In school, I struggled. It doesn’t matter which year of school we’re talking about, whether it was kindergarten, or my final year of med school, or anything in between; I struggled regardless.
The types of struggles I experienced morphed somewhat over time. In kindergarten and the other earlier years, my struggles involved…
Being distracted by the behavior of the other kids
Being distracted and preoccupied by the very presence of other kids
The teaching methods involving lectures and worksheets
The insistence upon sameness and mediocrity
The lack of recognition or reward given to truly decent ideas or creative projects, which was lukewarm at best
The slow pace of the progression through subject matter; being bored and burdened with subject matter I already had a good handle on
Not slowing down to solidify subject matter that I struggled with; not being able to grasp it before moving on
In addition, I experienced a paradox: I learned to read at a young age, and have always loved it. Throughout my life, when reading fiction, I actually went against the grain of the stereotypes (this is often the one point keeping me from scoring a “perfect” 50 on the Asperger’s/Autism Quotient test these days) and I’m able to conjure up images, even if not faces, when reading. Books take me places. I can immerse myself in them, wholly submerged. When reading non-fiction, I can often remember facts and figures like nobody’s business (which is not so out-of-sync with the AQ test).
And on the other hand (there’s always another hand in cases like this), I find it tough to grasp nonfiction that is explained in words alone, without facts or figures. The more detailed the subject matter, the worse I do with words alone.
Before I knew that I was autistic/an Aspie, I would protest to my partner (who seemed to do just fine, making me wonder even more what in the world was wrong with me), “it’s not sinking in! It’s just words on a page.”
Maybe I ought to write a letter to my 30-year-old self, too.
I was frustrated. All my life, I’d been told by countless people (doting, obligatory parents aside) how “bright” I was, how “steel-trap-like” my memory was, how “brilliant” I was, how “exceptional” I was, and all that.
Those comments were welcome in a world otherwise filled with uncertainty and insecurity. However, they came back to haunt me in an unexpectedly solemn way later on. I found myself literally (painlessly) thumping the side of my head with my palm, as if to drive the information further in and keep it there. It seemed like the information I needed to learn was covered in a thin, oily film or Teflon coating; it refused to stick. I could read a paragraph with no problem, which was good; I found myself having to read it five times in order for anything to register.
I knew I could learn. I’ve picked things up lickety-split before. There had been times, long ago, when I’ve felt like a sponge, soaking everything in with minimal effort. Why could I seem to do that now, when the stakes were the highest they’d ever been?
For example, I remember studying the gastrointestinal system in physiology. Of the systems of the body, that’s the simplest, least complicated system, next to the cardiovascular system. Pretty straightforward.
And yet, at nearly age 30, I had spent an entire weekend studying it. I had to call my partner in to help explain it to me. On one of those days, I logged over 13 hours alone. Needless to say, I don’t remember much about the second day, other than that I had studied a lot on that day, too. That was also the day on which, halfway through, it finally dawned on me that I should draw a diagram! With colored pencils and everything.
And I still got a “C” on the test (and sometimes, even lower).
The consolation prize is that many of the points I did score were directly indebted to my diagram. Being able to study the illustration helped immensely. It was like having access to a “You Are Here” map of the big picture, which I otherwise struggle to form.
Professional school was still a struggle, of course; not everything could be diagrammed or illustrated, nor did I always have the time to do so. And back then, not everything had a pathway diagram, an artist’s rendition, or a YouTube video associated with it. If it had, my post-graduate academic life would’ve been much easier.
