By Howard Eaton
Knowledge about learning disabilities and the effects they had on an individual’s personality in the early 1960’s was much different than it is today.
Few psychiatrists and psychologists were aware of dyslexia or reading disorders. Children were tested using standard IQ assessments and found to be of average or above average intelligence. At the time, it was reasoned that a mysterious brain-based cause prevented some individuals from being able to decipher the code of the English language.
This cause frustrated parents in Canada and the U.S. who decided to host their own meetings to discuss their frustrations and dreams. Eventually, momentum was gathered and non-profit associations, such as the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada and the Learning Disabilities Association of America, were formed as advocacy groups for these parents and their children.
Over the last half-century advocacy efforts focused on reading (and of course, spelling and writing) frustrations of children with learning disabilities.
In addition to learning disabilities associations, non-profit organizations for dyslexia developed around North America. Money from government sources also fed into universities to study reading failure in children. Advocacy groups used this research to help formulate action plans to address educational policy at the government level that would drive appropriate reading instruction in schools across the United States.
In Canada, similar efforts have launched with both success and failure. Overall, the literature is rich in reading research and recommendations for children with this type of learning disability.
Parents initially formed organizations and associations due to fear that their children would have limited academic and employment success without reading skills. These parents also recognized – often due to their own dyslexia experiences – that school failure was associated with a variety of negative emotional experiences such as anxiety, panic disorders, depression and phobias. So, in some cases, parents had experienced the same emotional impact of school failure and were determined not to let this happen to their children.
Eventually, academics and other professionals started forming their own organizations, events, and conferences on reading disabilities and/or dyslexia.
Today, there are hundreds of private schools for dyslexia in North America, and monthly conferences covering topics that range from phonetic intervention methods to counseling children with reading disabilities.
Dyslexia interventions past – 1970s treatments
My parents were part of this history. When I was diagnosed with dyslexia in 1969, I was living in Vancouver, BC. My parents realized their son, Howie, was not developing awareness for the alphabet or the sounds that correspond to letters or patterns of letters. This problem continued into early
elementary school By 1971/72 I was formally diagnosed with severe developmental dyslexia. My mother, Elaine, got involved in non-profit associations and even flew to Boston to attend a conference on dyslexia.
I was feeling the full emotional impact of my reading failure by grade five. My parents recall a discussion I had with them in our living room. I was quite sincere in explaining to them how I was going to pile bricks on my chest in the bathtub so I could drown. You can see the emotional decline in my face and body posture just by looking at my yearly school pictures. My reading disability was impacting my emotional state and in short, my entire personality. I was suicidal, anxious and depressed at age 10.
I eventually learned to read, spell and write. It’s true, this article was not composed by anyone else. I was one of the fortunate children with dyslexia in the early 70’s who got intensive Orton-Gillingham intervention to learn how to read. I even attended the best private school for boys (no girls at that time attended) with dyslexia in the world, The Kildonan School, located at that time in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. But, was learning to read more effectively enough to solve my developed anxiety? Did all those frustrations, fears and worries have an impact on my personality? What drives my personality today? What shapes who I am both to myself and to others?
These questions absolutely fascinate me. This fascination led me to do a degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia. I also wanted to help children with learning disabilities. So, after my undergraduate degree, I decided to go to graduate school at Boston University and earn a master’s degree in special education. My understanding of learning disabilities was shaped by my own experience with dyslexia, my professors, my colleagues and various books on the subject.
By 2004, at the age of 40, I was set in my ways and felt the field of learning disabilities (including the topic of dyslexia) was well understood. I had my own clinical practice testing children and adults for learning difficulties and providing solutions to their issues by referring my clients to different professionals in my community.
At this time, I did not fully understand the genetic and neurological systems that can influence personality. My focus was on making sure I diagnosed the correct disability and recommended the best intervention. My focus was driven by the field of learning disabilities, which emphasizes reading, written expression and math disorders/disabilities.
Personality and learning disabilities
The impact of these disabilities on personality, or why children with learning disabilities struggle with social understanding or interpretation has received less attention. This is especially true when looking at research that tries to understand the neurological systems responsible for personality development of children with learning disabilities.
Personality is defined as the characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character. Given this definition, I believe my unhappy personality as a child was caused entirely by my reading failure. This is how I interpreted personality in the children that I was observing as a professional working in the field at the time. Improve reading and improve personality. Easy, really!
