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Neurological Disorders: Differing Abilities... and Gifts

Updated on May 4, 2013

Mirroring Ability and Disability

I've grown disenchanted with the DSM and its method of classifying people based on symptoms of mental illness or learning disability. Sometimes it's necessary to classify people by their symptoms -- we may not know enough about the root cause to do otherwise. However, we can run into serious problems if we give the labels more credence than they deserve. If a person is classified as anxiety disordered, for instance, people tend to see any other unusual symptoms -- mental, neurological, and even physical -- as being manifestations of anxiety. In other words, they see anxiety as the umbrella and symptoms as ribs. In some instances, though, the opposite is true: The person has a medical condition or a multi-system genetic disorder. In this case, the disorder is the umbrella, and anxiety is a rib -- perhaps a significant rib, perhaps a relatively minor one.

There is another issue with letting symptoms define illness. If a person has a genetic neurological disorder, they may have a brain that is structured in fundamentally abnormal ways -- and that abnormal structuring may carry unusual gifts as well as disabilities. The neurogenetic disorder Williams Syndrome is one of the more obvious examples. Most people with Williams Syndrome have learning disabilities as well as symptoms of mental illness. They may also have unusual gifts, from musicality to empathy.

Another case in point: genetic disorders associated with autism. The autistic may have unusual abilities in some areas -- they also tend to have unusual concentration and perseverance. They may become very accomplished in their chosen fields; some also display greater than usual loyalty in human relationship.

When the brain is structured in abnormal ways, a door opens... a door that may lead to giftedness, as well as dysfunction.

mirror writing
mirror writing

Mirror Writing

Spatial Ability or Disability?

Disability may mask ability -- the reverse is also true. A mirror writer can write in a backwards 'mirror image' style. Sometimes mirror writing occurs as an isolated anomaly in an otherwise normal person. Other times it occurs with potentially disabling neurological disorder. The ability to write in either direction... well that seems like a sign of a spatially gifted person, huh? Not necessarily. The writer of Mystify Your Mind With Mirror Writing reports that she has unusually poor spatial skills and can't make sense of a map unless she turns it around. Ah, me too, I can read the words on a map upside down or sideways, but I can't make any sense of it direction-wise, unless it's pointing the same way I am.

That article intrigued me. I write right right with my right hand and left with my left. (It's the cooperative work of both hands that you see there in the picture.) It may seem like quite a talent, yet my spatial skills are very poor. At the time I started college, I had trouble walking even a couple blocks and reversing my path to come back the other way.

The spatial disabilities have often been masked by what appears to be unusual ability. At age seven, I could already read upside down or right side up. I did struggle with reversals briefly in first grade reading, but not in writing. My right hand consistently wrote right, yet, directionality confusion would manifest in other activities. There was a point when I was growing up where I wondered why it was that I would mean to turn toward a person, but turn away instead. I knew the difference between forward and away, but that didn't mean my body could distinguish between the two in a split second's time.

I never wore the label "autistic" -- in fact it was never considered -- but I surely do feel that we attach such labels (and the accompanying explanations) without really understanding how a person perceives the world. For me, "anxiety" has usually been the explanation given for various oddities, often erroneously. What we attribute to inhibition, anxiety, or shyness can have very different explanations. I don't drive, and people have always chalked the issue up to simple fear. I am only now finding the words to explain otherwise. (I wonder if the left/ right thing plays some part in my tendency to swerve or lurch a little sometimes when walking on the sidewalk...)

Different Ways of Processing

There is evidence that children who are labeled autistic have processing differences.

Bipolar Disorder... and Creative Ability?

Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament
Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

The author of this book, who knows bipolar disorder from two sides (as a medical doctor and as a patient) explores the premise that mental illness and creativity often go hand in hand.


And Differing Abilities

Thoughts on Disabilities...

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    • NorthernDad profile image


      5 years ago

      You make some good points here. I think that the over-eagerness to diagnose is especially prevalent in children. Thousands of little kids in the U.S. are diagnosed as bipolar. In the rest of the world nobody younger than their late teens gets this diagnosis. As most psychiatrists will tell you, it's an impossible diagnosis in young children. You can't be sure if it is truly illness or simply erratic behavior caused by parenting, home environment or any of a dozen other variables.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      7 years ago from UK

      This is a refreshing look at 'dis-ability' and the positives that can accompany a disorder. Our system of classifying what is right and 'wrong' based on averages can dismiss people whose skills don't align with the majority, instead of valuing them. That's a shame.

    • darciefrench lm profile image

      darciefrench lm 

      7 years ago

      A lifelong battle with depression was the precursor to learning about creativity and self-love; transcending it has taught me a lot.

    • KarenHC profile image


      8 years ago from U.S.

      This lens is fascinating, as are a couple lenses that I've just checked, that you link to. My husband is a fairly new high school teacher, and he's always intrigued with the students with "different abilities", wondering how he can help them best.

      ---p.s. Thanks for your comment on my lens a few hours ago -- I "okayed" it, and now it's off somewhere in hyperspace. Maybe it will still re-show.....

    • Amy Fricano profile image

      Amy Fricano 

      8 years ago from WNY

      Thank you for this informative work. Neurology seem to remain the New Frontier in medicine.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 

      8 years ago from New Zealand

      Beautifully written lens on Neurological Disorders.

    • semas profile image


      8 years ago

      Thank you for a well crafted lens to understand people with Differing Abilities... and Gifts


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