Learning disability, or different learning ability?

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).

Bother.

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:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 2.25.25 PM

(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:

phenylalanine-hydroxylase-reaction

(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. 🙂

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35 Comments

  1. This is truly a very good article in giving us insight. Thank you so much for allowing us to walk with you and see this through your eyes and words. Thank you for taking the time. Wow is what continues to be muttered as I read through it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was a child. My parents were told by “experts of that time 1961″ that I could not learn and would never mentally develop past age 5 and as I grew older I would be incapable of caring for myself. They suggested me live out my days in an asylum. Well, a BA, Professional Credentials and a six figure income later, I got one thing to say to them. ” HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW “

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yeah!! Go you!! Very cool 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼😊. It’s like that Toby Keith song from years ago. Always loved that one 💓💓

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I love Temple Grandin’s descriptions… and have been puzzled several times realizing others don’t think in imagery/concept mode. For me it’s image/concept thinking when alone, but when writing, speaking, listening etc I have to switch to a “language mode” (which then has different settings for different languages with fluency). Maybe a way to explain it would also be “like when you dream”. Again no objective way to compare, but you know… images or pictures or something, that change really fast and that don’t really work like movies but in a logic of their own. The image thinking mode seems more efficient to me.

    I have the same problem with some information. In school physics was difficult because it was worded so boringly, and the graphics were painfully 2D and boring. Now I’d sort of love a 3D (raised line instead of print line) of those same graphics but back then those were impossible to grep as they seemed unncessarily too complex when they tried to dumb them down. With math… other issues. Dyslexia (numbers and letters in the same formulas are a nightmare, so are UK postal codes). Later… still similar issues. I love knitting and crocheting and if I’ve got a “map” of the pattern, where it shows “add 1 stitch here. next row add 1 here, 1 here, 1 here” on the map, NO WORDS other than explanation, just a map… that I can handle. Trying to read written knitting or crochet instructions? Struggle.

    The worst example of what I could not picture at all was maybe a year or two ago. I was proof listening to a book about cake decorating. It had detailed pictures, and the explanations for both left and right handed people, with details and numbered order, explained with enough detail that they were also supposed to be bind friendly. Umm, nope. So there were detailed pictures, in numbered order, AND also word explanations… and I listened to those. I could not picture any of that cake decoration thing in my head. I’d have needed to have someone show me next to me, or do a proper hands on. I tried to listen to a few hours, then switched to a book about computer network configurations as that was so much easier to understand. Ok, maybe an audiobook about sock knitting goes to this category too. I learned to knit as a kid, and have made dozens of socks over the many years. So I should have a good familiarity of the techniques. The book explained many different methods, and again I have up in the middle. I did not picture most of what they were explaining (audio only, no pictures there). But give me some socks with a new technique in my hands and I’ll try to figure how they were made.

    I’m happy to bundle my ASD issues with my print issues these days. 🙂 As long as it means I can tell what I need and what accommodations work for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story! I can relate to so much of what you said 😊. Especially the physics part! And the abstract equations, even though I made it through algebra just fine, made it even tougher! Omg I had to get a private tutor for the first time in university physics. I can only imagine the postal code issue! My sister lives in Canada and they have similar postal codes, so I totally feel your pain there! You’re definitely further along than I am on the whole domestic front – that’s awesome!! I think my issues with following written instructions are a big part of why I could never grasp it and eventually gave up, delegating those tasks to my partner ❤️

      Again, thank you for sharing your experiences! Every line you write helps reinforce and strengthen the fact that none of us is alone 😘💞

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Sorry, I have to challenge something. Why, oh why, do you wish to be like Temple Grandin? As much as I admire her advocacy, why is there such Temple worship in our community? I see you as brilliant as Ms Grandin. Visualvox is just as brilliant. The list goes on… Just because Ms Grandin was featured in Mr Sacks’ book and has a very public profile, it does not make her any more worthy of worship than anyone else. Our struggles are our own, and MANY of our community have achieved extraordinary things without the parental and teacher support Ms Grandin was fortunate to have.

    You are just as fab, Ms Wave. 💖

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Awww you are so very kind 😊❤️ I also agree with you 😊 I think that my wishing to be more like her is probably rooted in two things: my own chronic self-doubt (which I’m working through, actively (!) but it’s a process 😉), and the fact that she is a celebrity of sorts who is well-recognized and respected 💝

      I can easily see how Visual Vox, Rhi (Autism and Expectations), you (totally!!), and pretty much *all* of us are on an equal plane (yes, yes! 😊); I just have some lingering challenges with recognizing that yes, I’m on that plane, too. (But that’s part of what I’m working on 💚). Thank you *so much* for reminding me and reassuring me 💙💜

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Geez, I’m sure all autistic women feel we are less than and have work to do. Well, our undiagnosed generation, anyway.