These days, it is that easy. I study various topics as I need to–and feel like. And I can do it my way, not the professor’s way. I hold myself responsible for learning information about, for example, how Dopamine (the “happy, focused, motivational, anger-controlling, life is a party” brain chemical) is formed through its precursor, Tyrosine. (This is a very nerdy example 🙂 )
If I was learning this information through a structured entity or program, the professor would have presented it in a way that looks something like this:
(Image is a screenshot of words: “Tyrosine Biosynthesis: Tyrosine is produced in cells by hydroxylating the essential amino acid phenylalanine. This relationship is much like that between cysteine and methionine. Half of the daily requirement for phenylalanine is for the production of tyrosine; if the diet is rich in tyrosine itself, the requirements for phenylalanine can be reduced by about 50%. Phenylalanine hydroxylase is a mixed-function oxygenase: one atom of oxygen is incorporated into water and the other into the hydroxyl of tyrosine. The reductant is the tetrahydrofolate-related cofactor tetrahydrobiopterin, which is maintained in the reduced state by the NADH-dependent enzyme, dihydropteridine reductase (DHPR). Phenylalanine hydroxylase is encoded by the PAH gene located on chromosome 12q22–q24.2 and is composed of 13 exons that encode a protein of 452 amino acids. Human dihydropteridine reductase is produced by the quinoid dihydropteridine reductase gene (symbol: QDPR) located on chromosome 4p15.31 and is composed of 7 exons that encode a protein of 244 amino acids.)
(Credit: TheMedicalBiochemistryPage.org, Tyrosine)
I would have face-palmed. My brain would have turned to mush. I would have had to read that over and over.
Instead, I’ve realized I prefer the information presented in this way:
(Image is a picture of a diagram between some arrows, words, and blobs. The blogs are the enzymes Phenylalanine hydroxylase and Dihydropteridine reductase, which are shown converting Phenylalanine to Tyrosine and dihydrobiopterin (BH2) and tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) respectively, with a side reaction of NADH+H converting to NAD+, also via the Dihydropteridine reductase reaction.)
(Credit: TheMedicalBiochemistryPage.org, Tyrosine)
It’s true that the picture is missing some of the details that are present in the written paragraph. That’s usually the case; in cases like this, I might print out the diagram and then draw (if possible) or write (if drawing isn’t applicable) the additional information somewhere on the diagram.
Now, I finally know why I struggled with the “useless words on a page”, especially when that’s all I had. Many (most?) people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum tend to struggle with forming mental images in our minds from the words we’re reading. Typically, issue is not necessarily the activity of reading itself; we can usually do that just fine (and in many cases, pretty well). Rather, it’s the “forming the mental image” part that often presents the challenge.
Part of me wishes that I had known that I was autistic/an Aspie, especially in post-graduate school. Knowing the truth wouldn’t have magically transformed those bothersome “words on a page” into mental images for me, but armed with said knowledge, I might have been able to devise alternative methods or seek support with the goal of “working smarter, not harder”, as the idiom goes. That might have been particularly helpful.
Instinctively, I knew that I had to draw the picture on paper (I began med school with luscious assortments of colored pencils and colored markers/Sharpies), but I didn’t realize exactly HOW important it was for me to take that step. Instead, I was so overwhelmed with the task of attempting to make sense of those “words on a page” that I didn’t feel I could afford to take the time to draw the information. I perceived the activity of converting it to a visual form a luxury that I couldn’t necessarily afford, because I figured that it would take too much of my most precious and limited resource: time.
If I had known then what I know how, I might have gone ahead and spent that time. Because for me, it wouldn’t be as much of an EXPENSE as it would have an INVESTMENT. Investing implies that you receive more in return later for the resources put forth (spent) now. And to draw the diagrams while (or before) studying might have been a much wiser investment.
You know what they say about hindsight. 🙂
These days, my learning is filled with diagrams, which makes it much easier to learn. I can soak information in and establish all of the connections, comparisons, relationships, and even the minutia, fairly quickly (as long as I’m well-fed, well-hydrated, sleep-refreshed, and stress-managed, of course), just by committing an image to memory by staring at it and contemplating it for a while, a concept I used to describe as “burning images into my head”. I knew then that I learned efficiently that way, and now I know why.
Temple Grandin speaks of “thinking in pictures”, and describes her brain and how it works as comparable to Google Images. I’m no Temple Grandin (although I wish!), but I can certainly relate to her descriptions; they resonate with me, too.
Although knowing the truth about my neurotype now (or would that be “neuro-truth”, for us late/adult-diagnosed Aspie/autistic people?) won’t magically change the grades on my transcripts or transport me back in time to “do it over”, it can–and does–help me from this point forward.
And that, somehow, justifies the years of struggle. 🙂