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6527212 January 26, 2009

Special Ed: An Aberration Story

"The main thing you can do as a parent that no one else can do as effectively, is believe in them."

Remember the song, He Ain't Heavy. He's My Brother? Well, my older brother wasn't heavy, but he had a learning disability. Just sixteen months apart, and looking like twins for much of our childhood, I soared through grade school with my hands tied behind my back while John struggled. Funny thing is--John's IQ is higher than mine. And I ain't no dummy. He was smart and I knew it. I could never win an argument with him, and he outsmarted me daily in all practical matters. His frustration was a palpable element of my childhood, and I wished I could make it go away.

I remember reading to him at six and seven years old, and Mom helping him with his homework for hours. I also remember bullies taunting me with the word retarded, and me yelling back, "My brother is smarter than you!" Over the years, he came to symbolize for me what being your own man truly means. He knew he was smart. He never gave up believing that he could somehow overcome the circuitry in his head that seemed to hold him down.

And he did! He was the first person who showed me that obstacles can be overcome, life goes on, and determination is key. By the time he graduated from high school, he was the most well read teenager I knew. His tiny room was filled with the books he'd read, and the stories he'd written.

John has joined the Aberration Nation and hopes his insight can help others better understand what it's like to be a kid in the special education system. He's a living testament to the fact that with help and determination, no kid has to be left behind.

You had a learning disability as a child during the 1970's. You attended special education classes, and then went on to attend a special, private school for several years. Back then, there didn't seem to be as many specific terms for learning disabilities. Can you tell us about the nature of your learning disability?

My problem was primarily one of short attention span and lack of interest. However, there was another component to it that is not so easily explained. I am a compulsive explorer of ideas and I free associate constantly. When you put all of these factors together you end up with scenarios like this. My teacher would give me an assignment to complete within the next half hour. I would start on it, find it boring, and then notice a fly in the room, which would remind me of a bumble bee I saw earlier in the day. I would then jump to helicopters because they use a similar form of flight, wonder if UFOs use the same type of propulsion, contemplate where UFOs come from and if they exist, and the existence of UFOs would challenge me and it wasn't boring. This would go on until suddenly the teacher would be there asking for my paper. In many cases, I would be shocked to realize that my time was up and my work wasn't done. As I got older, I developed the ability to snap myself out of these flights of fancy, but it was next to impossible when I was a child. The result of all this was that I fell farther and farther behind my class mates in school.

Do you recall how your learning disability came to light? Do you remember having trouble learning to read?

I don’t remember much about how it was decided that I had a learning disability, but I do remember having trouble learning to read. It was very frustrating. I was very smart as a child and I remember that the things that interested me were way above my reading level and the things at my reading level were so silly that they insulted my intelligence. It was horribly embarrassing to try to read something like that and fail. I didn’t want anything to do with, “See spot run.”

What did your parents do to support you, and was there anything else they could have done?

As far as I could tell, my father didn't have as much day-to-day involvement with my educational problems, but I never thought much about it because my mother was very involved. She drove me to school often, and tried to help in various ways. She got me into special schools. I don’t know if there was anything else they could have done to help me, and to be honest, I’ve never thought about it that way. I’m thankful for the help I did get. I think they did everything they could think of and could afford to do. As I grew older, my father had a great influence on my continued reading. He and my sister were avid readers, which created a positive environment for me, in terms of reading.

How did having a learning disability impact you socially? How did you deal with it as a young child?

When I was very young, I was oblivious to any social issues surrounding my learning problems. As I got older, I became very hard nosed about it. I decided that I didn’t care what others thought about anything. I became rather isolated and detached. As a result, I had a few very close friends and everyone else I ignored. Oddly enough this had the beneficial effect of insulating me from almost all the pier pressure that most children have to deal with. I made up my own mind about just about everything and if others didn’t like it, that was just tough for them. Of course, this also included my parents and sometimes that caused problems as you might imagine.

There are many examples in history of highly intelligent people who had learning disabilities. By the time you reached high school, you were able to go back into regular public school, and then you went on to obtain a college degree. Were you able to easily keep up at that point?

It’s true that I went back into public school, but it was far from easy. I still did very poorly at anything that didn’t fire my interest and imagination. If it was boring--and there were a great many boring things in high school--I still had concentration and attention span issues. It is important to understand that being bored by something didn’t mean that I didn’t understand that it was important. It just meant that no matter how hard I tried to get interested in it, I couldn’t. If the interest wasn’t there, then the ability to concentrate on it went out the window. To this day I don’t know why I’m like that, but to be honest, I don’t think it would make a difference even if I did. There were a few things that I did rather well at but they were few and far between. I developed a personal motto that I reminded myself of over and over again through the years. The motto goes like this, I may not finish first, but I never give up--no matter what.