        I see what you mean though, about celebrity status. It used to irk me endlessly that Princess Di had worldwide acclaim and all eyes on her over giving birth to William. When there are women dying during child birth in under developed countries??! Seriously?

        I don’t begrudge Ms Grandin her fame. I’m sure she is an outstanding human. I just have a HUGE issue with celebrity worship. Let’s not discuss The Kardashians. Or The Hiltons. Or The Others Like Them…

        Just keep in mind that you have your own devoted followers who find it phenomenal you speak with them. Ms Grandin’s path is far removed from the one I trod, so I look to you for my unity. Not Ms Grandin. 😆

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Thank you so much for sharing all of your thoughts! You make such fantastic points 😊

          Totally agreed about the celebrity worship 😊. Sure, I’d like to meet Temple Grandin someday; she’s been a great role model for me. But you know what? I’d love to meet any and all of you all, too 💓💓. The latter would mean even *more* because I feel a more personal connection with you all 💜.

          Ugh don’t get me started on NT celebrities. Even our neurodivergent celebrities are way cooler than the ones the average NTs (not all NTs, of course) worship 😊. But even then, I absolutely agree that although it’s cool to look up to people, worshipping anyone isn’t the right answer 😊. We’re all absolutely amazing in our own right! (And I don’t mean that in a patronizing “everyone’s a winner” way 😉 – I mean it for real 💜). Thank you again for adding your voice, my lovely 💙💙

          Liked by 2 people

      2. im sure learning more about temple can help me understand how you learn things better, but she has rarely been easy to relate to otherwise. you, on the other hand… and (similarly) anna…

        one answer to representing nd is already the wrong answer. we should have more diverse representation than ms grandin can offer. im sure you know that, but perhaps its worth repeating whenever someone talks about a famous nd. im glad shes out there, too– but if people thought i was like temple grandin they would scarcely hope to ever understand me.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. id love some feedback on this (which i just made in response to this blog post.) https://codeinfig.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/variables-and-output-in-fig.pdf

    obviously you can best tell me how it works for you– what parts of it work, what aspects dont. i know theres text at the bottom. i tried to sneak a little extra text in 😀 you can tell me how that went, too.

    but it is a picture + description of the picture, which i think is a clever way to make it easier to picture what its in the text: do the diagram first, then add the text for clarification!

    im not saying that it will necessarily work. i also broke up the text in ways that (might) make it more visual. any feedback is welcome. dont worry if feedback isnt detailed or comprehensive– anything will do.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Awesome!! I will have the house to myself tomorrow and I will have some nice quiet time to look it over thoroughly 😊❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. non-sequitur: as i said elsewhere, im watching that video on “ways to have a conversation” and trying to clarify a position to a mutual friend of ours in a thread where i mentioned it– instead of using switches i used points of agreement on the second try.

        then i went back to watching the video. the next point was “look for the me-toos” (points of agreement.) sometimes i have a weird way of predicting something a few minutes into the future 🙂 or whatever 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Many Asperger’s have an underlying, oftentimes undiagnosed dyslexia, next to the much clearer dyspraxia and sensory stress. Actually, dyslexia is more common than not in Asperger’s, with most of its symptoms overlapping typical Asperger’s symptoms. Uta Frith, the editor of the book “Autism and Asperger Syndrome” mentions on pg. 63 a learning test done by Asperger himself, which according to today’s standards as mentioned at footnote 35 of the same page “describes a problem that is strongly suggestive of classic dyslexia…”
    Nevertheless, dyslexia as a “special learning disability” is very different than the “learning disabilities” of classic autism, which again strongly supports officially maintaining Asperger’s as a type of ASD, not to be included as a degree of the classic HF Autism.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. this woman http://ourpuzzlepiece.com/2017/03/06/social-anxiety/ is cure-torturing her kid and then blogging about it:

    (“our puzzle piece.” horrid!)

    “Many of Eli’s behaviors are foreign to me,”

    well, do what well-meaning-americans do– travel to africa and try to make it fit what you (as a complete foreigner) think “healthy” is. (hilarity ensues.)

    “but there is one in particular that him and I have in common- social anxiety.”

    which you are contributing to by coaxing him to throw away spoons on trying to talk to people with eye contact. remember “be yourself?” oh, but take him to therapy to make him impersonate someone else– that wont conribute to anxiety, self-esteem issues, stress, etc.

    first they make it harder to cope, then they tell you to throw away your coping mechanisms. these people are well-intended SADISTS.

