a nutshell, there are little pc computers entering Kindergarten and their are little apple macs. If the education system is pc-based, then the little apple-macs will be seen as deficient.”
I saw a living example of this in a small, international Waldorf school we attended in Guatemala. Many people believe that Guatemala has one of the highest rates of dyslexia in the world. The theories as to why abound: the children lack the neurological cross patterning that come from crawling, the perceptual gifts that go along with dyslexia helped their society more than reading, or its a genetic brain abnormality readily shared in a relatively homogenous group. Whatever the causes, what I saw in the early grades in that school was a type of learning that helped all the kids excel. The classes were taught in Spanish which for the majority of the children was not their first language. As they were introduced to their letters and numbers, the children wrote the symbols with their bodies, with their feet in the sand, on each other’s backs. They crawled on the ground and walked on the balance beam while repeating the letter. They created the letter with string and beeswax. In other words, the children had ample opportunities to embody the symbols before they were assigned their two-dimensional space on paper. As well, the children were taught through stories and actions and demonstration rather than through books so that the kids who didn’t read until the later grades could still learn with their peer group.
Hall emphasizes that if a child with dyslexia—or just about any of the learning differences that get grouped in with dyslexia—has been taught to use their imaging gift (and how to find and model meanings as needed) and protected from an over-emphasis on sound-based learning, then a learner should have no trouble integrating in any classroom or grade level.
Hall puts the emphasis on prevention. “In two days a classroom teacher can learn how to reach both the little pc and the little apple mac, and therefore the so-called learning disabilities never rise.” Indeed, I spoke with two long-time educators after leaving an introductory session with Sue Hall. They both mentioned how much they wished they had known how to reach these little apple-macs earlier. “I just kept trying more of the same techniques, thinking that some kids just learned slower,” said one.
Sue Hall and both of the educational psychologists emphasize that children with learning disorders—and even children with ADHD and ASD—can flourish, even in conventional educational systems. It’s just a matter of what it might take for that to happen. Dr. Hafeez recommends accommodations “to remove any biases that may hinder their ability to perform optimally in a classroom setting.” Accommodations may include access to computer technology, use such software as voice-to-text or text-to-voice, electronic, or taped software, access to a reader/scribe, extra time, reduced course load, writing exams in a separate setting, and access to instructor or peer notes. “In my experience,” says Dr. Swart, “many students do not use all of the accommodations they are granted; however, for many students, once identified, knowing that they can access supports when needed, increases emotional control and their confidence. Being under emotional control is very important for efficient problem solving to take place.”
While Hall believes that the onus should fall on the educational system to provide these accommodations, she has helped hundreds of children, including Tosh and my daughter, learn techniques to help them read—and learn math and master other concepts— in a way that works for them. Part of the training that she provides is based around mastering 217 of the “little words that hitherto have had no 3D image.” These include words such as the, if, so. “Follow up is the key to their success,” so if a child is in a school where the teachers know how to help this process along, these children can really excel. Even if not, however, 10 minutes of reading practice and working through their list of sight words everyday at home can help them still be “hugely successful, often ending up on the honour roll because the intelligence has always been there, it was only the skills that needed to catch up.”
Traditional brick and mortar school isn’t for everyone. Tosh says that homeschooling has been a real gift, but he also sees how much effort it is for parents. He’s thrived in the multifaceted learning environment the homeschooling has offered. He took a sustainable living course recently through his home-based high school program, “Through doing that course I realized how much knowledge I had on this [subject].” His knowledge of natural world, animals, gardening, homesteading, and cooking were extensive. As I mentioned earlier, in his community, he is referenced even by adults as an expert on many of these subjects.
The downside of dyslexia for Tosh—which can be a challenge in a school setting or at home—is that it’s been “hard to pursue information, if I want to learn something I can’t just read a book about it.” He feels very fortunate that his parents always read a lot out loud to him and his siblings: “I really enjoy that part of culture, even though I can’t read the books myself.”
There are many students with disabilities at post-secondary institutions says Dr. Swart. According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment survey (34,000 post-secondary students at 32 schools across Canada), approximately four percent of students reported having ADHD or a learning disability. Some of these students aren’t diagnosed until they reach university or college. Most post-secondary institutions have departments or centres staffed with consultants who provide support services and accommodations to students with learning disorders or other disabilities.
Early Signs of Future Learning Challenges
There were perhaps early signs of my own child’s dyslexia, but I didn’t think anything of them at the time. I thought she was colour blind because she didn’t know most of her basic colours long past when the other kids did. She was not colour blind, nor did she need glasses. Nor did she have hearing issues and her health was splendid according to various health practitioners.
