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Have you ever wondered about some of the reasons why it is so hard for students…and grown ups…to pay attention? Thanks to our friends at VancouverMom.ca for sharing our thoughts and the experiences of our students so clearly. Have a read! http://www.vancouvermom.ca/school/paying-attention-school-difficult/

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Are you a parent or student interested in learning more about professionals in the Lower Mainland who support students with learning difficulties? Or, are you a professional in the field yourself who would like to network with others and meet potential clients? Join us on March 2nd between 6:30pm and 8:00pm at Eaton Arrowsmith Vancouver/Magnussen School for this free Community Resource Fair event! Register here. Contact Sandra Heusel at sheusel@eatonarrowsmith.com if you are a professional interested in exhibiting at this event.

Click on the link for a video message.

All of us at Eaton Arrowsmith, Magnussen School and Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre wish you the happiest of holidays! See you in 2017!

Hello everyone!

Thank you so much to those of you who joined us this past Monday (or Tuesday in other parts of the world) either live in the audience or via our live streamed presentation. If you did you would have seen some pretty remarkable students speaking about their experiences with the Arrowsmith Program and Eaton Arrowsmith/Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre. Our school principals, Emily Lunney and Simon Hayes and founder Howard Eaton completed the presentation by sharing their knowledge of the power of brain plasticity to change lives. An update on the ongoing research taking place on the Arrowsmith Program was also discussed.

The weekend is upon us, so grab yourself some popcorn, relax, and prepare to be inspired! If, after watching, you are interested in learning more about us and our admissions process, we’re always here to help. Feel free to email us at admissions@eatonarrowsmith.com or call 604-264-8327 (Canadian schools/centres) or 425-861-8327 (Redmond, Washington school/center).

*Please note that due to technical difficulties at the very beginning of the presentation the first 2-3 minutes was not recorded. Additionally, due to the fact that our UBC Arrowsmith Program research is pending journal submission there is one visual that we were not able to record.

Reserve your ticket TODAY for our next amazing event!

Less than a week to go until The Future of Learning Disabilities Education: Eaton Arrowsmith’s Live Cognitive Classroom Experience will be presented by the founder of Eaton Arrowsmith, Howard Eaton, along with the principals and students at our schools. Register to save your spot today!

Howard will speak to recent research findings, as they pertain to the UBC Arrowsmith Program Brain Research Study, as well as a brand new study that has just begun on working memory and the Arrowsmith Program.  Our principals and students will show you what life at Eaton Arrowsmith is all about, complete with demonstrations of our cognitive exercises and recounts on their lives before and during the program regarding noted cognitive, academic and social changes.  Truly not a presentation to miss!

 

Live Streaming Available!

This event will be live streamed via our You Tube channel. The streaming link will be available the day of the presentation.

Please tune in on Monday November 21st at 6:30pm PST if you are local (Vancouver area) or at 9:30pm EST

For our Australia and New Zealand viewers this presentation can be viewed on:
Tuesday November 22nd at 1:30pm (Sydney and area – AEDT)
Tuesday November 22nd at 10:30am (Perth and area)
Tuesday November 22nd at 3:30pm (New Zealand)

 

Don’t miss out! Reserve your spot today!

Learning Disabilities Education

Dear Eaton Arrowsmith Community,

We are excited to announce our 2017-2018 scholarships and bursaries for new and continuing students!

Bursary allocation will be based solely on financial need and amounts offered will vary according to need.

Scholarship recipients will be chosen based on a persuasive presentation by the student or parent (500 word essay or three minute multimedia presentation, as outlined in the application form). Please note that, to apply for a scholarship or bursary, a student must either be enrolled or officially offered a place at an Eaton Arrowsmith site.

In order to find more information about this opportunity, as well as application forms, please see the Scholarships and Bursaries page on our website: http://www.eatonarrowsmith.com/scholarships-bursaries/ New this year is a part time program scholarship!

Applications for scholarships and bursaries for the 2017-2018 school year are due at noon on December 5th, 2016. Recipients will be notified by December 14th. Students receiving financial aid will have until January 20, 2017, to accept their scholarship and/or bursary by confirmation of enrolment for the 2017-2018 school year.

Please note that all new students applying for bursaries and scholarships must first have been assessed for fit by our admissions team and been offered placement. For an assessment of fit, please contact us at 604-264-8327 or admissions@eatonarrowsmith.com.

Thank you for your continued support of our community! Our goal is to continue to enable more students to access this life-changing program and we appreciate the donations that have allowed us to offer additional financial assistance to our students. If you have any questions, please contact me at any time.

Sincerely,

Rose McLachlan
Registrar
Eaton Arrowsmith
604-674-8049

Can you imagine growing up with a learning disability, but not knowing you have one?

 

Michael Harley doesn’t need to imagine the experience. He lived it for decades – suffering in silence.

 

“I always felt out of place and very anxious,” he said. “I had no idea what was wrong with me for the majority of my life.”

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While Harley excelled in school, he struggled socially. As a child, he only had one friend. The thought of hanging out with several people at a time made him anxious. He never knew what to say or how to act.

 

“I couldn’t bridge the gap between talking to someone and truly connecting and developing relationships,” he said.

 

Harley felt confused for his entire childhood and through most of his teen years. He coped the only way he knew how: by avoiding social situations and dedicating all his time to school.

 

“I relied on my strengths,” Harley said. “I focused on school and got all A’s, but the social aspect of my life was entirely missing. I felt anxious and depressed.”

 

Clarity after Confusion

 

Harley didn’t find answers until his first year of university when, at the age of 19, he met with a learning specialist who told him he had a non-verbal learning disability. He describes the diagnosis as a major aha moment.

 

“It made complete sense and put my life in perspective,” Harley said. “Having that place as a jumping off point was the first step to addressing my learning disability and becoming the person I knew I was, but couldn’t access.”

 

Individuals with non-verbal learning disabilities often struggle to read social cues like body language and facial expressions and find planning and organizing difficult.

 

Like Harley, many people reach adulthood without knowing they have this disability.

 

“It’s a painful thing,” said Adriene Oelmann, director of the Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre (ECIC) in Vancouver. “When someone has this difficulty, they often don’t know they have it. They’re always walking into social situations and not understanding what’s going on around them. It makes life pretty confusing and scary to navigate.”

 

Oelmann believes non-verbal learning disabilities are more common than most realize. They just aren’t that understood or acknowledged.

 

“Many of ECIC’s students who have a non-verbal learning disability are in their early twenties. Their parents don’t understand what it is. They don’t understand what it is,” she said.

 

Unless someone is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Asperger Syndrome, people tend to label individuals with this learning difficulty “awkward” or “weird”, according to Oelmann.

 

The Glass Ceiling

 

While a non-verbal learning disability doesn’t always interfere with a person’s success in elementary and high school, it becomes a bigger problem for adults when socializing extends into the work world.

 

For example, imagine having to do a job interview when you can’t read facial expressions and other non-verbal cues, Oelmann said.

 

Adults have years of being traumatized and scared. They have a history of trying with teachers, peers making fun of them, teachers thinking they’re dumb and families not understanding what’s wrong. – Adriene Oelmann

 

“Interviews can be terrifying for someone with a non-verbal learning disability,” she said. “There is so much information communicated through facial expression and body language.”

 

As a result, individuals with a non-verbal learning disability have a tendency to sell themselves short by applying for jobs they’re overqualified for. Similarly, in university, students might avoid asking professors’ questions or struggle to understand what instructors are asking of them.

