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.”
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.”
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 (EA Adults) 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 EA Adults’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.
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.”
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 EA Adults 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 EA Adults.
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.
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.
EA Adults 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.”
But EA Adults 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.
Harley noticed some pretty significant changes after his first semester at EA Adults. For example, when he returned from winter break, he decided to join an improv class – something he would have never done before EA Adults 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 EA Adults 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 EA Adults,” 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.
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