    “Since starting ABA therapy, social interaction was one of the main areas of improvement. In this past year he has improved tremendously. He now calls everyone by their names, looks at those who are speaking, interacts well with others.”

    ive been working on those all my life. im very outgoing. but i still do it my way, because a. im me, and b. its less stressful. parents *never* understand what their kids are going through, so they push them. if the interaction is not one-sided (it usually is) then if you push too hard, your kid can go “hey! too much! i cant do more!” but throw in a few “puzzle enthusiasts” (well intended sadists) and they will cheerfully smile and say “yes you can! we believe in you, johnny! johnny? hey, um… johnny? is this thing on?”

    “Of course he doesn’t hit those on the head every single time- I’m sure no child is perfect with those at this age.”

    this woman should get her iq tested. i think she might actually be a basketball, or a shoe that has figured out how to talk. she belongs in a marketing job.

    “But Eli has done amazing. The other day we went to a friends birthday party. Eli was asking about it for weeks because he was so excited. The whole drive to the party he wouldn’t stop talking about it, until we got to the party. He refused to go inside.”

    so talk to him! find out what the problem is. why are you so pushy?

    “There were between maybe 20-30 people inside (children and adults)”

    well FOR FUCKS SAKE LADY, i know grown, successful businessmen (one married for 2 decades) that cant generally deal with 20-30 people at a party? (twit…)

    “and he sat in the hallway and wouldn’t go in. We had to bribe him”

    idiot…

    “Once inside he didn’t want to participate in any games with the kids (except for the pinata) and chose to spend most of the party in the corner playing with balloons by himself.”

    oh right, balloons. (add it to the stim list, laina.) the first time i got one of those thick balloons with a rubber band on the end so you could bounce it back and forth like a yo-yo (it makes a distinctive but cheerful bong-bong-bong! noise) it was like id discovered sex… its a wonder i ever grew tired of the thing.

    “He loosened up a bit at the end but still mostly kept to himself.
    At first I thought- wow we need to start working on this”

    STOP TRYING TO MAKE YOUR KID AN ARBITRARY CLONE OF NORMAL!!!!!!!!!!

    “hes not partying with 20 or 30 kids! oh wow, time for a therapy session!”

    “he doesnt like skee ball! time for a therapy session!”

    “he prefers vanilla ice cream over GOOD flavors like strawberry or rocky road! what the heck is wrong with my child?!”

    whos the father? foghorn leghorn?! “theres somethin–i say theres somethin kinda YYEAAAAAAUUHH about a boy that doesnt play baseball…”

    “when we get ABA back up and running to get him out of his shell.”

    why not use tongs?

    “But then I thought to myself, what would I do if I walked up to a party where I only knew 1 person? I’m not an extrovert.”

    is this narcissism? what (tf) is this? this is how idiots get clues, right?

    “I don’t enjoy conversations or games with people I don’t know.”

    WELL TRY THERAPY THEN! OR DRUGS– LIKE YOUD DO TO YOUR KID!

    “First day of class when you have to introduce yourself to the class would make me cringe through my skin.”

    REALLY? here, take a bottle of these and come back in 2 weeks!

    “I tend to stick to myself. Not all of Elis insecurities may be related to his diagnosis”

    holy shit! a CLUE! run, wake up the nobel committee!

    im starting to think people just shouldnt have parents. maybe theyre nice sometimes, but way too much of a liability! (think of the children…)

    gah! someone divert that wall construction so that its around autism speaks. just look what its doing to parents…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lol!! Fig you are too amazing, not to mention hilarious 😉😊❤️

      I love your style!! (And people say that Aspie/autistic people don’t “get” humor. Ha!) 😘💚

      Liked by 2 people

      1. actually i was kind of angry– youre not wrong though, i mix jokes into anger.

        hi! i was literally just thinking a minute ago, “the silent wave is silent today” (its the name of your blog, but you know how we think of you as ms wave, etc.) its really nice to see you ❤

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Aww I’m sorry to misinterpret you 😘💐💞. I do admire how you mix humor with the anger though; that’s a unique, interesting, and useful skill 💓

          Liked by 1 person

  8. This is probably the best article I had read in WordPress to this day. I must say, did not expect such profound inside because of the topic, but wow. I will be trying extremely hard to at least read one of your marvelous posts a day. Stay awesome and keep on the phenomenal work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow!! Thank you so much for your kind words! Extremely encouraging 😊😊. I’m borderline giddy that you enjoyed 💓💓

      Liked by 1 person

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