Once you learned to read, you became an avid reader. You also have a high IQ. Did your early struggle to learn, and your success in overcoming hurdles that others easily scaled, help to build your character? If so, how?

This is true. Once I learned to read, I discovered a love of science fiction and fantasy that kept me reading constantly. My high IQ has been both a blessing and a curse in many ways. I often see more deeply into issues than those around me, but I'm seldom smart enough to find a truly profound solution to the problems I see. My struggles have driven me to do a great deal of soul searching over the years, and I'm sure that played a role in shaping my character, but I would have happily jumped at the chance to correct the problems I had if the opportunity had presented itself.

As a great example of a child with a learning disability who grew to be an avid reader and successful adult, what advice can you give parents who fear their children will continue to lag behind?

There is no way to know for sure if your children will overcome the problems that they face in life no matter what those problems are. The main thing you can do as a parent that no one else can do as effectively, is believe in them. When everyone else in the entire world has given up on them, written them off, or told them that they can’t succeed, you can be the one who says, “You can do it if you refuse to give up”. (By the way, you can’t go wrong if you follow that advice with your spouse as well.) Teach them how to face failure with honor and grace, and remember what Batman’s butler said, “The reason we fall down, is so that we can learn to pick ourselves up again.” When you fall down all the time, you need to live by those words.

If you could tell the world anything about children who struggle academically, particularly with learning to read, what would that be?

Often these children are treated by others as if they don’t care that they are not doing as well as the other children. Many of them even pretend that they don’t care because it's too painful and embarrassing to admit that they care. Trust me when I say that no matter how they act, they care, and it hurts, and in most cases they would like nothing more than to be normal. They just don’t know how to be anything other than what they are.

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6527212 December 30, 2008

Out of Focus: An Aberration Story

"I couldn’t break through my fog and do what I was asked to do."

Most of us have lost our train of thought and our keys a time or two. We've forgotten exactly where we parked at the mall or the airport. We've had an off day when we couldn't seem to get anything done. We've said the wrong thing at the wrong tim
e. We've faced indecision and confusion as to what our next steps in life should be. We've been distracted from the task at hand, or made a dumb move based on impulse. Well, in a nutshell, I've just described the day-to-day life of Jane, a 66-year-old grandmother from Texas. Jane has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While most of us have learned from or easily managed the scenarios described above, Jane lacks the skills to navigate through this common maze of life experience.

According to WEbMD, ADHD is one of the most well-recognized childhood developmental problems. The condition is characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. It is now known that these symptoms continue into adulthood for about 60% of children with ADHD. That translates into 4% of the US adult population, or 8 million adults. However, few adults are identified or treated for adult ADHD. Adults with ADHD consistently have problems with interpersonal relationships and employment. The hyperactivity of childhood often becomes restlessness and impulsiveness in adults. They may have difficulty following directions, remembering information, concentrating, organizing tasks or completing work within time limits.

Let's hear from Jane how this lifelong aberration has affected her. When Jane had trouble focusing on and completing the interview, I worked with her via telephone to get it done. Keeping her focused on the question at hand was a constant struggle. She had the best intentions, and wanted so badly to share her experience with others. In the end, she did a FANTASTIC job!

Describe ADHD for us using your own terms? What is it like and how does it impact your day-to-day life?

ADHD affects each individual a bit differently. For me, it's best described as getting mentally stuck due to a constant, overwhelming influx of stimuli. I can’t move in any direction because there are too many choices. Too much information is coming into my head at once and I can’t sort it out and prioritize; it all seems equally important. A simple example is walking into the kitchen and seeing that I need to do the dishes but I also need to cook and water the plants, etc. I can’t choose and proceed with my life. The inability to prioritize the simplest things impacts my entire life. On some days, my mind is so scattered that it can’t focus on any one thing. ADHD often keeps me in a haze and makes it extremely difficult to get from point A to point B; sequential thinking is nearly impossible. However, some days aren’t too bad.

How did you come to be diagnosed with ADHD?

