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When Learning Disabilities Disguise Themselves

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Parents all over the country sent their children to go back to school this fall. They will no doubt have reminded them to try their best, work hard, and be polite to their new teachers.

For children and youth with learning disabilities, however, school is complicated and back to school can be very different. Academic performance is interrupted by any number of difficulties, and for some students, expectations of social etiquette and self-sufficiency frequently create an environment ripe for true catastrophes. Despite training, repetition, or even disciplinary action to address a lack of social skills -- failures are frequent and recurring.

A student named Dimitri comes to mind. For Dimitri's parents, Dimitri's mother knew that despite the constant reinforcement of good manners, Dimitri would appear rude to his teachers. After years of trying to discipline his behaviour, Dimitri's mother instead approached his teachers and prepared them for a year of tolerating her son's social faux pas.

In our brains, our right prefrontal cortex allows us to navigate our social and emotional world. Here, we perceive and interpret our nonverbal world by reading people's faces, voices, and body language. What I term the artifactual thinking cognitive area interprets these non-verbal clues and uses them to determine our actions. It permits us to anticipate consequences and establish our next steps, and lets us know when that step was unsuccessful so that next time we'll come up with a Plan B. To put it bluntly: this is the home of our common sense.

Sadly, for many children with this learning disability, their actions and words are commonly understood as misbehaviour. Students are seen as being rude, anxious, lazy and uncooperative. For many, these accusations manifest into damaging self-concepts that may follow them throughout their lives.

In Dimitri's case, to avoid early labels as a problem student, Dimitri's mother would approach her son's teachers and explain that Dimitri would need explicit instructions for his behaviour. She told them that when he inevitably misjudged and leapt before he looked, he would need someone to articulate what happened, why it happened, and to connect the dots for Dimitri between actions and consequences. Because the cognitive area that thinks about these situational scenarios intuitively was impaired, language was needed to provide an explanation that would be understood.

Dimitri was a bright, interesting, and often sensitive boy but due to his impairment, he would appear discourteous, even cruel at times because of his lack of ability to discern appropriate social behaviour. One time when the teacher promised the class he would take the best-behaved pupils to the local pizzeria at the end of that week, Dimitri loudly announced that he hated the place. He later very much regretted the outburst. That was the pattern: outburst, regret, outburst, regret. He was like a car without brakes.

Unlike academic curriculum, tutoring and textbooks cannot teach the skills that are normally developed in someone with a solid artifactual thinking ability. Although we certainly try as educators, the reality is that we cannot create finite rules for a world with countless variables and outcomes, and our reach is limited in imparting this kind of intuitive grasp of the world to someone whose understanding is hindered by their learning disability.

For instance, we may teach students to look at someone when they are talking, but what if that person is angry or shouting, and direct eye-contact may be perceived as a challenge? Alternatively, we may teach them to always ask permission before borrowing something, but what if that means constantly interrupting the class because this rule is understood only in isolation of surrounding factors? A course of action that might be suitable in one minute is entirely wrong in the next. One classmate might welcome friendly roughhousing in the playground; for another, this could be understood as a real threat and lead to a fight.

Like Dimitri, Claire was a student used to making teachers angry. She told me about an incident that occurred in her accounting class while the class was being supervised by a substitute teacher. Her regular teacher had given her permission to work on English homework while others learned how to balance books, and Claire understood herself to be respectfully following instructions.

"What are you doing?" the teacher asked Claire. "My English," said Claire, who never thought to explain why. Reading sauciness into her reply, the teacher responded, "You can either stop doing your English now, or you can leave this class." Taking this literally without understanding inflection, intonation, or implications, Claire thought she had to make a choice, so she left. The teacher pursued her down the hall and said, "Where are you going?" A confused Claire replied in all honesty: "I thought you told me I could leave the class."

Jumping to conclusions, or being passive when the situation calls for action are trademarks of this learning disability, and no amount of tough love or maturity will help. I have met too many parents who are baffled at their adult child's inability to apply for college within deadlines despite their clear desire, or to look for a job even though they have ambition. I have seen bright adult children who have had to move back in with their parents because of this cognitive deficit.

These individuals do not need to suffer through their adulthood. After nearly three decades of making my own mistakes due to my unique constellation of learning disabilities, I came across early neuroscientific research. By my 30s, I had applied neuroplastic principles to create a series of cognitive exercises that each strengthened a different aspect of human functioning.

Today, 55 schools in Canada, U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand have Arrowsmith classrooms, full of students permanently and profoundly changing their ability to learn. The artifactual thinking exercise is one of the most acutely-needed programs. By changing their ability to perceive and interpret the world, Dimitri and Claire changed their world and their participation in it. Their stories -- which began in struggle, transformed through targeted effort and eventually became defined by emergence and competence -- are described in the pages of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. Unfortunately, mirror experiences of these disabilities, of innocent rudeness and constant missteps, will still be found in every classroom this school year.

This school year, starting back at school will be a minefield for some. Let us keep in mind that for these students, we cannot assume they will know when the teacher wants the class quiet, or when they shouldn't ask for help. We should not conclude that they are intentionally antagonizing their peers, or that they are motivated by a desire to disrupt when they may very well be ultimately just confused.

As I travel around the globe sharing my story with people touched by learning disabilities, I hear the same painful stories. Life is confusing, frustrating and sometimes terrifying for those who cannot read the rich social tapestry of our world. It behooves us all to recognize this struggle, and to explore possibilities for change as we seek alternatives in education that integrate a cognitive approach.

Further information on these types of learning problems and a cognitive approach to addressing them can be found on the Arrowsmith Program website:

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