No, You Are Not Stupid: Understanding Learning Disabilities


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Whether you have one or not, I’m sure you’ve heard the term learning disability. It’s a term that is tossed around a lot, especially in relation to school and school work. And hearing that you might have one can be seriously scary.

But having a learning disability doesn’t mean you are any less intelligent or capable than your friends or classmates—highly successful people like Steven Spielberg, Anderson Cooper, and Keira Knightley all have learning disabilities, after all!  If you’ve been wanting some more information about what it really means to be learning disabled (or, if you prefer, the more positive term “learning diverse!”), here’s our exhaustive guide to learning disabilities.

What is a learning disability?

While people have undoubtedly had learning disabilities (or learning “differences,” as they are sometimes called) since time began, the term was first coined in the 1960s to describe children of normal intelligence who were having difficulties with learning. The Learning Disabilities Association of America defines a learning disability as “a neurological condition that interferes with an individual’s ability to store, process or produce information.”

Basically, what that means is that a learning disability is a condition where brain is wired somewhat differently than people with similar intelligence. It does not mean you are any less smart than anyone else. It simply means that your brain processes information and stimuli in a way that is somewhat less typical. Your learning disability may manifest in different ways, with reading and writing, with math, with memorization, with paying attention during school or group activities.

Unlike with a visible disability, like using a wheelchair or being deaf or blind, learning disabilities are often “invisible” disabilities, meaning that they aren’t often noticeable to the outside world. That can sometimes make life complicated for those with LDs, even if their learning disability is diagnosed and being managed successfully. It can be hard to explain to people why and how you learn differently, especially in social or work situations.

This video will give you a quick introduction to learning disabilities as a whole.

What are types of learning disabilities?

You are probably familiar with the term dyslexia, which is one of the most common learning disabilities for people all over the world. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that affects a person’s ability to read and process language-related information. Other common learning disabilities, sometimes called LDs, include dyscalculia (an LD that affects a person’s ability to understand process math and numbers), visual processing disorder (an LD that impacts someone’s ability to process and understand visual stimuli, like telling which item in a group is different from the others), dysgraphia (an LD that affects a person’s handwriting and motor skills) and others.


Photo: Photo: Shutterstock

Another learning disability you’ve likely heard a lot about is ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder . It used to be more often called ADD. ADHD is commonly underdiagnosed in girls and happens when your neurotransmitters (kind of like small messengers in your brain) are less active in the areas dedicated to attention. Lots of women and girls are diagnosed with it when they are older, as teenagers or adults.

There is also a disability called “learning disability otherwise unspecified,” which can be diagnosed when someone has a different learning process that is hard to put into one specific category. You can have more than one learning disability, or you can have a very mild version. They are different for every person.

How do I know if I have a learning disability?

If you suspect you have a learning disability, it’s probably a pretty scary and confusing feeling. Christy Oslund, a person with dyslexia and writer who has published several books on invisible disabilities, provides a good suggestion for what to do at first:

“If you think you might have a learning disability, a good first step is to come up with a few examples of why you think you have a learning disability. Once you have a few reasons for why you think you might have a learning disability, try talking to your school counselor, your most responsive teacher, your parents, grandparents, a mentor and your family doctor. Sometimes a number of people will need to hear your concern to realize how serious you are about it.”

From there, hopefully you will be able to move to getting more information, being tested or becoming evaluated.

Remember: Learning disabilities aren’t just about not getting good grades in school, having trouble concentrating or feeling overwhelmed while learning or doing tasks. While those are all very valid concerns that you should seek help for, experiencing those feelings definitely does not mean that you have a learning disability.

How are learning disabilities diagnosed?

Often, learning disorders become noticeable when someone goes to school, but sometimes they go unnoticed until later in life, sometimes into adulthood.

Usually learning disabilities are diagnosed after someone, maybe a parent, teacher, or a learned disabled person, notices a difference in how someone learns or processes information. This could be related to grades, to behavior in school or to actions in other settings.

Once a problem is identified, the next step is to seek professional help. They are all sorts of professionals that can be involved in a diagnoses of learning disabilities, including counselors, clinical psychologists, social workers, neuropsychologists, educational specialists, speech and hearing therapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists and physicians. This does NOT mean that you will see all of these people on a quest to find out if you have an LD or not. It’s just a sampling of the kind of professionals you might meet with when trying to get support for a possible problem. The actual professionals you’ll see will depend on lots of different variables, like what behaviors you are exhibiting, your school system, even where you live.

The next step is usually extensive testing, which may include IQ tests, neurological testing and more. Once the testing is performed and evaluated, your support people should provide you with a respectful report as to whether or not you are learning disabled.

How are learning disabilities treated?

Learning disabilities can be managed, but they can’t be “fixed” or “cured.”  Some are treated with medications, like the common drugs of Ritalin or Adderall to help those with ADHD with concentration.