Dr. Hafeez says there may be early signs of future learning challenges that parents might recognize: “When your child struggles to learn letters, numbers, or colours despite repetition or if your child has difficulties understanding and following directions. There are a couple of things to look out for: difficulties focusing, delayed speech, difficulties forming letters, difficulties learning new word or following instructions.”
Sue Hall has worked with hundreds of children and adults with dyslexia over the last 20 years since her own son was diagnosed with dyslexia. While she says she didn’t see early signs with her son, she is now able to see many commonalities in the students that come to her including: speech therapy, difficulty tying shoelaces, talk out loud rather than inside their heads, wisdom beyond their years, getting motion sick easily, and sometimes bedwetting.
My own child had a slight speech impediment which she eventually outgrew. She’d reverse her p and s sand say psoon, psot, psaghetti. More pronounced, and seemingly shared with a number of other dyslexics, was her inability to say her “Rs.” She’d say “wight”and “wong” and “Wosita” yet when we lived in Guatemala she had no trouble rolling her rs in a way I never could grasp. It made me realize that it wasn’t that she couldn’t make the different sounds with her tongue and mouth but she seemingly couldn’t hear them.
To Test or Not to Test: Is that Even the Question?
Educational psychologists will often point out that a diagnosis—or an official learning disability label—can be a beneficial starting point for parents seeking help. Dyslexics will often end up with one that includes visual processing disorders, phonological processing disorders, short-term memory issues, and problems with sequencing or patterns.
These labels are a result of the Psychological Educational Evaluation aka the “psych ed”. It attempts to quantify a child’s intellectual, educational, and behavioural development. An evaluation usually involves a series of tests and interviews to determine intellectual abilities—or IQ—as well as processing, attention, memory, and academic achievement. The end result can be a designated learning disability and guidance for creating an individualized educational plan aka the IEP.
“Psychoeducational assessments are useful to predict success in typical educational environments, identify strengths and weaknesses within a student’s profile and help professionals plan for interventions and support,” says Dr. Swart. She emphasizes, however, that the research makes clear that a child’s social skills, good work habits, ability to empathize and to persist are “very important contributors to success in life.” The research isn’t as clear about which—if any— interventions or tests really make a difference. Rather, parents need to carefully observe and evaluate interventions. If after a significant period of time, “you don’t see changes,” says Dr. Swart, “reevaluate if the intervention is working.”
Sue Hall believes that if we are instructing our children using the best teaching techniques available learning differences wouldn’t hinder our children from excelling in school. She says that while having a learning diagnosis can be a starting point for parents, ultimately we’d have an educational system that meets the needs of both kinds of learners making “testing a thing of the past.” She also sees the tests as geared towards normalizing the “pc-learner” over the “little apple-mac.”
Advice to parents
Advice for parents of children with learning disabilities abounds. My own experience with finding the gift aspect of learning differences, is that the biggest obstacles were my own fears and ideas about what it means to be intelligent, successful, or prepared for the world. What is important to me in raising a child: That she be seen as conventionally intelligent or that she be a capable citizen of the world? The other day she answered this for me when she said: “I just want to grow up to be a really good person and help the world.”
When I asked my daughter for advice for parents of children with learning differences, she said: “Be very patient. That’s for grown-ups and kids. Kids to be patient with themselves and grown-ups to be patient with the kids.”
Dr. Swart says her “most important piece of advice for parents navigating the process of assessment and intervention is to continue to enjoy your child, make sure your child engages in daily physical exercise, gets enough sleep, has limited screen time, and has sufficient downtime.” She cautions parents to avoid “marathon weekend sessions of tutoring,” which she says can lead to “discouragement, avoidance of academics or escape behaviours.” I especially noticed this tendency in myself when my child was in school, versus while she was homeschooled. I had this hope that I could make up for all the things she was missing in the classroom through summer school or weekend sessions. It was pretty brutal all around. Rather, says Dr. Swart, “Aim for small changes over time and work on the area of difficulty for brief periods of time, spread out over the week.” She also says that interventions need to be accompanied by activities that will help increase academic confidence and non-academic strengths and talents.
Tosh perhaps sums it up the most concisely: “There is never a silver bullet to dyslexia or a problem like this: as if you will [suddenly] read after this week long program. My parents have always wanted there to be a silver bullet to help me. There isn’t, it’s a lot of hard work.” Learning differences are “this double edged sword: it can cut you but it can also give you an edge on life.”
Learn more about how to work with your child or your own learning needs with these great books (these links will take you to an Amazon affiliate account).