Learning Disabilities, Learning Differences, and Giftedness

by Tina Blue
December 28, 2000

          Although I am posting this article on my ADD website, it is not really about ADD per se, but rather about the whole concept of learning disabilities. I am posting it in my ADD column because ADD is usually classified as a learning disability, and what I have to say about LDs in general is also applicable to ADD and ADHD.

       There is a movement now among those who specialize in working with students with learning disabilities to call them "learning differences" instead. At first I was skeptical about this new terminology, but the more I think about it, the more I approve of changing the label.

          Many so-called learning disabilities are disabilities only because of our one-size-fits-all approach to educating children. Different people learn in different ways, but if a given child's most comfortable learning strategies are "too different"--i.e., if they are not easily reduced to the least-common-denominator mass-processing methods we use in school--then those different learning strategies are seen as disabilities, since they prevent the child from learning what is being taught in the way that it is being taught.

          Another way that a child's difficulties in school might get labeled as a learning disability is that his neurological development might not yet have reached the point where he is ready to master a specific skill--especially one as complex as reading. The younger a child is, the more difference a few months or years will make in his readiness to learn certain kinds of things. Something that seems impossible at five or six may seem quite easy at seven or eight. But it is easier to process large numbers of schoolchildren when they are divided by age and all required to learn the same thing at the same age.

          Unfortunately, the age cut-offs allow children who have just turned a certain age to be lumped in the same classroom with children several months--or even a whole year!--older. In most school districts a child whose birthday is August 31 will be in the same grade as a child a year older whose birthday is September 2. Quite apart from differences in the rate of development, which can be quite significant even among children who really are the same age, this huge range of actual ages in a single grade level leaves most of the younger children at a terrible disadvantage.

          Sometimes a child in kindergarten or first grade has not yet achieved the level of neurological organization necessary to learn to read or to manipulate numbers. Most children are ready to learn the basics of reading and number manipulation at that age, which is why we start to teach such skills in kindergarten and first grade. But there are variations in level of readiness. A few children are ready to learn these skills at an even younger age, and a few won't be ready at all for a couple of years.

          But our school system can't take much variation into account, and a student who can't successfully master the basics of reading or math at that age is quickly labeled as being a slow learner or as having some sort of learning disability. From that point on, he is usually handled in a way that stigmatizes him, even if only by sticking him into the lowest-level reading group. (There is less stigmatizing for innumeracy than for illiteracy in our society, so "slow" readers are the ones who usually suffer most in the lower grades.)

          By the time this child is physically ready--i.e., neurologically developed enough--to learn to read, he has already had one or more years of being a "failure" at this all-important skill. By then he is thoroughly discouraged and has probably learned to hate reading. In fact, he probably has learned to hate school altogether. He has been set up for many years of failure and misery--or at the very best, for years of dull mediocrity--in school.

          In other words, some supposed LDs are actually imposed LDs, caused by trying to force a child to learn skills that he is not yet neurologically mature enough to master, and then stigmatizing him for his inability to master those skills according to an artificially imposed timetable.

          Some LDs, however, are clearly just learning differences.

          I know many students who read out loud quite smoothly, but without understanding a word they read. This phenomenon is so common that it has a name among reading specialists--it's called "barking the alphabet." Many of my college students can't do their reading assignments because they are alphabet barkers. They come to me in despair because they cannot understand anything they read for their classes, no matter how long they stare at the words. There are other problems that can lead to this situation, but for now I am only concerned with those students who can "translate" the letters on the page into words, but who cannot understand what they read. No one has ever noticed that they can't read, because when asked to read out loud, they perform flawlessly.

          Such students, if they are spotted at all, are usually identified as learning disabled, because they have a "problem" with processing the information they read. But in every such case that I have dealt with, I have found that the student processes heard information quite well, as long as they are not distracted by the effort of translating printed symbols into words (reading).

          The strategy I suggest to them is to read their assignments out loud into a tape recorder, and then play it back while engaging in routine activities, like driving, washing dishes, or doing laundry. Sure, it takes a little extra time, but so does reading the same page ten times without understanding a word of what you have read. And some of that lost time is regained by listening to the tape while doing other mundane tasks. You see, they can understand the material perfectly well if they employ a learning strategy that plays to their strengths.

          People process information in different ways, and a learning difference is a processing pattern that makes the standard approach to learning a poor fit. It's not that the student can't learn, but that he needs to learn differently. Once an appropriate strategy is devised, supposedly LD students are often very efficient learners, especially since so-called learning disabilities are often associated with a high level of giftedness. (We all have heard the stories about Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison.)

          Let me tell you my theory about the connection between learning disabilities and giftedness. I think both are merely "symptoms"--the outward evidence of underlying idiosyncrasies in a person's neurological wiring. A highly gifted person does seem to be wired differently from the average person. Why should we doubt that such wiring differences might also produce different ways of perceiving and synthesizing information and ideas?

          In other words, learning differences.
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