30 Years of Studying Learning, Attention, and Intellectual Disabilities

I am celebrating an anniversary this fall.  It was 30 years ago that I decided to devote my professional life and studies to adults with learning disabilities.  My interest in intellectual disabilities and the mental health concerns and problems of these groups followed soon after.  My interest sprang from several sources, but first among them were my own learning difficulties, first identified when I was in third or fourth grade.  If I remember right (and I am sure my mom will correct me if she ever reads this), it was an optometrist who first suggested I might have a learning disability, and I remember these horrible exercises I was supposed to do in order to strengthen the muscles in my eyes.  Not sure if that really accomplished anything, but the next year I had to meet with a learning disability “specialist” instead of attending class with my peers. The mean old woman (she probably wasn’t really mean or old, but that is how I remember her) made me draw the shapes of letters on sandpaper until my fingers bled in an attempt to make me stop reversing letters like “d” and “p” and “q” and “g”.  I still can’t spell the word, “adapt” correctly on the first try– d’s and p’s mess me up.  My handwriting has always been pretty bad, and a part of my continuing trouble with my learning disability is the fact that I still reverse letters, still have multiple slants to my writing, and still have trouble with fine visual motor skills.  I still have trouble with left and right, too, still get lost easily, and still can’t add 2 and 2 to save my life.  I still have word finding problems that can be really embarrassing sometimes, and I still have a short term memory like a sieve.  I still can’t type very well (much to the amusement of my coworkers), and after 35 years of trying, I still can’t parallel park, which some people also find amusing.  I still hate telephones because the ability to see someone in front of me while we are talking provides me with so many additional cues to what is going on, and I still avoid loud bars or restaraunts because I have trouble discriminating between the sounds of language… loud places are a giant auditory blur for me.  I still can’t focus on one thing for more than ten minutes, and even while writing this short passage I have already checked to see where Hurricane Katia is (cool hurricane tracking website), and read an article about how stroke in younger people is increasing (here).  What was I talking about?

Oh yeah.  Anyway, the point is that virtually all of the symptoms and weaknesses I had a s a child are still present, and in all my years of practice with many, many adults appropriately diagnosed with learning disabilities, I have rarely, if ever, met anyone who said that the remedial “cures” they endured as children were completely effective, if at all.  If it is true that learning disabilities have a neurological basis, which implies a physical difference in the brain, it is highly unlikely that a cure would be possible.  With good compensatory strategies, perseverence, a sense of humor, an incredible amount of hard work, and support from significant others, people with learning and other types of disabilities can reach their highest potential when given the opportunity and some help setting appropriate goals.  Throughout all my struggles in school, my amazing and oh-so-patient mother was the most important teacher and supporter I had.  Whenever I was feeling like a failure, mom would ask, “Did you put all the effort you could into what you were doing?”  If I replied with a “yes” she would tell me that, even though I hadn’t been able to do the task I had set out to do, I had succeeded because I had tried it and done my best.  The optimism with which she always said “Things always work out for the best,” still guides me and inspires me today.  She taught me that, if I try hard and fail anyway at something, then that is probably not something I want to do for a living, even though I might be having a good time with it.  I have had many clients over the years who, to prove it to themselves and others that they are “competent”, have gone into completely inappropriate career or job directions.  I have seen people with significant math troubles who want to be math teachers, people with significant writing and spelling problems who want to be writers for a living, people with nonverbal learning disorders who want to be mechanics or engineers, and there was one guy with cerebral palsy who wanted to be a barber.  The most beneficial thing that ever happened to me in school was failing chemistry and biology during my first year of college (in addition to a couple of other science courses).  I was forced to look realistically at my strengths and weaknesses, to rule out majors and sciences that required a lot of mathematics, and rule in those that were more theoretical.  And that led me to psychology and speech/language pathology, which I still love.  What was I talking about?

Oh yeah, I have been studying the field of learning disabilities (including ADHD) and intellectual disabilities for 30 years this fall, and I couldn’t have made a better choice for my life’s work.  My practice is successful, my relationships are satisfying,  I don’t have to do all that much math, and the parking lot does not require me to parallel park.  Things do work out for the best, if you let them.  Thanks for teaching me that, mom.

Oh!  I almost forgot!  Read this article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/with-dyslexia-words-failed-me-and-then-saved-me.html.  This guy is an inspiration and not only has a Pulitzer for his poetry, but also has witten the book, “My Dyslexia” (Phillip Schultz), and I can’t wait to read it.

Dr. Gary Macdonald has focused his practice on evaluating adult learning and performance problems and translating evaluation results into real-life solutions for cognitive weaknesses in the workplace, home, and community.  Assessment and psychotherapy for people who have dyslexia, ADHD, nonverbal learning disabilities, social or interpersonal problems, and/or Asperger’s Disorder are professional interests.  Gary is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and a Licensed School Psychologist.

About garymac

I am a licensed psychologist specializing in adult learning, attention, and autism spectrum disorders. I am a newf, book, beach, coffee, cat, and mountain lover, not necessarily in that order.
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One Response to 30 Years of Studying Learning, Attention, and Intellectual Disabilities

  1. garrsen says:

    Thank you for your succint writing that is experience and evidence-based and accurate regarding ADHD and other learning disabilities.
    It is so crucial for those of us with such challenges to have accurate information and support. It is also crucial for advocates such as yourself to do the amazing – as without people such as yourself too many incorrect ideas and inaccurate prejudisms against dyslexia, adhd and other conditions would never go uncorrected.

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