LIVING WITH A LEARNING DISORDER
Being Diagnosed with NLD: In 2005 I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and told that I was ‘textbook NLD’. I’d never heard of NLD before so I had to educate myself about the condition. Nonverbal Learning Disorder is an invisible learning disability that can affect every aspect of your life and in my case translates that I don’t learn by reading. It’s kind of like dyslexia on steroids.
Growing Up With NLD: I never really understood why I didn’t seem to ‘get it’ like the other kids. I was bullied, taunted, and ridiculed – even by the teachers – told that I was stupid and I believed it. I wanted desperately to learn but the lessons all came in the form of written text and being a student who didn’t learn by reading I didn’t stand a chance. I was labelled dumb, lazy, and ignorant by people who didn’t realize I had a learning disability. Consequently I lost all interest in school and I had to learn how to teach myself.
Living With NLD: Reading for me, is a necessary evil. I love stories, poetry, and learning new things but I have to limit my reading and pace myself or I can actually become physically ill. If I push myself too hard and become overtired, overworked, or over-stressed, my eyes simply refuse to read and the words swim around on the page like so many fish. I might as well be trying to decipher hieroglyphics.
Learning How To Learn: After my diagnosis in 2005 I enrolled in a college course designed for people with a learning disability and learned the value of something called ‘chunking’. Chunking is basically stopping and pausing at regular intervals during a learning session to allow my brain time to process new information and avoid becoming overwhelmed by information-overload.
Tips n Tricks: When I began my journey as a writer I didn’t own a computer so I had to find ways to be creative. Creative ideas often came at me faster than I could keep up so I would scribble them on a piece of paper and then cut the paper into strips and put them on the floor. Then I would sit on the floor and move them around until I got them where I wanted them to be and tape them back together again. That was my word processer. I had no idea I had a learning disability.
Over the years I have discovered many coping tools that enable me to work and learn more effectively. For instance – because my comprehension is limited when dealing with printed text and I learn primarily by hearing, I turn off all external sounds when studying and often read aloud. Part of the Gift of NLD is having a remarkable auditory memory. If I can hear it I can remember it.
Other accommodations include putting colourful icons on the folders on my computer to easily identify them and employing the use of underlining, bolding, and highlighting on various documents in order to target and identify specific areas.
In my quest to create an optimal learning environment I also include use of the acronym H.A.L.T. which reminds me not to get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired and I have learned the value of being open and candid about my disability and asking for an accommodation when necessary. Something as simple as asking for a pen to write something down can make all the difference.
Becoming a Storyteller: I began my journey as a storyteller by scribbling ideas on the back of a light bill many years ago and later went on to become the first poet laureate of the Yukon and Canada’s first invested laureate. Although it was a tremendous honour to be granted that distinction I recall feeling a bit self-conscious because I was not particularly well-read or widely published. It wasn’t until I was finally diagnosed with a learning disorder that I began to understand and accept the validity of my own unique approach as an artist.
Looking Back: It’s amazing what can happen when a person with a disability is given a little encouragement. Eleanor Frederickson, who was the instructor of the course I took many years ago, made the class fun and informative and inspired me to continue to learn on my own terms. I enjoyed the course tremendously and passed with flying colours.
The good part about being diagnosed with a learning disability in 2005 was being told that I wasn’t stupid – far from it. People who have a learning disability have to work much harder and I advise people who have a learning challenge to rise above the stigma and not to allow the condition to define who they are. The way I see it I'm not handicapped. I’m handi-capable.
Today: As poet laureate I have been invited to attend various events around the world and to serve as a mentor in schools throughout Canada and the Yukon. My poems, stories, and songs have been translated into several languages and published internationally. The majority of my creative works are written in lower case with little or no punctuation and are most often shared in the traditional oral storytelling style. And I am still learning how to learn.
©pj johnson Poet Laureate of the Yukon
January 3, 2021
In 2013 I wrote the following narrative chronicling my journey as a person living with Nonverbal Learning Disorder.
This Is How I Read
When confronted with a block of text most people instinctively begin to read. I don’t. I actually have to remind myself to read and even then comprehension is not guaranteed. In fact as I type these words onto my computer it’s a chore for me to discern what I have just written. Perhaps that explains why my creative works are most often published by virtue of live performance rather than in print and I refer to myself as a storyteller rather than a writer.
For years I wondered why I would get massive headaches when trying to study. Why did the words seem to swim around on the page like so many fish? Why couldn’t I read at all when there were noisy distractions? Perhaps I was dyslexic.
Somehow I managed to experience much of my life without ever realizing I had a condition called Non-verbal Learning Disorder (or NLD) until I was finally diagnosed with it in 2005 and came to understand that I simply do not learn by reading. I learn by hearing.
That lady pulling on the PUSH door? That’s me. The gal who finally notices what’s written on the front of the T-shirt she’s been wearing for three years? That’s me too. The one who buys three bottles of shampoo that she thought was conditioner? The one who walks into a library and suddenly feels dizzy? I’m her.
Yes I’m that girl – the one who often feels left out in a world full of books; the one who has a quick and curious mind that hungers for knowledge but knows she will never own a Kindle and often wonders what all the hype is about over the latest best-seller. Yes I’m the girl who fears being put into any situation where she will be required to read aloud but is secretly grateful to be blessed with an amazing ability to memorize information so that she can usually fake it on those rare occasions when reading aloud is unavoidable.
I’m the girl who’s been diagnosed with a visual learning challenge and told that it’s not about her IQ - she’s good there - it’s about her brain and how it processes things differently. What she has is the 'Gift of NLD’ and there are many others just like her.
You can’t tell by looking at her because her disability is invisible, but she can hear a piece of music for the first time and instantly sit down and play it; she has radar hearing that would amaze a dog; she often lives in the right side of her brain where all things creative tend to flourish; and despite many failed attempts to learn in a formal setting she has somehow managed to become her own best teacher.
The term Learning Disorder often gets translated as 'not too bright' when in fact the opposite is often true. People with NLD are often accused of being lazy, rude, uncooperative, and worse when nothing could be farther from the truth. They are often hardworking, persistent, goal-oriented, and incredibly honest. People who have learning disabilities have to try harder. They face daily challenges that others often fail to recognize, they are often judged unfairly, and their needs are seldom accommodated.
The fact is, not everyone processes information in the same way. I know this because I am one of those people. I’m that girl - the one with the learning disorder. I personally don’t care for the term ‘learning disorder’. I often think – if only the rest of the world learned the way I do life would be so much easier. But despite my personal challenge I am a champion of literacy for it is the door to knowledge, learning, and empowerment for most people in today’s modern world.
As for me, although I may never read you a story I will tell you one. Perhaps next time you hear of someone who has a learning disability you will look at them with new eyes. Perhaps that someone will be me.