 

“These can all be stumbling blocks,” Oelmann said. “They can close a lot of doors and prevent people from going after their dreams.”

 

Emotional Scars

 

When a non-verbal learning disability goes undiagnosed until adulthood, it can take a huge emotional toll on a person.

 

“Adults have years of being traumatized and scared,” Oelmann said. “They have a history of trying with teachers, peers making fun of them, teachers thinking they’re dumb and families not understanding what’s wrong.”

 

Harley can relate. He was 21-years-old by the time he enrolled at ECIC and had endured too many mortifying social situations, bouts of depression and anxiety to count.

 

But he will always remember one experience he had during his first year at Northwestern University. A group of students were hanging out in a girl’s dorm room. Harley was beginning to think he was fitting in until someone called him out for being too quiet.

 

“I think she said I was being really awkward or something,” he said. “It just reaffirmed all the negative beliefs that I had about myself. I was finally in this friend group and not only did I not know how to deal with a big group of people, but I could see everyone connecting and I was still on the outside.”

 

Harley left Northwestern twice to try to deal with his non-verbal learning disability. The first time, he attended a program for students with learning disabilities in his hometown of New York. The second time, his mom recommended ECIC.

 

Having tried other interventions without success, Harley decided to move to Vancouver. By this point, he could no longer separate the social and academic sides of his life and even his grades were suffering.

 

A Place of Refuge

 

Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre offers Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s Arrowsmith Program, which uses targeted cognitive exercises to strengthen weaknesses in the brain that cause learning disabilities.

 

ECIC doesn’t give students workarounds to cope with their challenges. Instead, the Arrowsmith Program focuses on building neural pathways and strengthening connections in the brain so that teens and adults can achieve their academic, career and social goals.

 

“Students with non-verbal learning disabilities work on exercises to specifically target the part of the brain that uses non-verbal and is also part of planning,” Oelmann said. “They have to figure out what is happening in different situations.”

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But ECIC isn’t just about cognitive exercises. It’s also a supportive and safe community where teens and adults traumatized by past experiences can open up and feel accepted.

 

“They don’t feel like outsiders anymore. You start to see some really deep and awesome connections form,” Oelmann said.

 

Students are also encouraged to take on leadership roles by planning social activities within the community. This gives individuals with non-verbal learning disabilities the opportunity to practice socializing in a safe and supportive environment.

 

Reaching New Heights

 

Harley noticed some pretty significant changes after his first semester at ECIC. For example, when he returned from winter break, he decided to join an improv class – something he would have never done before ECIC due to his social anxiety.

 

“I wanted to step things up outside the program,” he said. “That’s how I found myself 3,000 miles away from home doing improv with random people of all ages and feeling more comfortable than I have ever felt in my life.”

 

Harley completed one year at ECIC and now studies neuroscience at Columbia University and lives with three roommates. He regularly meets new friends and feels a lot more comfortable in his own skin.

 

“I know my life wouldn’t be the same today without ECIC,” he said.

 

Oelmann has witnessed countless transformations in students with non-verbal learning disabilities over the years.

 

“Some students’ confidence is so heavily impacted after the program that they literally stand up taller,” she said. “They look like they’ve physically grown. They hold their heads up, pay attention and the cues they get from other people start to make sense.”

 

For students, it’s as if a huge weight has been lifted off their shoulders. For parents and families, it’s a relief.

 

“Parents realize, ‘My kid’s not going to be alone and isolated for the rest of his life,’” Oelmann said.

 

Alpha found out he processed information slower than other children when he was in second grade.

“He struggled with math and logical reasoning in social situations,” said his mother, Constance Wun.

In Alpha’s words, it was like information was going in one ear and out the other.

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“Everything was so distracting,” he said. “I was rude and inappropriate in social situations. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know when to say it. I felt like life would always be this way.”

But unlike children diagnosed with other learning challenges, school was the least of Alpha’s concerns. He struggled in math and often had to accept results that didn’t reflect his true ability, but he excelled in other subjects. Socializing was his biggest challenge.

“As a parent, I’m not just focused on grades,” Wun said. “I want my son to be able to think through life.”

Slow processing speed need not be connected to lower intelligence. Individuals with this learning issue simply take in, interpret and respond to information at a slower rate than others in both academic and everyday social situations.

Children with slow processing speed can have a hard time following multiple instructions at once, finishing tests on time and keeping up with conversations.

“Academics weren’t that hard for me,” Alpha said. “But by grade four, I only had three true friends.”

Alpha wondered why he struggled to connect with other children.

A part-time solution to a full-time challenge

After Alpha’s diagnosis, Wun tried to help her son with behaviour intervention, applied behaviour analysis, neurotherapy, as well as speech and occupational therapy. But none of these programs seemed to make a difference in Alpha’s ability to deal with his emotions and cope in social situations.

Wun was at a loss. Her son needed a different kind of intervention, but not one that involved pulling him from school to work on his processing speed full-time.

Then, one day, through pure coincidence, Wun found Eaton Arrowsmith School (EA). She attended a seminar on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and anxiety and found out about EA’s part-time program through a representative from the school.

“I had never heard of anything like EA before,” she said. “We had tried everything else, so I believed other interventions had reached their limits in helping my son. I wanted something different, and EA’s approach made sense.”

She enrolled Alpha in the part-time program when he was nine.

Strengthening the brain after school

Eaton Arrowsmith offers a unique program that involves strengthening the brain through targeted, cognitive exercises. Unlike other interventions for individuals with learning disabilities, EA does not give students tools to cope with or work around their weaknesses.

The Arrowsmith Program, which was developed by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, is based on the principle of neuroplasticity – or the brain’s ability to re-wire and make new connections.

While some children show weaknesses in several cognitive areas, for many others – like Alpha – this is not the case.

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For this reason, EA offers a part-time program for students between the ages of six and 18. Children focus on strengthening one cognitive area twice a week for two hours after school. EA also offers a part-time program for adults out of its Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centres (ECIC).

Not every child or adult diagnosed with a learning difficulty needs full-time cognitive intervention. Alpha’s story is a testament to the fact that students can strengthen their brains on a part-time basis.

An emotional transformation

Alpha is now 13 and started grade eight in September. He completed four years in EA’s part-time program and describes the changes he’s experienced as “exponential”.

“I took what I learned emotionally and I’m happy to report that my friend group has grown. I have even helped other friends with social situations, just like my three friends helped me several years ago,” Alpha said. “It’s not been easy. There are still things that happen, but what I learned at Eaton Arrowsmith has really helped me.”

Alpha’s mom said he is now doing better in math. But more importantly, she’s noticed fewer outbursts since he finished his program at EA.

“Emotions are a big factor in Alpha’s ability to deal with school and life,” Wun said. “I appreciate the teachers at EA very much. They helped my son break down the problems in his social life and deal with them effectively.”

Before EA, Alpha would simply feel stuck in social situations.

“I owe the school a huge debt that words cannot express,” Alpha said. “The teachers and the program helped me become confident and live up to my potential. EA was challenging, but I have reaped brilliant results from it.”

About the programs

The part-time programs at Eaton Arrowsmith School and Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre are designed to help students that fit the same learning profile as the full-time program.  

These children and adults have learning difficulties that cause them to struggle in school and life, but they do not have severe emotional, behavioural or intellectual disorders. 

