My Nonverbal Learning Disability: Weird, Wacky, And (Maybe) Wonderful

My Nonverbal Learning Disability: Weird, Wacky, And (Maybe) Wonderful

I’ve written a lot about how strange this world feels to me. The smallest things overwhelm me. How do people fold their clothes into neat little piles, control those frightful machines known as cars (don’t worry: I don’t drive), or develop mental pictures of areas well enough to give specific directions? (“Walk four blocks until you see Janson Street, then make a sharp right. You’ll pass a gift shop, a Panera, and a large parking lot. Turn left by the parking lot, then walk seven blocks until you see a small green house with a basketball net in the driveway, and turn right onto Otto Road….”) What is going on in their minds that allows them to picture the world in such vivid detail and tame it into neat, careful arrangement?

And those cell phones! People use them all the time — as they walk outside and while chatting with people in the street. They gracefully slip them into pockets when they need to give them up, then slide them out again and quickly resume activity. As if just walking around and finding your way weren’t difficult enough. As if dealing with a scarf, hat, and gloves weren’t a fearsome enough organizational challenge on a winter day. And oh, how they type on those tiny little keyboards, using both hands, fast, fast, fast… nothing like my laborious efforts to crank out messages on that tiny, sleek machine.

Occasionally, I pretend I’m a “normal” person and try out something regular humans from my basic demographic seem to love. Yoga, for instance. Until the instructor screams at me for derailing the class. “Don’t you see what I’m doing? Look at everyone else and follow along.”

Well, I kind of thought I was doing just that. Um, actually, I figured I probably wasn’t, but I wouldn’t know how to correct it and I was hoping I could just slide along and have the basic experience of the class: get a sense for the atmosphere and the people. But yoga instructors don’t want that. They want students to get it and don’t understand when moving your leg in a seemingly basic way seems as complicated as theoretical physics.

Recently, I stopped into a music store because I thought the instruments looked cool — all the colorful drums and shiny guitars. “Do you play anything?” a chubby, kind-seeming middle-aged man in a tie-dyed sweatshirt asked me.

“No, just looking.”

“Would you like to learn a little on one of our guitars?”

“Sure.” What was I thinking? The man told me how to hold it. I had no idea what he was talking about and kept flailing around like an awkward goon. Finally he came over, adjusted the guitar against my body, and moved my hands into a good position to start playing. He demonstrated a few chords and waited for me to follow his lead. I had no idea what I was doing: I couldn’t even figure out how to hold the pick correctly.

The guy kept looking at me, and I could feel him wondering what kind of bizarre case had wound up in his store. No, I wasn’t being paranoid. He was a nice person. He just didn’t get how someone who seemed perfectly normal on the surface could be so helpless against such basic skills in his area of passion.

When I was in seventh grade, my mother told me I had a learning disability. I’d been tested when I was five by a woman I remember as Mrs. Schwartz. For about a year after that testing, I went to her office maybe once a week: we worked on little visual puzzles, full-body movement, and handwriting. (I was reading well, but Mrs. Schwartz wanted to avoid major handwriting issues.) I had no idea that any of this meant I had a problem. I just accepted it, went along like I did when my mother went food shopping or took me for a haircut.

Bizarre as this may sound, I thought it was so cool that I had a learning disability. I knew I was weird: now I had proof! I asked my parents why they waited all those years to tell me, let me shlump around thinking I was strange for no good reason, and my mother said she was told that I would be able to compensate and do very well in school, and she didn’t want to give me a reason to think I couldn’t succeed and even excel.

On the whole, I was a strong student: much more adept at reading and writing than at math, but not objectively terrible at anything besides gym, lab science, and visual art (except when we were given freedom to do whatever we wanted with paints, markers, and paper; then I went wild playing with shapes and colors resembling nothing in real life and had a grand time).

Soon after I learned about the learning disability, I had a new battery of tests with a new psychoeducational therapist (even the job title was fabulous, and seemed to befit someone who would try to understand a freak like me). This woman, Mrs. Puder, wrote in her report that she had never seen anything remotely like my results — the spread between my highest and lowest scores was by far the largest she had ever encountered. The verbal reasoning scores were well into the 99th percentile; the nonverbal reasoning scores were far below average. Mrs. Puder said they were in the “borderline disability” range, and I was pretty sure that was a euphemism for something far nastier: “retarded” or some such.

