There seems to be this stigma out there that a learning disability is a negative thing. Some parents feel a sense of relief hearing that their child has a learning disability. The diagnosis may explain the reasoning behind one’s struggle in school. Other parents feel a sense of guilt. They wonder if there is something more they could have done to somehow prevent their child from struggling in school. Thankfully, this feeling generally decreases with time and acceptance. For me, I see a gift within a learning disability. This is especially true when it is presented to the child as one. This is because there is a lot of ABILITY in a learning disability! This post goes over what a learning disability is and gives examples of individuals diagnosed with one embracing their gifts.
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As I stated, there is a gift within a learning disability because there is a heck of a lot of ability to focus on. I am NOT a psychologist. However, I’ve sat in a number of meetings with psychologists over the years to debrief after assessments have been completed. I’ve also worked with a lot of students diagnosed with a learning disability. Here is how I understand a learning disability in a nutshell.
What is a learning disability and how is it diagnosed?
An individual must have average to superior intelligence to even be diagnosed with a learning disability. In Canada where I live, a learning disability is typically diagnosed with a psychoeducational assessment. This means that both an IQ test (through a WISC) and an achievement test (such as a WIAT) are done. The IQ test has 5 indices measured. They are Verbal Comprehension, Visual Spatial, Fluid Reasoning, Working Memory, and Processing Speed. The achievement test (WIAT) is used to determine where the individual scores in reading, writing, math and oral language.
The Verbal Comprehension Index is the one that is worked on and massaged throughout one’s schooling. The unfortunate thing for some is that, because school marks often won’t reflect their strengths and celebrate their abilities, they may go through school and believe they are not intelligent. However, they simply may not have an index worked on in school as a strength that comes easily. If that index is Working Memory (WISC) or Reading (WIAT), this can easily have an impact on an entire report card! The individual may still be incredibly strong in other areas and just struggle in one index.
In order for a learning disability to be diagnosed, there has to be a discrepancy between scores. The discrepancy is often seen between the WISC scores and the WIAT scores. This happens when the individual is not achieving academically at a level that would be expected based on his/her WISC scores. Another discrepancy could be between indices of the WISC itself. For example, the individual may have superior intelligence in all areas except for one index in which that score is perhaps average or low average.
Other Terms for a Learning Disability
Today, the term ‘learning disability’ appears to be evolving. Common terms today are ‘Writing Disorder,’ ‘Math Disorder,’ or ‘Reading Disorder.’ This is dependent on where the discrepancy is seen. Keep in mind that Oxford dictionary defines dyslexia as:
“A general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.”
Sometimes attention may be noted as a possible factor and ADHD is explored. This also is not a scary diagnosis, as noted in this post I wrote a few weeks ago.
Regardless, there is WAY MORE ABILITY than disability no matter how a learning disability is diagnosed. This is what needs to be focused on. Appreciation of the ability is much more likely to develop a confident child willing to take risks. This is true when what they are able to do well is focused on. Yes, it is also true that the weaknesses still may need to be worked on. Most of our children will end up choosing a career path that allows them to embrace what they do well. The weaknesses won’t be focused on unless it is tied to a strength they have.
Skills such as reading, writing, and math are definitely important skills to learn. However, how we approach these subjects when supporting the individual will vary. This is because it should be dependent on one’s learning style and strengths. Not varying how we teach these individuals runs the risk of them seeing themselves as ‘stupid.’ Our kids deserve better!
Examples of Individuals Who Have a Learning Disability
Focusing on strengths and seeing the gift within a learning disability, let’s go over a few examples. Thankfully, each of the individuals below embraced their strengths and are living successful lives today.
“As a child, Dav Pilkey was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. Dav was so disruptive in class that his teachers made him sit out in the hall every day. Luckily, Dav loved to draw and make up stories, so he spent his time in the hallway creating his own original comic books.
In the second grade, Dav Pilkey created a comic book about a superhero named Captain Underpants. His teacher ripped it up and told him he couldn’t spend the rest of his life making silly books. Fortunately, Dav was not a very good listener.”From https://pilkey.com/author
Even though Dav may have struggled with reading, clearly he had some serious strengths not to mention an incredible imagination! Illustrating and creating comics is definitely a strength… one that I am thrilled that he honors and values within himself! I’m not positive, but I’m guessing that his score on a Visual-Spatial Index would be very high.
I currently teach a couple of individuals who share some of the strengths that Dav has. I am always amazed by what either of them can create! Each does require a different approach to teaching reading… one that honors their strengths rather than continually hitting them with the traditional approach to teaching reading that simply may not work for them based on how they learn.
Famous British chef, Jamie Oliver, is another individual who was diagnosed with a reading disability, or dyslexia. He certainly has a LOT of strengths as well! Jamie claims that if we can do just one thing well, we are needed by somebody. He makes a great point! He himself became incredibly successful, yet he struggled so much in school with reading.
The story Jamie tells below about the 10-year-old that approaches him is heartbreaking. I find myself
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg used to have great fear around being called upon to read aloud in school. He went home and created movies as an escape. I believe we are all truly blessed by his abilities! He even sees his diagnosis of dyslexia as a gift. He claims that reading the material at a slower pace ensures that he reads it more thoroughly.
You see, each of the individuals mentioned above still benefited from learning to read in a way that worked for them. However, their strengths are honored in their career path and in their lives! This is important for our children as well!
Expanding on the Need to Focus on Ability
I can’t remember where I read this, but I remember reading that us humans tend to focus on improving the 10% of things that are difficult for us. There is this false belief that we need to do everything well… especially if it was taught in school! Yet, if we were instead focusing and celebrating the 90% of things that come much easier to us, we likely would all be happier and would live a much more confident and fulfilled life!
A sense of direction is a massive weakness of mine. Even though I can easily read a map and street names, I continue to struggle with translating this into turning the correct way when I exit a store or attempt to take the same route home as I took on the way to a destination. In fact, my son has been correcting me on this ever since he was in preschool! A sense of direction is something that comes much more easily for him. Even though I have developed strategies to help me with this weakness over the years, I certainly did NOT choose a career path that focuses on this area. If I had, I would likely never see or appreciate the things I am able to easily do well.
There are way more strengths than weaknesses in a learning disability. Seeing and celebrating what individuals do well is the gift within a learning disability. If you have a child with a learning disability, what strengths are being honored? Is your child able to celebrate what comes easily or is the internal focus more on what they perceive others as easily succeeding in? Let me know in the comments below.