Students’ programs are designed specifically for their learning needs and are based on the cognitive areas they need to strengthen.

Both schools recognize that children and adults have many commitments, including extracurricular activities, homework, jobs, and much more. While EA or ECIC’s part-time program is another commitment, it can strengthen cognitive capacities and contribute to a student’s ability to manage and enjoy other activities and programs.  

If you are interested in EA or ECIC’s part-time programs, please email us at admissions@eatonarrowsmith.com or call us at 604-264-8327 (for Canadian admissions) or 425-861-8327 (for US admissions).

Join us for an educational evening with the founder of the Arrowsmith Program.

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Everyone remembers what it’s like to go back to school after a carefree summer holiday. You worry about what your teacher will be like, who will be in your class, and the homework and assignments that lie ahead. It’s a stressful time of year because there are so many “unknowns”.

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Most children experience some degree of nervousness before returning to class, but others feel a debilitating fear that impacts everything from sleep to behaviour and personality.

 

“Back to school anxiety ranges from normal nerves to full-on terror,” said Rebecca Mitchell, a Registered Clinical Counsellor with The Wishing Star Lapointe Developmental Clinic in Surrey.

 

For children with learning difficulties, just the idea of school can induce extreme fear – mostly because they’ve struggled to excel in past grades. According to Mitchell, anxiety in children with learning disabilities is also often connected to the way they learn.

 

“We all have different styles of taking in and processing information,” she said. “It can be challenging to adapt to one learning style. The majority of our classrooms are auditory-based, so a child who doesn’t process verbal well, will feel overwhelmed.”

 

But how can parents distinguish between normal back to school jitters and serious anxiety issues?

 

Spotting the Signs

 

If your children start telling you they don’t want to go back to school or don’t want summer to end, but aren’t having trouble sleeping and are still engaging in activities, chances are they’re just struggling with the return to routine. Think of it as mourning the loss of freedom that comes with summer. We’ve all been there.

 

Serious anxiety, however, often shows up in the form of significant sleep issues, withdrawal from activities, a dysregulation of behaviour, and a lot more acting out.

 

“If kids have tantrums several times a day, get to school and experience complete meltdowns, or run away from school, this is beyond nerves,” said Mitchell.

 

She also cautioned parents against mistaking anxiety for misbehaviour, adding that anxiety occurs because the brain perceives a harmful event or threat that triggers the fight-or-flight response. It’s a psychological reaction.

 

Coping Mechanisms

 

Parents can help ease their child’s anxiety by building connections, predictability and resilience into their daily lives, according to Mitchell.

 

“Humans are wired for CONNECTION. If children don’t feel connected to their teachers, it can be very unsettling to be at school every day,” she said.

 

Parents can engage in conversations with their child’s teacher and share aspects of the conversation with their child in order to build connections.

 

For some kids, however, being separated from a parent is the biggest cause of stress. To ease separation, Mitchell tells parents to give their kids a way to hold on to them when they’re at school – from goodbye rituals to symbols, or notes.

 

“We had a parent one time who had a grade 10 student with significant anxiety and the mother would take a little bite out of his sandwich every day,” Mitchell said.

 

She did this so that her son would remember that she was thinking of him throughout the day.

 

In terms of PREDICTABILITY, establishing a routine is key to combatting back to school anxiety. Ensure your child gets enough sleep, eats healthy, exercises, and minimizes their screen time. Covering these basic needs gives children the foundation to cope with the challenges they face in school.

 

RESILIENCE plays a role in helping anxious kids too. Don’t just reassure your child that everything will be fine and tell him or her not to worry. Have you ever had a problem and a friend gave you similar advice? It often does little to make you feel better.

 

“Normalize worries and fears,” Mitchell said. “Encourage children to feel their sadness, so they don’t just stuff it down.”

 

Failure is Part of Learning at Eaton Arrowsmith

 

At Eaton Arrowsmith (EA), anxiety is most common in first year students because they are starting at a new school with new peers, new teachers and a different style of learning.

 

“Fear of failure creates a great deal of anxiety,” said Natalie Poirier, EA’s head academic teacher and math specialist. “Students come to us from various backgrounds and bring a lot of anxiety from past school experiences with them.”

 

Many children have been told that their learning disabilities will be with them for life – that if they can’t do something today, they won’t be able to do it tomorrow. EA does not subscribe to this way of thinking. It only increases students’ anxiety and prevents them from learning.

 

“We believe failure, or making mistakes, is part of learning and it’s actually how our brains grow,” Poirier said.

 

This philosophy is called the growth mindset and it’s at the core of everything EA does. According to Poirier, if you follow the growth mindset, you believe intelligence is malleable and that students can work on their learning disabilities. A fixed mindset is the opposite of the growth mindset. People who think the mind is fixed believe that if something is challenging, it will always be challenging.

 

“We explain the growth mindset to our students because, if children are afraid of failure, it impacts how they’re willing to engage in difficult tasks,” Poirier said.

 

Taking Comfort in the Familiar

 

At the beginning of every school year, EA teachers also establish a classroom culture. They outline expected behaviour, develop routines and make the unfamiliar familiar because new places, situations, and patterns often spark milder forms of anxiety.

 

“It’s normal to feel anxious when our brains are learning something new,” Poirier said.

 

To combat anxiety, EA teachers also use mindfulness, which involves having a student take time out from what they’re working on to sit quietly and calmly.

 

“Engaging in mindful activity helps the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that tells the amygdala that a situation isn’t scary and we can still be at rest,” Poirier said. “This activity helps students with anxiety return to class in a happy and relaxed state.”

 

Continuous stress can do a lot of harm to a student’s confidence, ability to focus and progress.

 

“We learn best when we’re happy. When we experience anxiety, our brains aren’t as open to learning and forming new pathways,” Poirier said.

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Grace Wyatt remembers Grade 10 as one of the darkest times in her son’s life.

Josh, then 16, had studied really hard for a particular test. But hours of work didn’t help and he still failed.

High school students skip class, don’t study and flunk exams all the time, but Josh wasn’t a slacker. He had the study habits of an “A” student and the grades of an “F” student.

And the test was simply the breaking point.

“I came home that day and told my mom I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt as if I was living in a fog,” Josh says.

Like many students with learning difficulties, he needed a radical intervention.

“There’s no point in trying to pour ‘learning’ into a child if it’s running out through the holes,” says Grace. “You have to plug the holes first and then the information will stick.”

With that philosophy, Grace pulled Josh out of school in Australia and enrolled him in Eaton Arrowsmith in Vancouver – a school with a unique approach to teaching students with learning difficulties. Grace knew it was worth the risk.

 

The road to recovering Josh

Unlike other alternative schools for children with learning difficulties, Eaton Arrowsmith isn’t giving students tools to cope or work around their weaknesses; it is changing their brains to make learning easier.

Experts used to believe the human brain was fixed – that people couldn’t alter the brains they were born with. Modern research has since proven this to be false. The brain can create new neural pathways and alter existing ones.

Howard Eaton, founder and director of Eaton Arrowsmith and author of Brain School says: “It’s stunning to see a program alter neurological functioning in children with learning difficulties.”

The Eaton Arrowsmith method, developed by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, involves rigorous programs of cognitive exercises based on each student’s individual needs and learning difficulties. Children take two traditional subjects: math and English. But the rest of their days are spent strengthening weak connections in their brains so they can eventually return to mainstream schools with a better ability to learn.

