Sunday, June 10, 2012

Learning Disabilities and Science

I got the following email this morning:

I would like to first greet you before I continue.

I am a young South African Astronomy fanatic (17 year-old boy), who has a learning disability.

I have devoted myself to Physics and Math, but it seems like both ofthese subjects weren't meant for people like me. What hurts me the most is that I spend a lot of time studying, but I still score below 40% for my examinations. On Friday (8 June) I was writing my Chemistry paper, I had no idea what I was writing, though I spent almost 2 weeks preparing for it. By the way, I am on the 11th grade.

I also, want to be just like my idol 'Albert Einstein'. But it seems like my disability will deny me that goal.

Please help me.

I wrote the following response, but I was hoping that others might have additional suggestions for this boy.  Please let me know if you can think of anything else I should tell him.

Thank you for reaching out to me.  I assume you know that I also have a learning disability, as did your idol Albert Einstein.  Did you write this email yourself or did one of your teachers?  It is very well composed.  I completely understand your frustrations and I have had similar experiences myself.

Unfortunately learning is going to be more challenging for you.  We live in a world that is set up for people who learn a certain way, and we don't learn that way.  We have to work five-times harder to absorb the same information that a "normal" learner can take-in easily.  This is incredibly frustrating, time consuming, and can be very demoralizing.

For me the biggest challenge was to accept how different I am, and to acquire for myself the appropriate help and accommodations.  I spent a lot of my childhood comparing myself to other students and feeling stupid because things took me longer, or I wasn't getting the same grades as my peers.  It took me a very long time to realize that I was just as smart as the other students (smarter actually), but that I needed the proper help to be able to demonstrate my intelligence.

I was able to make real breakthroughs when I started working with an educational therapist who specialized in working with students with learning disabilities, and when I joined an emotional support group for students with learning disabilities.

Having access to an educational therapist really helped me understand where my strengths lie and how to accommodate my weaknesses.  It was through working with him that I realized that physics was a good area for me to study because I have excellent spatial reasoning and score very high on IQ tests in that area.  He also helped me realize that I am just not able to effectively process the written word without a lot of extra time or help.  I started doing things like getting books on tape, or having my computer read text out loud to me.  This really helps me absorb and retain the material.

Joining a support group was also really wonderful for me because it helped me realize that I am not alone, and that there are many people out there who are able to live successfully with learning disabilities once they have the proper help.  I learned about study techniques, resources, and how to advocate for myself through this group.  For instance, do you know that there is a college specifically for people with learning disabilities (  One of my good friends went there and then transferred to my undergraduate institution.  Perhaps there is a similar school in South Africa?  Some teachers are able to allow learning disabled students to turn in alternative assignments.  For instance if writing is very difficult for you, perhaps you can turn in a video or audio version of the paper.  I had some final exams given to me as oral exams, where I would discuss the material with the teacher instead of writing the exam.  I also took significantly fewer classes throughout my schooling, and this meant that things took me longer.  I am in my 10th year of graduate school.  Many students finish after 5 or 6 years, but it is taking me longer, and that's ok.

Unfortunately working with a educational therapist and going to special schools can be very expensive.  I was lucky in that I was able to get scholarships and support from various places.  There are scholarships in the US that are specifically targeted for people with disabilities.  You should ask at your school if there is similar help for people in South Africa.

I would really encourage you to find something you enjoy and you have a talent for.  Perhaps pen-and-paper science is very challenging for you (you mentioned your chemistry test), but you are really good a building things.  There are a lot of physics and astronomy experiments that need engineers and technicians to help with the experiments.  Perhaps you are really good at explaining things.  You could volunteer at a local science museum and share your enthusiasm for physics and astronomy with others there.  Or perhaps volunteer at a local planetarium and learn how the equipment works.  There are many ways to be involved in math, science, and astronomy that may work better for your learning style and your talents.  An educational therapist can help you figure out what areas might be less challenging for you.  Instead of focusing on the things you can't do, try to figure out where your talents lie.

There are a lot of awesome videos and demonstrations on the web that can help you learn science and math and expose you to the material in different ways.  Be proactive.  I remember one semester, my sophomore year of college, I failed my first exam in my modern physics class.  I was devastated.  But I just couldn't learn from the teacher, and the textbook wasn't helping.  I had to be very proactive and creative in finding ways that I could learn the material.  I asked my classmates for help, I checked out different books from the library, I watched movies on the web about the topics that we were learning.  I looked through solutions of similar problems.  All this was very time consuming and a whole lot harder than just depending on my teacher and my book alone.  In the end I did pretty well in the class, and learned a whole lot more than I would have otherwise.

Remember that by definition people with learning disabilities have above-average intelligence.  You are smart!  Unfortunately, the pathways in your brain are connected in such a way that it is harder for you to process information.  So your challenge is to find ways to make shortcuts in your brain, or find areas where these connections are less jumbled.  Traditional learning will be hard for you, and take more time than other people.  That is ok.  There are areas where you are more talented than others -- you just need to find those areas.  There are ways that learning will be easier for you, you just need to find those techniques.  The fact that you know at such a young age what your passion is (math and physics) and you are motivated enough to work as hard as you've been working means you are already at a great advantage.  So many teenagers have no idea what they want to do with their lives.  Don't get discouraged.  There are plenty of people who get poor grades in high school, but end up being incredibly successful.

If you have any specific questions please write back.  I hope you have found what I have said helpful.  Below are links to some additional resources for you.
Take care,

Cool science demonstrations:


Learning Disability Resources:

If you have other suggestions or resources for this boy, please put them in the comments below.