More often, people with learning disabilities work with specialists to find tips, tricks and strategies that will help them excel in areas where they have difficulty. Treatment for LDs includes tutoring, special educational programs, behavioral therapy and more. If you are in school, you will likely have what is called an individualized educational program (or IEP) that outlines a specific plan for the services and help you may need. Different learning disabilities (and different people!) require different treatments. How your friend manages her ADHD might not be the same way you manage your dyslexia.

Even when you become an adult, you will still have a learning disability, although you may have learned so many ways to help you cope with it that you hardly notice anymore. Other people need continued support from mental health or educational professionals to continue to succeed in school, work, and more.

What do I need to do differently if I have a learning disability?

It depends on you! Learning disabilities are different for every single person; No one person experiences dyslexia or ADHD  or any learning disability in the exact same way. Once you are diagnosed with a learning disability, you will likely get help from your school, parents or an outside agency to give you the tools you need to help you excel in a way that fits your abilities and potential. Dr. Dan Peters, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Summit Center (a psychological and educational testing center in California) says:

“Sometimes that help can come from a tutor or educational therapist, and other times it is helpful to get what is called an ‘educational evaluation’ which will show your learning strengths as well as your challenge areas. From there, a plan can be made to get you the support you need to perform to your potential. You can get what is called an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 Plan which will give you additional support in school such as extra help, more time to take tests, and work in a quiet place. These supports can help you reach your potential.”

How do I cope with having a learning disability?

Probably the biggest thing you can do to cope with your LD is to not be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s from your family, your friends, your teachers, your coaches or a professional therapist. Needing help does not mean you’re crazy, weak or that something is “wrong” with you. In fact, asking for help really means you are strong and mature enough to know your own abilities and limits.

Having a sense of humor can also be a great way to cope with being different. I don’t mean you have to make fun of yourself in front of other people or anything like that, but keeping a positive attitude and a willingness to laugh can help keep you healthy and happy. For a great example, here’s a cute comic about life with dyslexia, drawn by Heather Wilson.

This speech, given by a girl named Kelly Ettinger (who has dyslexia and AHDH), combines laughter with a huge dose of self-empowerment.

It’s also important to focus on the things you are good at, whether that’s running, painting, arranging furniture, playing a musical instrument or calming down people when they are upset. What you are good at might not be something that happens in school, but you have your own individual talents and gifts that are valuable and necessary in this world. Carve out time in your routine to do the things that make you feel good, that you enjoy. If you do this, you will feel happier overall, despite the fact that you might have to devote a lot of energy to coping with your LD.

One more thing: Be confident! I know it’s easier said than done to act self-confident when you are struggling with something, but telling yourself that you can do “it” will go a long way in actually helping you do it, whether “it” is taking a math test, writing a paper or studying for your driver’s license exam. Believe in yourself and your own innate worth.

What’s the difference between a learning disability and being stupid?

People who are diagnosed with learning disabilities are not stupid. Period, end of story, lock the door and throw away the key, ok? Having dyslexia or dyscalculia or ADHD does not, in any way, mean you are less capable, less intelligent or less valuable than any other person in the world. It just means that your brain processes information in a different way, a way that might require a bit of extra help from those around you or some extra concentration from you.

Dr. Dan Peters says:

“It’s true that people (children, teens, adults) who have learning disabilities do think differently from those who don’t have them. However, these people are often highly creative and able to ‘think outside of the box’ and can reach their potential. People with learning disabilities are smart! We all have strengths and weaknesses. You may have trouble learning a subject, but I bet you are really good with people, art, sports, nature, dance, theater or something else. If you have a learning disability, try not to let it define you. How you do in school does not define who you are.   Remember: Don’t be ashamed of having a learning difference.”

Here is a great TED talk from Piper Otterbein, who has dyslexia. In it, Piper gives a powerful testimony about how her experience with dyslexia encouraged her to pursue other her other strengths and passions:

How can I explain my learning disability to someone who doesn’t get it?

Luckily, learning disabilities are pretty commonplace these days, so it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t heard about or known someone who has struggled with some variation on a disability, most commonly dyslexia. Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still ignorant people out there who will make rude comments about how slow you’re reading or how you literally always fail math tests.

Christy Oslund explains how she talks to people about her learning differences:

“People think that [having dyslexia] means I see letters and numbers backwards (which isn’t how I experience dyslexia.) I used to try and explain how I see things to people and I found that it’s really hard for people to imagine a way of thinking that is different from the way they think. I found it helpful to use an example that is easier for people to imagine. “

Find a metaphor that helps sum up how you experience the world and use it when explaining your situation. For example, you might say, as Christy does, that brains are like being warehouses that have tons of labeled boxes and that having a learning disability is kind of like having a glitch in the labeling system.

You might generate a simple sentence that you can always use when people ask you about your learning disability. Something like, “I have dyslexia, which means I sometimes have trouble with reading and writing.” If someone has questions, you can graciously answer them (if you want to). But you only have to provide as much information and as thorough of an explanation as you are comfortable with.

How do I deal with getting teased or bullied because I have a learning disability?

Your mental health is a priority, so if you are feeling hurt, intimidated or scared by the comments or actions of someone you know, it’s important to speak up. Bullying behaviors can include name-calling, threatening, spreading rumors, purposely embarrassing someone, making mean comments and unwanted physical touching, including violent actions like hitting, spitting or kicking.