 

Eaton Arrowsmith in action

Josh had many learning challenges before EA. Cognitive thought, comprehension, memory and reasoning were all difficult for him. While he loved reading, he never understood what he was reading. His mom remembers her son devouring book after book – loving the process, but never being able to discuss characters or even plot.

Josh couldn’t hold commands in his head, so if a teacher asked him to read a sentence out loud from a book, he couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to read. He also had trouble understanding patterns, which made math seem like a foreign language. Josh struggled to remember facts, too. Grace recalls her son making flash cards for history tests and watching him walk around the house trying to memorize what was written on them – often with minimal success.

“I’ve always had a great work ethic, but it was soul-destroying to put in the effort and not see results,” Josh says.

Josh always knew he wasn’t like other kids. Mostly, he saw how he struggled in school and his friends didn’t.

But at Eaton Arrowsmith his differences no longer mattered.

Josh likens his early days at Eaton Arrowsmith to running a marathon. He says the work took concentration and persistence, and then he had his first breakthrough.

“I remember coming out to the car and telling my mom ‘I’m not dumb after all.’ I realized I could learn,” he says.

After days of struggling with one exercise, Josh not only mastered it, he understood the next level too!

 

After the Fog

Eaton Arrowsmith showed Josh that his learning difficulties don’t determine his goals; he does.

“Don’t accept the verdict,” Josh says to parents of children struggling in school. “There is a solution and there is light at the end of the tunnel. For me it was EA.”

After two years of Arrowsmith exercises, Josh returned to Australia where he achieved A-level grades. He then attended film school and landed a job at one of the top production companies in North America.

“I am so grateful I had the courage to take Josh to EA – to step out of a ‘regular’ learning environment so he could become the incredible man he is today,” Grace says.

EA taught Josh how to learn and, more importantly, restored his confidence.

“My family tells me they don’t recognize the boy who went to EA,” Josh says. “Given where I am today, I know this school changed my life.”

Kids across the country will head back to school in just over a month. For some parents, it’s the best time of year, but for others it brings on feelings of dread and anxiety about what lies ahead.

 

Back to school 2

Parents who have children with learning difficulties, in particular, are often plagued by questions about what is and isn’t right for their kids.

 

Will my child be able to cope? Will this year be different? How will he or she manage the heavier homework load? Will my child get further behind? How will his or her confidence be impacted?

 

But the big question weighing on many parents’ minds is, “Should I take my child out of public school and search for other options?”

An aha moment

 

According to one Eaton Arrowsmith parent, the education system just isn’t designed for kids with learning difficulties – or those who don’t read and write at certain ages.

 

“I strongly believe that you pay now or you pay later with children who have learning challenges,” said Helen Young. “The problem with school is that it accelerates, so if you don’t know what’s going on in grade five, you definitely won’t be able to keep up in grade six.”

 

Young’s daughter, Sofia, struggled at several schools before she found Eaton Arrowsmith.

 

“We didn’t notice a lot of things when Sofia was younger. When you have a child with learning challenges, you’re with them all the time and you just adjust,” she said.

 

For her, a major eye-opening moment happened when Sofia was in grade two.

 

“The teacher said she wasn’t really understanding instructions in either French or English. We were shocked,” Young said. “ We didn’t realize we had been simplifying things in conversation with her.”

 

Spotting the signs

 

The mainstream education system works for children who learn “normally”. However, it can sometimes take more out of kids with learning difficulties than it puts in. So recognizing signs that a school can’t do anything more for a child is important.

 

Young said, looking back, Sofia experienced the following challenges:

 

  • spoke later than other kids,
  • struggled to learn how to read regardless of the amount of time spent practicing,
  • withdrew in group social situations,
  • couldn’t complete class exercises in subjects like math – even with extra help,
  • often appeared disengaged and lost,
  • lacked confidence, was unhappy and sometimes acted out in class, and
  • exhausted all resources available through the school system.

 

These signs might not be the same for every child, but Young said a dive in confidence should be a major red flag for parents.

 

“At the end of the day, once kids finish high school, no one cares if they know how to do algebra or have memorized historical facts,” she said. “But if your child has a learning disability, he or she could spend more than a decade losing confidence in themselves because they can’t keep up with their peers.”

 

Young never wants Sofia to be in a situation where she feels like the dumbest person in the room.

 

“The reality is that Sofia is really smart, she just learns differently,” she said.

 

At the same time, Young wanted her daughter to discover what she could do on her own – without additional help that is offered to children through special education programs. So she started to look for alternatives and discovered Eaton Arrowsmith.

 

Making a change

 

During a tour of EA, Young remembers another couple expressing concern that their child wouldn’t be taking all the academic subjects offered in mainstream classrooms. The person giving the tour responded with, “Is your child getting anything out of academics?”

 

A light suddenly clicked on. Young knew Sofia wasn’t learning much at her current school and that she didn’t have anything to lose at age 11 by not taking a full academic course load.

 

“I thought, we’ve exhausted special education programs. She can’t go back into the public school system. She’s young enough. What’s the worst that can happen, she loses a year?”

 

Young was away for work during Sofia’s first three weeks at Eaton Arrowsmith, but when she returned she noticed a huge difference in her daughter.

 

“The first day I picked her up, she started telling me about her day! She had never talked about her day before. I was so startled I had to pull over,” she said.

 

Sofia has now completed her first year at Eaton Arrowsmith and Young has noticed even more changes in her daughter. She’s less anxious, she tries new things, she’s more engaged in the world and she feels more confident talking to people she doesn’t know.

 

“EA is keeping my daughter’s brain engaged all day long and teaching her valuable skills,” Young said. “Sofia has learned that she can achieve her goals if she’s organized and works hard every day and that’s a huge step forward for this little girl.”

 

* The names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the student and parents.

Self-Experimentation

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew a thing or two about trying. The definition of “try” is described as “the effort to accomplish something”. From his diagnosis of polio, to using leadership abilities to lift the United States out of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt breathed the definition of “try”. The above quote, spoken during the Great Depression, comes from the depths of his experience, both personal and public.

In the early days of Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s work with children and adults with learning disabilities, trying to find ways to improve their lives was a personal and public endeavour. In her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, she describes the struggles she went through in learning and her attempt to reshape her brain based on the concept of neuroplasticity.

I strongly encourage you to read this story, and will not attempt to summarize it here, but her personal struggle and suffering due to her learning disabilities were intense. It is rare to see someone with a disability develop their own intervention. But Arrowsmith-Young didn’t just use her program to strengthen her own cognitive weaknesses; she realized it could help millions of others with learning disabilities too.

Self-experimentation is not a new concept in research. In fact, many exceptional researchers launched discoveries using this methodology, including five Nobel Laureates. One can understand how a researcher would be interested in testing an idea, but unsure if it has any validity, and thus says to oneself, “Let’s see if it works for me, first.”

There really is nothing to lose, as the researcher is often faced with the problem themselves, or is absolutely fascinated with the idea of solving a significant question. Arrowsmith-Young had interest, self-experimentation leading to a happier life, and complete interest in seeing if her idea could reshape the field of learning disabilities.

Arrowsmith-Young was desperate for self-improvement, but also wanted to discover a way to reduce the suffering of others faced with learning and social frustrations. As she started the first cognitive exercise on her brain, she had no idea what would occur. It was a hopeful and courageous act in the face of a lifetime of previous hardship and exhaustion.

