How my non-verbal learning disability (NLD) affects me in the classroom
A metaperspective on how some smart people fail, or...
Alright, so I haven't been a *student* (with regard to my role or in the "classic" sense) in the classroom for a number of years. And, in an ironically astute bit of self-control, I am going to resist the second impulse I had to interpret this title literally and report on how NVLD has impacted my *work* as a paraprofessional - IN THE CLASSROOM!
But, that is a very good starting point for describing one of the more poignant, confounding and often embarrassing aspects of living with and seeing the world through the NVLD mind. That common, but by no means universal or necessarily defining characteristic is that of tending to be literal. At times, I can be felled by an acutely literal confusion. Over the years, I have learned to hold my first impression or interpretation in check. I have learned to pause and ask "wait, am I getting the same message as the deliverer of that message is intending to convey?". I have learned, VERY painstakingly and perhaps maladaptively, to procrastinate on making any conclusions or decisions whatsoever. Sometimes this procrastination is moments long, sometimes days. Sometimes years.
The alternative is a continuation of misreads that only grow more stigmatizing as I age, and expectations of sophisticated, *adult* social and pragmatic skills grow ever higher, and tolerance for any deviation from or failure of said competence is yet, even in 2009, fodder for ridicule, mockery, misinterpration, the "bootstraps" speech, and all the other manifestations of hate and ignorance that is the all too present response to disabilities, *especially* the invisible ones, and EVER more so for an obscure disability like NVLD. It's a miserable choice! But it is one that we with NVLD face every single day. Act on our initial and often mistaken "read", and expose the chasm between the message delivered and the message received, or exercise the learned pause that, when itself kept in check is a very constructive and face-saving behavior and habit, but when confounded by fear, anxiety, or even the yet not understood environment DESPITE this pausing to study it, often upsets, confuses, irritates or otherwise "sticks in the craw" of those who would just as soon accuse you of "having no common sense" and barking out most unhelpful low blows as "I shouldn't have to tell you!".
One of the most life-changing discoveries for me has been the concept of "not knowing that I don't know". In a very meta sort of way, prior to this awareness, I was unaware of the state of being blind to ones own lack of knowing. In other words, I didn't know of this state of mind that is "not knowing that I don't know"! Are you dizzy yet? Let me say right now that Don Rumsfeld did NOT coin that concept or its label. He just made it famous for its 15 minutes in the general publics mindset. Then Britney or Oprah or 50 Cent did something crazy or earth-shattering - like shopping! - and the popular attention was again shifted. And what remains is this pseudo-normalcy that thinks suffering through the confusion is just part of growing up - and/or part of life, period.
I don't think I need to dwell too long on the obvious: this is a severely and painfully unhelpful slap in the face. But it is the reality - *especially* in the workplace, for many people - students or otherwise - and only confounds the *VERY* common anxiety and clinical depression that can result from long-term suffering of this chasm.
Research and popular opinion seems to have concluded that most of us are visual learners. The majority of us learn by processing the sensory and/or kinesthetic aspects of living and learning, and have to be *taught* how to process the written and even spoken word, and to use those words to communicate and understand the world.
For those with Nonverbal Learning Disability, this is anything but the norm. WE devour and adore and absolutely, unequivocally DEPEND on words. We HATE maps. Give us the linear, listed, step by step, WRITTEN OUT *sequence* of navigational maneuvers: 1. Take a left out of the driveway, 2. Go 1.3 miles until you come to the intersection of Main and Smith streets. Take this right onto Smith. Et cetera.
In the classroom, this sort of clarity is often derided as "spoon-feeding", and teachers will even say and believe that they are HELPING the student by making him swim in this unarticulated "trial and error" world. Most people grow and learn adequately in such an environment. For those of us with Nonverbal Learning Disability, it is the longest, darkest, most desperate introduction to a world that will never completely "get" that you don't "get it".
Hence the oft weilded "bootstraps" speech. It has other names. Tough love. Common sense. Learning the hard way. Blah blah. It is devastating. Without direct, precise and VERBAL interaction and instruction - delivered with LABORIOUS and UNAMBIGUOUS clarity, the NVLD student will NOT thrive. He may not even learn. And if he does manage to find his OWN way - it still often comes at a very heavy emotional, social, and ultimately life-course hampering cost. The cost is a LEARNED inaction - a habitual procrastination, an internalized helplessness, and a completely integrated ANTI-intuition!
In the pragmatic and everyday goings-on of normal conversation, communication and interaction - be it in the classroom, in the family, and later in the workplace, this tendency to avoid acting for fear of the impulsive misread, has been both a benefit AND an obstacle. What IS unmistakably clear is that the "bootstraps" and "tough love" and "common sense" ideology that very specifically and directly handcuffs and devastates the growth and learning of the person with NVLD, has NO place in the classroom.
What results is not learning. It is not growth or self-sufficiency. It is the acquisition of a permanent and debilitating self-doubt and confusion that cause the NVLD student - and the entire lifespan of this person - to be a frustrating and unproductive navigation of the onslaught of uninterpretable signals that is never-ending. The only way to prepare this type of learner is through DIRECT TEACHING. Every lesson, every skill he will need in his entire life needs to be direct taught and articulated.
This is true for the NVLD kid. It is likewise true for the NVLD adult. EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY skill and/or function, role or responsibility has to be explained EXPLICITLY, with laborious and hair-splitting (and sometimes head-splitting!) detail, slowly.
And more than once. Because, the first time, the "skeleton" is sorta taking shape. The second time, some of the trees fill in and more grow from the bare ground. The THIRD time, he can KINDA SORTA maybe begin to see SOME of the trees as belonging to a group. Maybe by the FOURTH time, some of these likely (remember, we never commit to an unknown! which makes risk taking and estimating very complicated, confusing, frightening and frustrating, if not thus impossible) groups have gotten bigger and begun to merge with other said groups, the puzzle pieces are, in other words, starting to fit together, and we KINDA have a sense of what the landscape MIGHT look like.
By the FIFTH time, the skeleton, the gestalt, the forest is usually adequately perceptible. THEN - THEN AND ONLY THEN, can the actual INFORMATION be imparted such that the person will have a "place to put it". Otherwise it's just a puzzle piece sitting by itself on a table which means absolutely nothing. It is utterly uninterprettable and not yet trustworthy or comprehendible.
And when the onslaught of information continues (and it always does), the NVLD'er is in the dark after the first minute and but for the patience of a SAINT, HAS TO interrupt the speaker so that he can process and try to contextualize what he was just told.
We don't learn facts. We learn processes. Systems. Routines. Theories. Treatises. The isolated fact to us is a crumb in the middle of the road a mile up the street. It means nothing, it is barely perceptible, and ONLY if we are looking SPECIFICALLY for it!, and so much energy and focus is devoted to figuring it out the the information that keeps on coming and coming and coming and coming passes us RIGHT by.
Until this lesson is LEARNED by those who are charged with teaching the lessons, the NVLD student will continue to float in a purga...no, a *hell* - blazing and CONSTANT - of confusion and pain. Given the right tools, preparation, direct skill acquisition, and teaching that respects and utilizes the NVLD student's often astoundingly gifted verbal fluency, maybe - just maybe - he can overcome the crippling inertia that has swallowed his confidence and functioning, and navigate a path in life that is both fulfilling and meaningful.
And no one - NO ONE - has the right to get in his way by making him navigate the neurotypical world that is so, so foreign.
More by this Author
In this piece, I try very hard to "bring to life" what it is like to have a literal mind (especially as borne out of disease/disorder - such as Nonverbal Learning Disability) - and why we have such a very hard time...