Her report noted that areas like sense of direction and spatial reasoning were a “hodgepodge of confusion” for me: a perfect description. It also described my issues with coordination — my inability to manage the complex movements necessary to play sports, for instance. My diagnosis was a nonverbal learning disability, which, according to learning specialist and psychologist Binyamin Goldman, has been estimated to affect somewhere between 0.1% and 1% of the overall population. I wasn’t a classic case by any means — Mrs. Puder didn’t notice the usual problems with social interaction, for instance — but my weaknesses fit well enough to place me within that scheme.

She didn’t give me an overall IQ score because she felt that was pointless in my case; my abilities were too disparate for one score to mean anything. I remember thinking that I was outside the whole notion of intelligence, and I enjoyed the feeling, because being different has always defined my self-concept.

That year, I somehow managed to quality for a summer program for gifted kids through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. It was my first experience as a participant observer: I went because I wanted to see who would show up and how they would act.

While I wasn’t remotely as precocious as many of the students there, who were reading Shakespeare for fun or zooming through advanced calculus, I had something special too. I had a learning disability!

When we had to introduce ourselves in large groups, I always mentioned it, because really… who else in a cohort that included national spelling bee champs and international math contest winners would have a learning disability? I had my own form of uniqueness, even among this rarefied clan. I now know that many people have both learning disabilities and talents — there’s even an accepted term for it: “twice exceptional” — but it sure seemed like I was the only kid at this program who struggled with this sort of thing, so my desire to distinguish myself was able to thrive.

Fabulous as the learning disability seems when I view it with the right mindset, it’s all quite hard, and I suspect it goes beyond the basic issues with visual processing, coordination, and organization. My neurological wiring is unusual, and this seems related to my extreme emotional reactivity: not all the time, but at key moments when I so wish I could seem calm and cool. Thankfully, I don’t tend to start fights or berate anyone; it’s much more subtle, but it can be weird and inappropriate.

I shrink back when I see someone who has attacked me in the past — who has made cruel comments or some such — battling nervousness I can feel as a kind of thick energy throughout my body. Once in a while, those reactions crop up even with people who have no direct history with me, but who might have been involved with situations that upset me deeply.

It happened recently with someone whose close colleagues had treated me with painful disregard, though I’m guessing she herself had nothing to do with the problem. I felt frozen in hurt and anger, not towards her per se, but towards a circle that seemed to involve her, and I felt unable to engage with her despite her repeated attempts to reach out. I was afraid I’d start complaining about her company, ruining the warm, friendly mood at the event we were attending, so I looked away whenever she caught my eye, probably acting like a jackass.

The weirdness in my neurological makeup can lead to extreme anxiety — when someone who brings up horrible memories appears in the midst of my efforts to keep myself organized, find my way around, and generally appear like a normal and even professionally competent soul, I sometimes react in ways that ruin my attempts to seem bright and engaging.

Often, I love social gatherings. Human beings of all kinds fascinate and delight me; I relish getting to know them. I need to work on my occasional difficult reactions so I don’t close off people who most likely had no hand in the problems I’m remembering. My bizarre brain is no longer funny when it creates negative energy.

So I’ve been asking myself: If I could lose the learning disability, would I? Temple Grandin, a well-known animal science professor, consultant in the livestock industry, and activist for her fellow souls on the autism spectrum, has said: “If I could snap my fingers and be nonautistic, I would not. Autism is part of what I am.” She attributes many of her gifts to her autism — ability to visualize and to understand animals with a depth most human-centric people cannot reach key among them.

I don’t have autism, but perhaps the overall situation is similar. Autism influences an affected person’s entire personality and way of perceiving the world, often creating a preference for spatially oriented or thing-based activities (for higher-functioning types, often in areas like math, engineering, and visual art) over human interaction. Years ago, I heard Temple speak at a bookstore here in Cambridge, MA. I was with a friend who knows me very well, and, as Temple detailed her situation, my friend looked at me, amazed, and said: “She’s kind of like the opposite of you.”