Self-experimentation is often required when ideas challenge current paradigms. Researchers like Arrowsmith-Young can’t often turn to current academics who are engrossed in their own ideas and promoting them to other academics and the public at large. These academics and professionals have studied their own ideas for so long that new ideas are difficult for them to incorporate into their reasoning. This is not the case for all, though certainly an issue for many.

Thomas Khun, in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, wrote, “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”

Researchers who believe in the old paradigm often react harshly to ideas and findings by those in the new paradigm. Stories of academic ridicule and personal insults are numerous. Interestingly, I was just reading the book, The Second Brain: Your Gut Has a Mind of Its Own, by Michael D. Gershon, M.D., when I came across some lines describing his experience with introducing a paradigm shifting concept.

He wrote, “Since I had not anticipated that my suggestion that serotonin might be a neurotransmitter in the gut would be viewed by the scientific world as outrageous, I was upset by the reaction I actually encountered. My first impulse was to feel empathy with those of my ancestors who faced that Inquisition.”

Student and Classroom Observation

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”
Marcus Aurelius

“There is no more difficult art to acquire than the art of observation, and for some men it is quite as difficult to record an observation in brief and plain language.”
William Osler

In 1980, in a small classroom on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto, Arrowsmith-Young began a journey that would transform learning disability intervention. She moved from self-experimentation at home to observing students with learning difficulties engaged in her cognitive exercises. Her ability to observe as a researcher was critical and provided keen insight into the effectiveness of her cognitive exercises. She has continued this observational ability to insightfully create and continually redesign her cognitive program.

Arrowsmith-Young remarked to me one day how she admired the observation skills of Dr. Alexandra Luria, the Soviet Neuropsychologist and Developmental Psychologist who helped formulate the theory behind the Arrowsmith Program.

Dr. Luria was capable of observing clients and determining what specific neurological systems were most likely impaired. She was recognized for this talent in her postsecondary studies when working directly with children. She used this talent when determining how her cognitive programs were influencing behavioural change in clients, and created cognitive exercises to help reshape the area of the brain and/or neurological system responsible for a set of behaviours (i.e., cause and effect reasoning, or accurate social perception). Without her observational abilities, the Arrowsmith Program would never have been developed.

What is clearly fascinating is how Arrowsmith-Young not only developed the Arrowsmith Program, but also how she designed the exercises so they could work in a classroom environment of either adults or children. Anyone involved in instructional design understands how difficult it is to create programs that keep the attention of all students. But full engagement and progress occur in Arrowsmith Program classrooms.

The reasoning behind this relates to how students feel progress is being made. They feel safe to take risks due to the ability of the program to match current levels of progress with difficulty levels. As we know, children and adults with learning disabilities can negatively respond to challenges. As a result, a challenge has to be attainable within a given time period, or the individual will quit or stop. Arrowsmith-Young created both individualized cognitive programs, and a classroom instructional program that allowed large numbers of children and adults to experience cognitive functioning progress without fear or ridicule and to even share their successes with other students.

The scientific method is a set of techniques used to observe information and develop new insights in order to scrutinize current knowledge for further development. These techniques include making an observation, thinking of a question related to the observation, formulating a hypothesis, creating a test on the hypothesis, gathering data in various forms, and creating a theory based on the observations.

Arrowsmith-Young has used the scientific method to develop her theory and methodology in the cognitive intervention of thousands of children and adults with learning disabilities since the 1970s.

Use of the scientific method also requires high levels of intelligence, creativity and a keen imagination. Arrowsmith-Young has these traits in abundance. Her observations challenged the conventional idea that learning disabilities are life-long, and caused by neurological dysfunctions that are not alterable. At the beginning stages of her research, she used the scientific method to understand her own brain. She then advanced her work into the world of instructional design and remediation for children and adults with learning disabilities.

Behavioural Testing

“An intelligence test sometimes shows a man how smart he would have been not to have taken it.”
Laurence J. Peter

Some humour is always appreciated, and thus the above quote. Intelligence testing, as will be stated below, is a significant part of testing for a learning disability. This is a measure of behaviour, often used – at times ineffectively – to show who might do well in school and who might not. The pros and cons of this form of testing are discussed frequently by academics.

Behavioural testing or assessment of children and adults with learning disabilities has been used for decades. Any parent with a child struggling in school most likely has first-hand experience with this type of assessment. It’s how children are first identified as having learning disabilities. It ensures an individual has average or above average intelligence needed for the learning disability diagnosis. Measures of cognition (reasoning, memory, etc.) are given alongside measures of achievement in reading, writing, spelling and math.

Expert debate the effectiveness, or even need, for behavioural testing though it occurs frequently in the life of a child struggling in school. What behavioural testing does provide is data. Arrowsmith-Young was intrigued with data and the questions it provided in her search to understand cognitive improvement in children and adults with learning disabilities.

From the beginning, Arrowsmith-Young not only recorded her observations of children and adults, but also used behavioural testing or assessment to analyze before and after changes in both cognitive capacity and achievement skills. She did not only rely on her own observations. Instead she realized the importance of standardized assessments of behaviour.

Measures of reasoning, memory, executive functioning and cognitive efficiency were given before students engaged in the Arrowsmith Program and again after one year and sometimes at the end of their programs. Achievement measures in reading, writing, spelling and math were also given, and compared year to year to analyze progress along with cognitive change.

This approach provided additional research evidence of the effectiveness of the Arrowsmith Program, and also how it might be further developed to improve rates of neurological change.

Dr. William Lancee, a well-respected academic from Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and University of Toronto professor, was the first person to independently research the Arrowsmith Program. He was not involved in the development of the Arrowsmith Program when contacted to conduct studies on its effectiveness in individuals with learning disabilities. He was fascinated with the program, but analyzed the results as an independent researcher.

Dr. Lancee conducted behavioural tests, looking specifically at achievement changes in children engaged in the program. Interestingly, he not only looked at achievement results, but also at correlations between cognitive change and achievement change.

For example, as a child improved cognitive capacities (through the Arrowsmith Program) for reading ability, did he also see the predicted changes in reading achievement, such as word decoding and reading comprehension? Dr. Lancee was able to observe this correlation in support of the Arrowsmith Program.

The Toronto Catholic School Board (TCSB) also studied the effectiveness of the Arrowsmith Program. The TCSB was interested in seeing how Arrowsmith Program students were doing before and after their interventions. Again, the results were supportive of the Arrowsmith Program, dramatically reducing students’ needs for support services. Improvements were observed in achievement, classroom functioning, homework completion and social development.

Behavioural testing has played a significant role in the research methods used to better understand the Arrowsmith Program. Today, neuroscientists are using it to conduct brain imaging on children and adults engaged in the program. The behavioural testing will be analyzed in conjunction with the brain imaging to observe relationships in the data. This is a new development that Arrowsmith-Young is fascinated to participate in.

I recall the first time she observed an image of the brain of a child who had engaged in the Arrowsmith Program for just three months. Dr. Lara Boyd, who is leading the brain imaging study at the University of British Columbia (UBC), asked her if she would like to see what the brain of a child doing one of her cognitive exercises looked like. The excitement and then wonder was evident in Arrowsmith-Young’s eyes as she scanned the image of this child.

