Learning disabilities as a mountain

I view nonverbal learning disability (NLD) (or any disability) as a mountain between where we are and where we want to be. Some mountains are small, some are huge; some feature gentle slopes, others have vertical cliffs. In any case, there are four things you can do when confronted with a mountain in your path. You can give up, you can dig through the mountain, you can go over the mountain, or you can go around the mountain. Although each of these has its place, I think the last could be used a lot more; in this post, I describe these alternatives and give some ways to use each of them.

Problems specific to nonverbal learning disability

In future posts, I will will describe what it’s like, for me, to have nonverbal learning disabilities, and  how I’ve come to deal with it.  Today’s post is an introduction to ways of coping with some specific problems that learning disabilities impose; it may be more generally useful. I hope so. In future posts, I will get into some specific areas, such as
1. Socialization
2. Sensory overload
3. Academics
4. Organization and visual spatial problems
5. Zero-order skills

In each of those, I will use the mountain analogy; but here, I will explain the analogy a bit more.

Giving up on getting to the other side of the LD mountain

At one level, this is the easiest choice. You simply say “I didn’t really want to go there”. I didn’t really want to have friends, learn to write, be able to light a match, know what’s going on in class, go on dates…. Whatever the issue is. It’s a natural first reaction. Unfortunately, it’s usually an ineffective one. Not always. But, usually, it fails because you really did, and do, want what is on the other side. But giving up isn’t always wrong. Whether you are neurotypical or learning disabled, or disabled in some other way, there are some things you will never be able to do. If you are 5’7″ and uncoordinated, you will never play basketball in the NBA.

Often, though, you can modify your goal instead of giving up; and, as I will show below, sometimes you needn’t even modify your goal.

Going through the learning disability mountain

Neurotypical people, even well-meaning NT people, often suggest this. By ‘going through the mountain’ I mean simply trying harder. How many times did I hear “Peter did well but would do better if he applied himself?” It always made me want to apply my fist to a face (mine or the person saying it). It took a long time for me to realize something: NT people don’t see the mountain. So, if you’re NT, try this.

Visualize yourself in a large lecture hall, alone. Other people in the hall are talking to each other, but you know no one. The hall darkens, a spotlight comes on the stage, and the lecturer comes in.

He points at you. Right at you; then he says “YOU! What’s the last book you read that started with the word ‘the’?”. You’re flummoxed. You’re silent. You’re embarrassed. Other people in the hall look at you; some are tittering a little. The lecturer says “What’s the MATTER with you? Don’t you READ?” Well, yes, you read. But a book starting with ‘the’???? You hear other people whispering to each other “he must be stupid”.

Well? Try harder! Come on! Go through the mountain!

Going over the learning disability mountain

By this, I mean, rather than more effort that we are told to spend more time on a problem. We should study longer than people without LD. Or we should spend more time trying to make a bed, or clean the dishes, or what-have-you. This one can be useful, if you have the time. And this one is the basis of the accommodation in a lot of classes of giving LD kids more time on tests. It can work. But, when you get to a job interview and tell your potential boss that you will need extra time to do everything ….. well, it’s not what he wants to hear! And, if you are taking longer to do a lot of things, when do you get a chance to relax? Or are we just not supposed to need down time?

Again, NT people don’t see the mountain.

Going around the LD mountain

This one is almost never suggested by NT people. Remember, they are handicapped. They don’t see the mountain, so how do they know you need to go around it? But we know where the mountain is. And we can, often find ways around it. I have to illustrate this with examples.

If I am walking and go into a store or other building, when I come out, I have no idea where I am or which way I was headed. I could just forget about getting home, or wherever I wanted to go, but that’s got obvious problems. I could try to go through the mountain by trying harder to remember – but that’s like telling a blind person to see harder. I could spend time getting lost, and eventually find my way. Or ….

I could say to myself, as I enter the building “Go left when you leave”. That works for me.

I have never figured out how to light a match. I could, in this case, just forget it. I don’t really need to light matches. I could try harder, and burn myself repeatedly. I could take a very long time to start the fire. Or….. I could buy a butane lighter. That works for me.


  1. Elizabeth Schiff says

    Really interesting article with great analogies.

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