Learning disabilities come in all shapes and sizes
Learning disabilities are mainly associated with literacy and mathematics and schools spend plenty of money attempting to fix these problems.
In addition to the usual suspects, I suspect learning deficits also exist in the practical, artistic and sporting realms and they can be just as debilitating and embarrassing. If this sounds far-fetched, I offer myself as a research subject because I suffer from them.
At school, reading and spelling and mathematics came easily; everything else was a struggle.
I was always picked last for sport teams – and with good reason as I couldn’t catch or throw the ball. Moreover, the rules of most games made no sense and even if (by some miracle) I ended up on the basketball court, I fumbled, froze and fell repeatedly. I finished my appalling athletic career at the age of eleven, on the sidelines, distributing orange slices at quarter time.
Art was just as bad – I can still only draw stick figures – and making anything to scale was hopeless. My needlecraft class was exquisite torture: needles refused to be threaded, sewing machines went haywire and the teacher bellowed commands in what seemed to be a rare Swahili dialect.
A vicious cycle of learning failure
It was a vicious cycle.
The more wretched I felt about my brain’s blind spots, the more I avoided sport, art and anything requiring practical skills (this meant that I spent most of my free time reading – which I was good at ). So I got better at what I liked and – if that’s possible – even worse at everything else.
I’m reasonably certain my failings were genuine cognitive deficits as remediation, in my case, would have required much, much more than being shown how to thread a sewing machine or how to catch a ball. People did show me, several times, and it made no difference.
I needed intense, repetitive instruction. Over and over again for weeks, if not months. I sensed vaguely what was required but had no idea how to do it.
Luckily for anyone with learning disabilities, there is someone who does.
Introducing the brilliant Barbara Arrowsmith – Young
If you have never heard of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, you soon will. She’s in my home country of Australia now, lecturing and promoting her book The Woman Who Changed Her Brain and turning everything we know about learning disabilities on its head.
Barbara suffered a shocking array of learning deficits as a child and young adult: She couldn’t read a clock, she read and wrote words backwards and, like me, was picked last for sport teams because she had no idea of where her body was in relation to the ball and to other people. She also found it impossible to follow conversations and survived by staying quiet and smiling frequently.
She barely coped at school and it was only her near perfect auditory and visual memory that allowed her to muddle through. However, the strain became overwhelming and she attempted suicide at the age of fourteen.
Despite all this – and with tremendous effort – she got to college where, in a luminous twist of fate, a friend introduced her to the work of Aleksander Luria. He was a Russian neuroscientist and early explorer of neuroplasticity – which is the idea that the brain can heal, rewire and change if given the right kind of stimulation. Barbara read, with increasing excitement, Luria’s chronicle of a soldier whose left brain was destroyed after a bullet lodged in his head.
She realised her collection of severe cognitive deficits was exactly the same as the deficits experienced by the soldier. Like her, he could not tell the time either.
She then wondered if she could fix her deficits by going to the root cause of the problem: her own brain.
Barbara devised a series of exercises to strengthen the brain areas responsible for her learning difficulties. She started with her inability to tell the time: a friend would call out various times and Barbara would then draw them on a clock face.
Over a period of several weeks, Barbara’s time-telling skill and her ability to understand conversation both improved. She knew she was on to something and began constructing exercises to strengthen other parts of her brain.
The Arrowsmith school to the rescue
She eventually founded the Arrowsmith school in Toronto, Canada in 1980 which has helped thousands of students of all ages overcome serious learning deficits. A prospective student attends an initial one – day assessment which tests for 19 types of learning problems. Following this, an individual program is devised which requires highly intensive, focused work for between ten months and several years.
What I love about Barbara’s program is that it deals with the basic cause of learning dysfunctions rather than the symptoms. Most remedial interventions focus on finding ways to accommodate the learning difficulty by having students circumvent the deficit rather than work with it. For example, if a student has trouble with handwriting, they may be encouraged to use a computer. This does nothing to improve the student’s ability to write – which is likely due to a brain deficit.
Barbara would love her program to be a normal part of school so that no child has to endure the learning disabled tag.
It looks like a few schools in Australia will offer her program next year.
I wonder who they will get to hand out the oranges now?
Where can I enrol?