I didn’t find out I had ADHD until I was 60-years-old. I often knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. I dared not talk to people about it. I feared they would misunderstand because I couldn’t explain it well. Many people with ADHD become depressed due to all the rejection they feel as a result of their seemingly irresponsible and irrational behaviors. For six years before my diagnosis, I had been seeing a particular psychiatrist for depression. He knew that my son had ADHD. I mentioned to him how terrified I was about taking a new job although I was highly qualified. I’d always had my own business and had been able to somehow manage, but the idea of having to take instructions and follow someone else’s rules and processes was overwhelming. The resulting discussion made him suspect ADHD so we began to explore the possibility. I took the job; I was the most experienced designer among 16 at a top high-end furniture store in Dallas, Texas. Regardless, I was fired within three months. I couldn’t follow directions. I couldn’t break through my fog and do what I was asked to do. As a result of that job experience and ongoing discussions with my psychiatrist, I was finally diagnosed the ADHD.

How has having ADHD shaped your life in general, including your self esteem?

In my personal life, it played a huge part in destroying my first marriage and later alienating my children from me. It has impacted my self esteem negatively although I try to focus on the positives in my life. I’ve learned that ADHD impacts my social skills. I’m aware that my actions may hurt others and so I try to monitor myself. I try to take responsibility for my actions and make sure that I apologize if I make an inappropriate social move. For this reason, I strive to be aware of what's happening around me as best I can. I work on improving my self esteem every day; it’s an ongoing challenge.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions about ADHD?

People with ADHD are not perceived as having a true medical condition; instead they’re often viewed as being unreliable, poor listeners, too talkative, inappropriate in social settings, etc. When we fail, the people around us don’t always connect that failure with a medical issue. When we try to explain what ADHD is, and how it impacts our behavior, they don’t always accept it. People tend to downplay the explanation, saying, “Oh, everyone forgets things. Everyone has those days. We all get through it, why can’t you?” They don’t understand or accept how debilitating it can be for adults. People tend to associate ADHD with hyperactive children so they don’t accept that it can impact an adult’s actions and personality the way it can. They don’t see it as a disability.

How have you learned to cope with having ADHD?

I’ve learned to be more disciplined on a day to day basis. I do well if I keep a daily schedule that is set up in 15 minute increments. Although I’m a fairly outgoing person, I’ve realized that I need a certain amount of time to myself. I have to have down time from all the stimuli. I hesitate to interact with people on an ongoing daily basis although I have some great friends. I know now that I can do much better at jobs or with a project that allows flexibility and a more relaxed time table. I’ve always been able to laugh at myself, which has served me well.

How does ADHD make you unique? What are the positive aspects that you value and why?

I’ve developed a deep compassion towards others. I don’t judge the motives of others because I understand that people take certain actions for reasons beyond our understanding. I’m highly creative and able to think outside the box, which helped propel my career as an interior designer earlier in my life. In general, people with ADHD, including myself, are great at brainstorming. We can come with all kinds unique, excellent ideas because our brains aren’t tied to one thing within the moment. We can take one thought and explode it much further than the average person, which leads to creative insight. We are often extremely focused on the topics we’re interested in but not focused enough on everything else. This helps us to excel significantly in some areas although it causes issues in others.

I can see the outcome or bottom line for an issue, problem, or situation immediately although I can’t always discern the intermediate steps. I’m a big picture thinker. Many of us are skilled at projecting into the far future regarding outcomes for various scenarios. This has helped me throughout my life in many ways.

Although we may not always respond properly, generally, people with ADHD, including myself, are skilled at reading body language. We make great intuitive decisions based on non-verbal clues.

ADHD runs in your family. Has this helped the situation or does it further complicate matters?

Earlier in life, it complicated our family dynamic although none of us understood what was going on at the time. I believe ADHD has impacted the lives of all three of my siblings, and both of my children in various ways. My youngest brother is the only one who is open about it. He understands me better than almost anyone, and we often talk through issues together. This helps tremendously because I know he understands and loves me just the way I am.

What can we do for someone with ADHD?

1) If you suspect that your child has ADHD, please press for early diagnosis so you can help provide the skills they need to be successful.

2) Be willing to recognize that almost everything we do is connected with our ADHD, and give us a lot of slack. Focusing on the positive is critical!

3) When we’re not performing as you think we should, ask us what our thought process is rather than criticizing our actions right away.

4) Have patience, and give us a lot of love and forgiveness.

5) Don’t take everything we do or say too seriously as we have issues with social interaction. Although we may be extroverted, we are often lacking in standard social skills and tend not to filter our thoughts appropriately.

6) Laugh with us because we do a lot of silly things!

I think Jane could use a blast of positive feedback! If you learned from this post or agree that Jane did a great job, leave a comment. Your encouragement will mean the world to her.

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