She was right. I almost never think in pictures, while Temple nearly always does. I have no interest in tinkering and building: what fascinates me most are words and people. Temple designs materials for livestock, envisioning blueprints in her head, feeling far more at home in that sphere than with chatting up her fellow humans. And yet, we both feel fundamentally different. Temple’s description of this sensation inspired the title of Oliver Sacks’s book profiling her and others with unusual neurological wiring: An Anthropologist on Mars. Brilliant.

My core preferences feel bound up in my learning disability, which may stem from a radically different neurological makeup from autism — perhaps a kind of reversal of some of autism’s key strengths and weaknesses, at least in Temple’s case. (I firmly believe that every individual behind any diagnosis is somewhat unique. Autism’s features can range dramatically and don’t always involve Temple’s particular style of learning and perception.) I can’t think in pictures, so I focus on emotions, words, and human interaction. Mrs. Puder, the psychoeducational therapist who tested me in seventh grade, believed that damage to one part of my brain spurred overdevelopment in others. If I didn’t have the learning disability, would I have my talents?

I’ll never know what I would have been like without the learning disability. Would I be one of those multitalented smart people I’ve always envied — the types who can’t decide between pure math and creative writing so they combine the two in breathtaking ways? Would I just be kind of average across the cognitive spectrum, no special talents or weaknesses? Did damage to specific areas in my brain create special strengths through neurological overcompensation in other areas, like Mrs. Puder speculated? Or did my brain start out with all kinds of strengths before suffering injury to some areas? For that matter, maybe there was no damage at all, and my particular intellectual style is simply part of my genetic makeup. I’ll never know.

I’m less adept, more confused, and more anxious than the overwhelming majority of souls. I’ve also been told that my ideas can be strikingly unusual. “Where did you come up with that?” people often ask. They don’t understand my thought process, just like I don’t understand theirs. And some of this is simply part of the human condition: one human being can never climb into the mind of another. Ultimately, your experience is yours alone: no one else can penetrate it in the core, full-blown way that you perceive. But I do believe there’s a continuum of difference — most people cluster around most others with certain definable dimensions of human perception, but many outliers, myself included, fall beyond those similarities.

What do I mean, exactly? I’m not precisely sure: this is all so hard to capture in words, and I’ve never been inside any head other than my own. But here’s an example that may help. Say I’m watching a movie with ten other people. Chances are good I’ll miss a lot of what most of them perceive. Scenery, nuances of physical appearance, specifics of action… much of that goes right by me, since processing visual stimuli is difficult for me, and movies are very busy and active, with a lot going on at once. When people discuss the film afterwards, I’ll probably have no idea what they’re talking about much of the time. And yet… I might focus on one idea or one scene in a novel way. If I bring that up, people are likely to be intrigued and even amazed.

They never saw it that way, just like I couldn’t follow the overall movie like they did. And maybe I focused on that one idea because I couldn’t focus on the details that grabbed everyone else. I saw less, and yet I saw more. The paradox of my life. Would I trade it for a more “normal” mind? I don’t think so.

In my best, most optimistic moments, I see each human life as having a kind of purpose: a mission, even. And I sense somewhere in my deepest self that my unusual blend of confusion and insight are part of my own special journey as I make my way through this cruel but wondrous world. Even writing and sharing this essay could touch someone, create a feeling of connection, empathy, or inspiration. Maybe I’m meant to stand outside, peer in as best I can, and offer something different. Better yet, maybe I should get better at jumping right into the center of everything and sharing what I see with all who are curious.

I want to know you in the deepest way I can, despite my limitations. Do you want to know me, despite or maybe even because of my atypical mindset? That basic impulse seems essential to our missions in a world with so many different kinds of minds. Some people may seem very similar to you, but are they? You can’t know for sure. You can be open and curious about the fabulous range of talents, deficits, perceptions, and emotions that bundle up in different ways with each human package. Explore. Share. And maybe, through some amazing twist of luck, fate, or human motivation, the rest will come.


Stephanie Wellen Levine

Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine's 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.

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