Again, I would suggest talking to a trusted adult like a parent, older sibling, or counselor. That person might be able to give you some valuable advice on how to deal with your bully. They also might be able to refer you to some places where you can get support or get your situation resolved.

If you don’t want to do that, you can try simply explaining what your disability is, how it makes you different and how it affects your life. Often people lash out against things they are confused about or don’t understand. For more suggestions for coping with being bullied or teased, read Gurl’s article on tips on how to deal with bullies.

What should I do if I think I have a learning disability?

The first thing to do is talk to your parents or another trusted adult. Have an honest conversation about your feelings, your abilities, and what you are having problems with. Your parents will most likely be able to help you, either by talking to your teacher or school or researching some other options for you.

It’s also important to not let yourself lapse into any negative self-talk, mental statements like “I am stupid,” “I’ll never learn this!” or “Why can’t I be normal?” It’s easy to concentrate on how and why you’re different, and it can be frustrating. But getting down on yourself isn’t going to help you do any better in school or boost your self-confidence.

I struggled with math during my entire scholastic career, throughout elementary, middle, high school and well into college. Looking back, I had all the classic signs of dyscalculia, but I always just told myself that I just wasn’t “a math person,” that I just was never going to understand how to solve equations or use all the fancy options on my graphing calculator.

Had I actually been honest with the people in my life about what I experienced when I sat down to do math problems, there’s a good chance I could have gotten some help with my dyscalculia and forged a much better relationship with and understanding of math in general, rather than the crippling math fear I continue to experience today. Taking the first step is hard, but it just may be the first step towards a totally transformed experience of learning.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities also has a helpful online quiz you can take if you suspect you might have an LD. But be careful! Do not take the results of the the quiz as a guarantee you have a learning disability. It’s meant as a tool to help you think objectively about yourself or someone else and the habits and behaviors that might (Emphasis on might!) indicate you need to seek some professional help.

What should I do if I think my friend has a learning disability?

This is a sensitive subject. While you might have the best of intentions in wanting to help your friend with school or other tasks, it’s important that you go about showing your support in a very careful way.

I would suggest talking over your concerns with a trusted adult or counselor before you do anything. While your thoughts and perceptions about your friend might be valid, you aren’t qualified to diagnose anyone with a learning disability. You might want to talk to your friend’s parent or teacher rather than approach him or her yourself. You could also write a letter or an email, making it very clear that you think your friend is a smart, talented person who deserves to learn in a way that best benefits him or her.

No matter what you decide, it’s important to stress to your friend that you respect them and that you’ll be friends with them whether they have a learning disability or not. I would also suggest being very careful with the language you use when you are around your friend. For example, no saying “I am so ADD!” when you forget something, and no making fun or other friends or classmates who are different. Language is extremely powerful in shaping our relationships, so make sure you are speaking in a positive way. For example, here are ten things never to say to someone who has ADHD.

How can I support my sibling that has a learning disability?

Love them, treat them with respect and make sure they know you have their back, whether that means helping them study for their driver’s license test, making spelling flash cards or simply giving them extra time with your parents or other family members. It’s often difficult when one sibling has different learning needs than another one, especially if you are close in age. But staying positive, kind and flexible will go far in helping your family support your sibling throughout all of their learning experiences.

Of course, you should be also be open about your own emotional needs, both to your sibling and to your parents or caregivers. Your learning disabled sibling might get a lot more attention than you, and that can be confusing and hurtful. So, remaining honest about your own complicated feelings will make sure everyone is on the same page and able to work together as a healthy family.

Can I still go to college if I have a learning disability?

Definitely! Many, many people who have been diagnosed with learning troubles go on to lead very successful lives, including going to college, owning their own businesses, writing books and changing the world. Christy Oslund, who was quoted above, even has a PhD in Rhetoric and Professional Communication. She also works as Co-ordinator of Student Disability Services at Michigan Technological University.

Every college has programs in place to help students succeed academically, including free tutoring, writing centers, peer mentoring, even giving students extra time on exams or assignments. Some colleges and universities have whole offices developed solely to helping students who have different needs. For an example, take a look at the “Disability Services” page at Smith College in Northampton, MA.  Your college will accommodate you in whatever way you need, just like your experiences in other schools you’ve been to. You might have to be persistent in order to get the services you need, but having clear communication with your professors and with the administration will set you up for success.

Did you know there are a few colleges, like Landmark College in Vermont and Beacon College in Florida, which have a special emphasis on teaching students with learning disabilities? If you think you might enjoying learning in a setting that’s totally made up of LD students, a school like that might be an awesome option for you.

Adjusting to being a college student can be difficult, especially if you have an LD. It’s a new educational world to navigate and it can be intimidating. But there’s no reason to think you can’t and won’t be successful in whatever you want to study, at whatever college you end up going to.

Do you have a learning disability? Are you interested in sharing your experience or your story with those who might be wondering how about to deal with a new diagnoses or how to help someone in their life? Please share in the comments!

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