Neuroimaging

“Neuroscience is by far the most exciting branch of science because the brain is the most fascinating object in the universe. Every human brain is different – the brain makes each human unique and defines who he or she is.”
Stanley B. Prusiner

“Neuroscience over the next 50 years is going to introduce things that are mind-blowing.”
David Eagleman

Arrowsmith-Young did not have a group of neuroscientists and neuroimaging technology for her research efforts back in the late 70’s when she first developed her program. In fact, these researchers and access to this technology to peer into the brain of a child with a learning disability is only a relatively recent possibility.

Neuroscientists, back then, were not overwhelming supporters of the idea of brain change or neuroplasticity. So for decades Arrowsmith-Young’s work could not seen through neuroimaging. Instead, she used her best insight into neuroscience to determine what areas and systems of the brain were changing based on the tasks involved in her cognitive exercises.

I think it is important to step back a minute, and realize this was a problem for Arrowsmith-Young. She was not part of a university faculty with tenure. She could not therefore conduct her own academic research at a university. Even if she could, no journal in the field of Learning Disabilities or Neuroscience would have published her findings.

I recall a presentation by Dr. Michael Merzenich who discovered neuroplastic brains in monkeys in the late 1960s. He stated that it was such a revolutionary finding in neuroscience that he could not get his own work published at the time. Arrowsmith-Young was alone, on a tiny island of insight, with little support to row her revolutionary ideas into their solid and undeniable community of knowledge in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This isolation continued for decades, and still does.

From 2012 to 2014, with Arrowsmith-Young’s encouragement, excitement and support, I was able to connect with three well-respected neuroscientists: Dr. Brad Hale, Dr. Greg Rose and Dr. Lara Boyd. Dr. Hale has extensive knowledge on learning disabilities and neuroscience, with numerous publications. His most recent position was at the University of Calgary. Dr. Greg Rose is currently the Director of the Center for Integrated Research In Cognitive & Neural Sciences at Southern Illinois University. Dr. Rose is working with Dr. Richard Collins, Director of the Brehm Institute, to study brain change in students engaged at the Arrowsmith Program at the Brehm School. Finally, Dr. Lara Boyd, is a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Neurobiology of Motor Learning, Director of the Brain Behaviour Laboratory, and CIHR Delegate & Health Research Advisor to the VP of Research at UBC. Dr. Boyd and her colleagues are also researching the Arrowsmith Program by conducting behavioural assessments and brain imaging on students at Eaton Arrowsmith Schools in Vancouver, BC, Canada and Redmond, WA, USA.

These neuroscientists are now into their second year of data collection. Control groups have been included in their research designs. For Arrowsmith-Young, this is another step in her research efforts to better understand how the Arrowsmith Program is positively impacting the lives of children and adults with learning disabilities. She is not only keen to see how the brain is engaging in the Arrowsmith Program, but also to receive insights from researchers on how to improve the program.

There is no doubt that even with changes in brain functioning, more and more questions will be raised that will require further research efforts. This is just the beginning. As with any revolutionary idea, new ideas generate from additional observations and data collection, which lead to insights and eventually additional theories. This is what the scientific method means for Arrowsmith-Young. The goal should not be to have the absolute answer, but rather to raise more questions so we can get better at what we do.

In 2015, Dr. Naznin Virji-Babul, Director of the Perception-Action Laboratory at UBC, was asked to research how the Arrowsmith Program might improve the lives of those with traumatic brain injury. A nine-month study was recently completed, with data (behavioural tests and brain imaging) collected at the third, sixth and ninth months. Initial results are promising with improvements noted in both behaviour and brain imaging. Dr. Virji-Babul is busy analyzing the nine month data, but she has already submitted a paper for publication.

Summary

“The transition from a paradigm in crisis to a new one from which a new tradition of normal science can emerge is far from a cumulative process, one achieved by an articulation or extension of the old paradigm. Rather it is a reconstruction of the field from new fundamentals, a reconstruction that changes some of the field’s most elementary theoretical generalizations as well as many of its paradigm methods and applications. During the transition period there will be a large but never complete overlap between the problems that can be solved by the old and by the new paradigm. But there will also be a decisive difference in the modes of solution. When the transition is complete, the profession will have changed its view of the field, its methods, and its goals.”
Thomas Khun, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Arrowsmith Program has been engaged in the scientific method of inquiring for over 40 years. Starting with Arrowsmith-Young’s self-experimentations and eventually moving to neuroimaging, her dedication to her passion for research and discovery is quite evident. She challenges the current learning disability paradigm that clearly states through definition (Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, Learning Disabilities Association of America) that disabilities are life-long. This old paradigm, over time, needs to reconstruct itself with the changes that are being observed in both behavioural and neuroimaging research on children with learning disabilities and, most recently, with adults with traumatic brain injury – all engaged in the Arrowsmith Program.

As Thomas Khun states in the above quote, there is a transition period, and I do believe we have begun this transition. The Arrowsmith Program is now being implemented in over 90 schools in seven countries around the world.

Educators, psychologists, medical doctors and other professionals in the field of learning disabilities are now faced with the question of neuroplasticity and learning disabilities. What is the potential of the brain to change itself for a child diagnosed with a learning disability? Are there important cognitive functions that we currently do not address due to the fact that we have been so focused on achievement and neurology? Do we change the definition of learning disabilities? Do we add cognitive intervention as a recommended approach to helping children and adults with learning disabilities?

One day the transition will be complete, as Thomas Khun, also notes in his above quote. This might not occur in Arrowsmith-Young’s lifetime, and she is well aware of this fact. Though, for now, she has been and will continue to be one of the foremost researchers in the field of learning disabilities for some time to come. She will continue to be challenged, criticized and congratulated by various participants in the learning disability community. This is a sign of the importance of her research. Though, and most importantly, over time the benefits of the Arrowsmith Program to children and adults with learning difficulties will be realized for a wider population. Debate of scientific revolutions often brings about awareness, which will only be a good thing for those suffering from learning difficulties.

“The mental function that causes dyslexia is a gift in the truest sense of the word: a natural ability, a talent. It is something special that enhances the individual.”
Ronald D. Davis, The Gift of Dyslexia

“Curing the negatives does not create the positives.” And so I thought, “That’s certainly true for dyslexia. Just curing the reading problems isn’t sufficient by itself and is often self-defeating. Why don’t we try to find the strengths?”
Rod Nicolson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield and author of Positive Dyslexia

Being Dyslexic

I attended one of the most famous schools for children with dyslexia from 1975 to 1977, The Kildonan School. It was located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania at the time (now in Amenia, New York).

Diana Hanbury King and Kurt Goldman founded the school in 1969 on a beautiful rented campus near the Delaware River in Solebury. I recall strolling through the woods on campus and going for long horseback rides, which were part of the school’s program. I enjoyed exploring the river and skating on the canal that ran parallel to it in the winter.

I was diagnosed with severe developmental dyslexia in 1972 by Dr. Carl L. Kline and his wife, Carolyn (recipients of the Samuel T. Orton Award in 1991). At the age of eight I was given the identification of being dyslexic. At age 11, I was sent to the Kildonan School, one of the only boarding schools for children (boys only at the time) with dyslexia. Fortunately, my parents were able to get financial support from my grandparents and by mortgaging their home.

I can’t remember ever seeing the strengths or gifts of having dyslexia as a young boy. I struggled with written expression due to severe dysgraphia, which was not formally diagnosed at the time as a learning disorder. Reading and spelling were extremely frustrating. Making sound-symbol associations was problematic, and recalling the pronunciation of sight words was nearly impossible. My auditory memory for information was extremely weak as well, so listening to classroom lectures or conversations was difficult. As a result, I appeared quite inattentive at times.

