Saturday, July 16, 2011

Living With Learning Disabilities as an Adult

There is a basic assumption that I am intelligent because
a) I'm a teacher
b) I have an advanced graduate degree
c) I'm a writer (not prolific, true, but one of these days ...)

This is kind of a difficult topic for me to get into because it crosses into the personal more than I'm necessarily comfortable with, but I strongly believe that this is a topic that is under-addressed in society.

I found out when I was a junior in high school, after eleven years of public education, having my IQ tested numerous times (it's in the "superior" range, but I miss out on "genius" by a few points ;-)), and being dismissed as lazy and academically apathetic by virtually all of my teachers, that I have two specific learning disabilities. Several years later, ADHD was added to the mix.

I never had an IEP (special education plan) because my mother did not want me to be enabled. Her philosophy was that life was not going to make accommodations to my disabilities, so I might as well get used to it. Furthermore, I was pretty much about to graduate high school by the time anything would have been in place, so what was the point?

My disabilities were identified through an assessment done at Children's Hospital in Boston, and I cannot say enough good things about that experience. The staff there gave me specific ways that I could take control of both my education and my life (such as recording teacher lectures with a tape recorder, taking tests in silent locations, and so on), and I was a straight-A student my senior year of high school (good thing, too, considering the spotty transcript that preceded that year).

What I had that many students with disabilities don't is an exceptional strength that offset the weaknesses to a degree that I could function to some degree. In my case, of course, it was in the area of reading and, even more so, writing.

I could write an essay about something that I had no idea about, and my teachers would read them aloud as gold standards. I always felt a little guilty about this, but it was how things rolled.

I also have a quasi-photographic visual memory, which has probably been an even greater boon. If I see something, I will remember it with almost total recall, which is kind of a cool skill, I suppose. I am the master of the game Memory ;)

As an educator, I know that there is a label for students like I was--"twice exceptional", which basically means that I had both disabilities and areas of incredible strength.

But my intent with this post isn't to talk about my educational experiences, which would be, I suppose, kind of an interesting post in its own right and might happen one of these days.

No, it's to contemplate how my abilities, much as I know and understand them, have impacted me as an adult. This is an important discussion, I think, because schools today are actually really quick to identify students as disabled, to mass produce IEPs and 504 plans that provide what amounts to "blanket coverage" to ensure a degree of success in school but does not necessarily prepare a disabled child for real life.

I can't speak to a lot of disabilities, but I can bring up the three areas that I have personal experience with.

#1: Auditory Processing

There is absolutely nothing wrong with my hearing, per se, but I miss a lot of what I "hear" because there is a crossed wire (or something) in my brain that doesn't allow me to process what I hear.

This is one of the reasons that I avoid the telephone. It's not that I don't want to talk to people, but if there is any sort of background noise whatsoever (other people talking, the television being on, even something as simple as a fan or a car's engine), I'll more often than not let an incoming call go to voice mail.

It's kind of embarrassing to say, "What?" every time someone else talks.

I also have a tendency to avoid loud crowds of people for the same reason. I have to really struggle to follow conversations (I learned some lip reading through the staff at Children's, but I'm not great at it), and sometimes it's just not worth the trouble.

What I most enjoy, though, is that most professional development offered to teachers is of the "stand and deliver" school of thought. If I don't have something visual to follow, it's sort of like being back in history class listening as hard as I could to a lecture that went in one ear and out the other.

I am not a quiet person by any means (heh heh), but I often come off this way to people I first meet because I am very aware of my auditory processing issue and don't want to be remembered as the chick who kept saying, "What?! Say again, please? What did you say?"

#2: Spatial

Perhaps ironically when you consider my exceptional visual memory, I have virtually no spatial skills.

My mother is very into moving furniture around, for example, and she'll say, "What if we moved this coffee table there and swapped the couch and the loveseat around?" then get very frustrated when I explain that I can't visualize it.

In fact, she'll often try to draw me a map, which makes the situation even worse.

I cannot read maps. I have absolutely no sense of direction--I still get lost in my hometown, and while it qualifies as a city, it's not exactly huge. I think Mapquest, with its breakdown of how many miles you're on each road, is one of the best inventions ever.

I live on a state road that runs all the way to the beach. I once asked my mother if a certain city that was also on "Route 69" meant going east or west. She looked at me as though I was dumb and said, "Um ... what happens if you go east all the way to the end?" When I looked at her blankly, she elaborated, "You hit the ocean. If you don't want to go to the beach, you'd go the other way. That would be west." This was about six months ago.

And then, of course, there's math, which is virtually impossible if you have essentially no spatial skills. How do you explain the concept of a coefficient to someone that doesn't understand numbers? I walked into Algebra I thinking that X meant multiply.

When I took the GRE before applying for grad school, the results were almost funny. Almost. Verbal: 91st (I think ... it was ninety-something) %ile. Analytical: 75th %ile. Math: 3rd %ile. Third. That's kind of embarrassing ... but I was accepted to graduate school and maintained an A average, so I guess it doesn't really matter.

But when my students ask me to help them with math and I just look blankly at the problem, when I'm trying to calculate how many weeks away the first day of school is and I literally need a calendar in front of me to accomplish this, when I get lost on my way to the next town over ...

#3: ADHD
ADHD, perhaps the most misdiagnosed conditions in the world, is probably the condition that most identifies me as a person. Like, my ADHD is kind of a schoolwide joke at work.

Like most adults with ADHD, I
* live in a state of organized chaos. My desk at work, for example, is a landmark ... yet I have the distinction of being a teacher known for not losing student work.
* cannot sit in a meeting for extended periods of time without resorting to annoying habits like tapping my feet, moving around like I have ants in my pants, sitting backwards and sideways in chairs, shuffling papers around, and so on.
* have a fairly extensive history of impulsive, self-destructive behavior. I cannot say no to a dare, for example, because I'll be doing whatever I've been dared to do before my brain says, "Whoa, this is maybe not such a great idea" ... but I've gotten better about this.
* self-medicate (it's caffeine these days, which is far better than some past bad habits)
* need to multi-task, almost to a fault
* hyper-focus on certain things to calm myself down(I learned from a very young age to almost hypnotize myself through the act of reading)
* struggle with finishing what I've started. I have made tremendous progress in this area, but it still exists.
* am either adored (because I'm funny and endearing and goofy and all that) or the source of frustration (because I'm not always serious and am often loud and goofy and need to be reminded to get things done and such)
* am kind of a good time.

Although my disabilities have been the source of a great deal of frustration throughout my life, they are as much a part of who I am as anything else. I've reached a point where I like who I am in general, and I would not be me, the kind of person who enjoys the odd whipped cream fight and appreciates the better parts of myself all the more because of my deficiencies, if I was "normal" (which does not, in my opinion, exist anyway).
Uh ... squirrel!!!!!!!!!!!!