Well, not so easy. In November and December of 2004 my understanding of personality and learning disabilities made a dramatic paradigm shift. My clients introduced me to the work of Barbara Arrowsmith Young. I won’t go into detail about how she started to develop her cognitive intervention methodology in the late 70’s and early 80’s that eventually became the Arrowsmith Program, as it is well documented in her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: And Other Inspiring Stories of Pioneering Brain Transformation. But I do want to highlight that she was the first in the field to state that children with learning disabilities can change neurological functioning – that their brains are neuroplastic.
In short, learning disabilities do not have to be life-long if one tries to improve the underlying neurological weaknesses that cause the behaviours we assess to determine the diagnosis. As well, during her early experimental/intervention phase, she noticed that achievement skills, as well as attention, reasoning, memory and social awareness abilities improved. Arrowsmith Young started to theorize that changing the underlying neurological systems needed for academic success could also alter personality. If one could understand the world better through improved organization, planning and reasoning (to name a few neurological systems related to personality development) then one could experience a shift in personality.
For example, a person could go from being unhappy and disorganized to confident and determined.
Cognitive change and personality change
The Arrowsmith Program has a number of cognitive exercises that can shift personality in dramatic ways. It can help children struggling with reading, writing and math, but it can also directly improve how an individual observes the world and, therefore, influence personality development. Another way to put this is that the Arrowsmith Program can address intellect, and it can assist in how well we can understand ourselves and the world.
Here’s one example of how the Arrowsmith Program accomplishes this goal.
The Symbolic Relations program is one of the first cognitive intervention exercises that Barbara developed in Toronto in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The Symbol Relations program focuses on developing reasoning or cause and effect thinking. It’s called the Clocks Exercise at the various schools around the world that use the Arrowsmith Program. By determining the relationship between different hands on a clock, children begin to reshape their brains and, over time, begin to understand relationships with more clarity – especially relationships with multiple concepts.
Barbara Arrowsmith Young often recounts her story of developing this cognitive exercise and seeing the impact it had on her ability to understand the show 60 Minutes of television. Prior to doing this cognitive exercise, she found it frustrating to follow the concepts being introduced by the moderator. She would have to ask clarifying questions to those watching the program with her. After months of working on the Clocks Exercise, she was able to see these social or factual relationships without needing clarification.
Imagine a world where you need constant clarification about the social events around you. What kind of personality would develop? What if you can change that neurological system (as the Arrowsmith Program does)? What impact does that have on personality development?
There are other cognitive exercises in the Arrowsmith Program that can shift personality development. I recommend looking at the Arrowsmith Program website for more insights.
The Arrowsmith Program can improve reading, writing, spelling and math. And yes, that can result in a happier child, but what I am saying is that there is more that can be done in supporting personality development beyond improving achievement skills. By addressing neurological systems involved in attention, executive functioning, reasoning and social awareness/interpretation, many negative personality traits and their varying degrees of severity can also be reduced. This is what the Arrowsmith Program attempts to do with each child and adult engaged in its cognitive exercises.
Imagine your child improving their neurological capability of interpreting social rules and norms, of being capable of visually observing pragmatic nuances or being able to grasp the essential idea when presented with a social story to interpret quickly at school or work. This is the type of intervention the Arrowsmith Program is able to provide for families with children with learning disabilities.
Today, at age 51, I have developed a greater awareness of the brain’s ability to change. I am grateful to Barbara Arrowsmith Young for her remarkable insight – not only into reading, written expression and math disorder, but also into how our personalities are shaped. She developed these theories more than 30 years ago and now research is catching up to her. She credits other pioneers, such as Alexandra Luria (Russian Neuropsychologist and Developmental Psychologist) and Mark Rosenzweig (Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley), as providing the foundation for her ideas in cognitive intervention for children and adults with learning disabilities.
Currently, researchers such as Colin DeYoung, Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, are working on a growing field of Personality Neuroscience. As Arrowsmith Young predicted, these researchers are discovering key neurological systems associated with specific personality traits. Arrowsmith Young has not only predicted this discovery, but also developed a way to intervene and reduce life suffering. We can now address intellectual issues and address personality in ways that can transform lives for the better.
Somehow our society has formed a one-sided view of the human personality, and for some reason everyone understood giftedness and talent only as it applied to the intellect. But it is possible not only to be talented in one’s thoughts but also to be talented in one’s feelings as well.
We continue to shape our personality all our life. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die.
We should take care not to make intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.
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