By the time I got to the Kildonan School in September 1975, I had received two years of private Orton-Gillingham Tutoring and was still below grade level in reading, writing and spelling due to the severity of my dyslexia. If I had a gift it was in athletics. I loved sports and excelled in most. Did I see myself as having the visual-spatial gifts so many professionals said people with dyslexia had? No. The idea of the gift of dyslexia was not well discussed at the time.

I spent two years away from my family, who lived in Vancouver. Over that period of time, my parents divorced and my dad moved to Edmonton. My reading, writing and spelling had improved over the two years, but I still had to re-read material and look up words in order to understand what I was reading. My step-mother (my Dad remarried) also had to edit my writing samples.

It was a painful process in so many ways. My neurological weaknesses with visual-motor integration (for printing), auditory memory for information (for listening), and cognitive systems related to conceptual learning (how ideas relate to each other) were still weaknesses. This would result in years of ongoing frustration with learning, and academic failure at the postsecondary level of my studies. Throughout this period of my life, from 1975 to 1989, my dyslexia was not a gift. It was hell!

Before The Arrowsmith Program

“Though children with dyslexia experience difficulties in processing the written language, they are often bright, creative, and talented individuals. Strengths may include mechanical aptitude, artistic ability, musical gifts, and athletic prowess. The dyslexic student may also evidence advanced social skills as well as talents in computer/technology, science, and math.”
Ron Yoshimota, LDOnline 2000

How on earth I finally got my undergraduate degree in Psychology one can only surmise. There were so many factors contributing to my ability to get through my undergraduate days at the University of British Columbia (UBC), including self-determination and self-advocacy, a wonderful girlfriend (and now wife), supportive family, professors, and luck.

I failed and dropped out of university three times. Again, the idea that dyslexia was a gift was laughable to me. Dyslexia resulted in nothing but severe academic hardship. Reading was slow and laborious. Written expression tasks were maddening. Spelling was entertaining to others. My first English paper the professor gave me an F+ and F-. The F+ was for content and the F- was for grammar. Listening and note taking during lectures was exasperating.

Through blood, sweat and tears (well not so much blood) I graduated from UBC. I was then accepted at Boston University to do a graduate degree in Special Education. There is a lot more to this story, but I’m leaving it out in order to get to the main point of the article.

I became aware of the notion of dyslexia as a gift at Boston University. Dr. Paul J. Gerber, of the Medical College of Virginia, was studying adults with learning disabilities to understand how some found vocational success. I was intrigued by his work due to my own learning disabilities (or dyslexia).

He found that adults with learning disabilities who found vocational success had gained control in their lives through internal decisions and external manifestations. One key internal decision they made was to reframe their learning disabilities in a positive light and to see that they had strengths as well as weaknesses. It was a statement based on reality and not heavily weighted towards negative self-perception.

This got me thinking about myself as an adult with a learning disability. At the time, I was working for Dr. Loring Brinckerhoff at the Boston University Learning Support Program. This program was created to help university students with special needs, like learning disabilities, get through their postsecondary experiences. Dr. Brinckerhoff eventually became one of the most well respected academics and professionals in the field of postsecondary education and disabilities. My time with Dr. Brinckerhoff allowed me to work directly with other adults with learning disabilities, and I was able to bring this concept of reframing to their lives.

Dr. Gerber’s research shaped much of my career as a teacher, tutor and assessor of learning disabilities from 1990 to 2004. And for the next 14 years, I focused on helping children and adults with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, reframe their mindsets. The notion of dyslexia as a gift was appealing as a result. As well, dyslexia was hard-wired, a life-long disability so there was no option out of this diagnosis. Since dyslexia had a permanent underlying neurological cause, reframing was an excellent concept in helping children and adults with learning disabilities find vocational success.

For 14 years I advocated that dyslexia was a gift – that there were many successful people with dyslexia and one could use them as role models for children. I recall the statement coming out in the press that more than 50% of NASA employees had dyslexia. I was so excited to hear this fact, that I used it in many of my presentations. I also helped organize conferences for the International Dyslexia Association of British Columbia.

I recall how excited I was to get Thomas West as a keynote speaker, the author of In The Mind`s Eye. The book highlighted the remarkable neurological talents of many dyslexics in the area of visual-spatial thinking and creativity. West’s keynote was uplifting and motivating. I had a keen interest in photography and had always been told I was strong visually, so his words resonated with me. I faced children every day who were struggling in school because of their neurological weaknesses and was determined to bring new awareness into education that these children were also gifted and talented. I didn’t want them to be forgotten; I wanted them to be respected.

Promoting The Gifted Dyslexia Theory

“The brains of individuals with dyslexia aren’t defective; they’re simply different. These wiring differences often lead to special strengths in processing certain kinds of information, and these strengths typically more than make up for the better-known dyslexic challenges. . .We don’t see the reading, spelling, or other academic challenges associated with dyslexia as the result of a ‘disorder’ or a ‘disease.’ Instead, we see these challenges as arising from a different pattern of brain organization – [which predisposes] dyslexic individuals to the development of valuable skills”
Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, Dyslexic Advantage

“Learning to see the positive side can be powerful indeed. Of course, there is still a great deal of work to be done, but it can be focused on increasing strengths rather than decreasing weaknesses. It is urgent at this time to outline the kinds of things that need to be done — to take seriously, at long last, the varied talents and considerable strengths of dyslexics. The time is right. The time is late. The time is long overdue. Those on the front lines — the teachers, tutors, parents, advocates and school psychologists–those who have cared the most, those who have been able to understand when no one else did–unfortunately, they have often done less than they could have done because they have attended to only half of the job. They have too often focused on fixing the problems – and have totally ignored the development of talents. This should change — and we hope that it will change soon.”
Thomas G. West, Author of In the Mind`s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein

I was asked by a former client, and now advocate for individuals with learning disabilities, to be in a calendar. The calendar promoted the gifted dyslexia campaign. This was in 2010. I accepted, but with some regret. Let me explain why.

By this time, I had spent five years working with children and young adults going through the Arrowsmith Program. I was introduced to the Arrowsmith Program in 2002 through a colleague of mine. At this time, we were conducting psycho-educational assessments and writing self-advocacy curriculums for students with learning disabilities. I was intrigued, but skeptical about the idea that the brain could change and had never heard of the term “neuroplasticity”. I believed the brain was fixed – hardwired like a computer.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young, Founder of the Arrowsmith Program, did not agree. She had developed her program in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Toronto. It did not take her too long to receive harsh criticism from established academics and various educational professionals. The notion that children with learning disabilities could improve cognitive functioning was considered outlandish, and still is in some circles of the learning disability community.

But parents came forward and asked me to meet with Barbara in Vancouver. I did so, and was further intrigued, but did not fully appreciate the nature of her work. Barbara’s concepts of treatment for learning disabilities were nowhere in the ballpark of what I considered valid intervention approaches. The divide between our ways of thinking was huge. I also aligned myself with the reasoning that there was nothing wrong with having a learning disability. I even thought it came with talents.

Fortunately, parents who are desperate to find help for their children can bridge paradigms and differences in opinion. They search for additional answers when one approach doesn’t work. Some decided to move to Toronto, so their children could attend Barbara’s school, the Arrowsmith School. I asked these parents to keep me updated because I was intrigued.

My team performed their children’s updated psycho-educational assessments and noticed cognitive (neurological) changes that we had never observed before after a treatment approach for learning disabilities.

Improved cognitive capacities were not a regular finding in updated psycho-educational assessments. My intrigue moved to fascination, and later to my adoption of the Arrowsmith Program at my school, the Eaton Arrowsmith School located on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus.

For years prior to adopting the Arrowsmith Program I told clients it was good to have dyslexia or a learning disability. I would say, “Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.” I told them about famous business people, movie stars, politicians and even writers who had learning disabilities like dyslexia. This mindset was built on the fact that there was no way to improve the neurological weaknesses underlying dyslexia. I told clients that their neurological weaknesses gave them certain strengths that, without dyslexia, they would not have.

To be honest, however, I recall many assessments where I would look at the data and find no cognitive strengths. There were no visual-spatial strengths in many of my clients with dyslexia. Like most individuals, some were good at art, sports or had well-developed social skills. Others showed remarkable visual-spatial abilities, some in the gifted range, but that was not common. Giftedness is a rare diagnosis in the learning disability or dyslexia population just as it is in the general population. Still, I would tell the child that they had talents, and would search and search to find one with them. I knew about the research on adults with learning disabilities who had vocational success, and I was determined to help children reframe their mindsets.

Being in my former client’s calendar as a successful dyslexic, being aware that most dyslexics are not gifted, knowing that many dyslexics are struggling to be employed or attain a high school education due to untreated severe cognitive weaknesses, and realizing that just accepting your dyslexia is not the only way of understanding intervention possibilities, gave me regret.

What Research Really Says

“Although it has been claimed that with dyslexia comes visual-spatial gifts, the evidence relevant to this claim is mixed. Whereas individuals with visual-spatial gifts have a disproportionate incidence of reading deficits, including dyslexia, individuals with dyslexia do not consistently show superior visual-spatial abilities.”
Catya von Károlyi and Ellen Winner, authors of “Dyslexia and Visual Spatial Talents: Are they Connected?” in Volume 25 of the series Neuropsychology and Cognition

“Our studies thus far do not support the popular (and comforting) view of dyslexia as a deficit associated with compensatory visual-spatial talents.”
Ellen Winner, Catya von Karolyi, and Daphna Malinsky, “Dyslexia and Visual-Spatial Talents: No Clear Link

Research on the claim that dyslexics have visual-spatial gifts is mixed. As the quotes above note, some studies show no clear association between dyslexia and visual-spatial talents. In fact, the statistic that over 50% of NASA employees are dyslexic is not true, even though this statistic is still promoted by those who advocate the gifted dyslexic paradigm. NASA confirmed the error on Twitter in 2012. Its Twitter Account, @NASApeople, stated, “@k_5remediation Not True! But, they are super smart.

Mary-Margaret Scholtens, Director of the Alternative Programs Providing Learning Experiences (APPLE) Group, was the originator of this erroneous fact. The APPLE Group, Inc. equips parents, teachers and the community to effectively serve children who learn differently through a proven suite of multi-sensory strategies. It focuses on working with children with dyslexia through the Orton-Gillingham Program – the same program that helped me improve my reading, writing and spelling skills in the mid 70’s.

I am not saying there are no gifted dyslexics. My argument is that there is no research to prove all people with dyslexia are gifted. There are dyslexics in fields or careers that require strengths in visual-spatial ability, but this is not the norm for the population of dyslexics. Yes, there are successful entrepreneurs who are dyslexic, but is this common or just due to the fact that we want to find them and celebrate their achievements?

I understand the reasoning behind the positive or gifted dyslexia paradigm. Give children hope and empower them with a belief in themselves. All good, but this line of reasoning has consequences. One major consequence is people believing that neurological deficits shouldn’t be addressed if dyslexia is a good diagnosis. Why change the brain of individuals with dyslexia if gifts and positives abound? This question was actually posted on a Vancouver Sun blog about the Arrowsmith Program. The comment stated, “Why change me. I like being dyslexic and gifts it comes with.”

It is clear that one dyslexic is very different from another. Yes, there is the underlying reading disorder, usually impacting spelling and written expression (expressive and receptive language). When I say there is a lot of variation in dyslexia, what I mean is in relation to a broad range of cognitive functions that support reasoning, executive functioning, social awareness, memory, and more.

The general population and the field of learning disabilities has little to say in terms of understanding intervention methods that do not involve compensation or bypass strategies. For example, how can we help a child who struggles to understand concepts, or who finds listening and recalling classroom discussions and lectures difficult?

Programs like Orton-Gillingham can help with reading, spelling and writing development, but how about the non-responders or those who have multiple cognitive weaknesses? What do we do for those who do not improve significantly using Orton-Gillingham? Cognitive intervention programs likes the Arrowsmith Program can be supportive of these non-responders and even help them respond more quickly.

The gifted dyslexia paradigm has shaped the line of thinking of many educators, schools for children with dyslexia, parents, and people with this diagnosis. It has helped these individuals find hope, see strengths in themselves and move forward. Nevertheless, it is also resulting in apprehension about the idea of improving the brain of those who have dyslexia, or learning disabilities in general. I have had parents who have actually asked, “Will the Arrowsmith Program eliminate the strengths my child has in his learning profile?”

Improving Neurological Causes of Dyslexia Is Possible and Important

“It is possible to treat learning disabilities by identifying and strengthening cognitive functions.”
Barbara Arrowsmith Young, founder of the Arrowsmith Program

Is there another way to look at dyslexia that takes into account that some individuals have gifts, but many don’t and are suffering due to their neurological weaknesses? It is critical to not outright accept the gifted dyslexia paradigm without deep review and contemplation. If we do this, we see that the paradigm is not entirely true and should be challenged. This then opens the mind to determining ways we can address the underlying cognitive weaknesses that result in significant learning and social challenges documented in many decades of research.

Prior to awareness about neuroplasticity and cognitive intervention, dyslexia was considered a life-long disability. Children and adults with dyslexia therefore needed to reframe their self-perception of disability, focus on their strengths, accept their neurological weaknesses, and be realistic about academic attainment and vocational choices (can I do a degree in Mathematics and become a high school math teacher due to my Dyscalculia?).

Neuroplasticity and cognitive intervention, such as the Arrowsmith Program, has dramatically reconfigured this previous paradigm. Now the paradigm should be, if the child or adult improves the underlying neurological weaknesses of his or her dyslexia or learning disabilities, what academic journey and vocational options are possible that were not before? Do I need to be dyslexic for the rest of my life?

This is what I am seeing as I work with families and their children at Eaton Arrowsmith schools in Vancouver, BC, and Redmond, Washington. Children and adults improve neurological capacities that, in turn, provide new opportunities for learning that were never before imagined.

It is extremely challenging to change a paradigm. I know because I was once in the previous paradigm of life-long dyslexia. I lived it. I breathed it. I was it. Now I watch my professional colleagues, whether at the academic university level, or running schools for dyslexia, or testing for learning disabilities, consider cognitive intervention and the impact it can have on the lives of those with learning challenges whether academic or social.

Some can’t change, and write articles on famous dyslexics, or write-up assessments on how one can use learning strategies and compensations to bypass neurological deficits. It is frustrating to observe, as I know what is possible with brain change. Neurological weaknesses are not always for life. Once we embrace that paradigm in education, the lives of individuals with dyslexia and other learning disabilities will benefit greatly.

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April 2017

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