By Cutler Andrews , Jodie Dawson, Psy.D.
SchwabLearning.org recently talked with Cutler Andrews, a young man who shared his thoughts, feelings, and experiences about growing up with a learning disability (LD). He discusses the strategies that helped him succeed, and he offers words of wisdom to other kids with LD - and their parents.
SchwabLearning.org asks: When did you first notice you were having problems in school?
A: I was identified with a learning disability (LD) around first grade, but it didn't fully click for me until much later. My Montessori teachers never made me feel I was different or had a problem. They always focused on what I was good at.
It wasn't until 4th grade, when I transferred to a Catholic school, that I felt extremely different. My spelling was terrible. I was in the lowest reading group. I had to leave class several times a week to get extra help with my reading.
Q: What type of learning disability do you have?
A: It's called a cognitive processing disorder in reading. I can read a whole chapter and not remember anything. I see the words, but they don't have any meaning.
Q: How did other kids treat you?
A: I always had to get up in front of the class and leave to get extra help. Being different was the last thing I wanted to be when I was younger. Kids always asked where I was going. I would make so many excuses to avoid the questions. Every week was a different excuse.
I remember sitting with my reading teacher and being terrified that another student would walk in and see me. I would listen to jokes about LD from other students and even teachers and I just had to laugh along with everyone else because I didn't want to stick out and have people discover my secret.
Q: How was your learning disability explained to you when you were younger?
A: No one really explained it to me, but, even if they did, I don't think I would have listened because I really hated it. The psychologist and teacher just talked to my parents, not to me. Then they told me what I needed to do.
Q: What did you find frustrating about having an LD?
A: Being in the low reading group made me feel I wasn't as intelligent as the kids in the top reading group. There was no movement between groups. It took me 2 years and a lot of self-advocacy to move to the next group.
My teachers didn't expect as much from me because they assumed I couldn't do as well as other students. I wasn't encouraged as much as other kids.
Also, my parents didn't expect as much from me as from my sister who was a straight A student. If she got a B, they would be disappointed but, if I came home with a B, no one said a word. My parents are great but they didn't have a manual on how to raise a kid with a LD. They did the best they could.
Q: What would have been helpful to you when you were younger?
A: If I had had other kids my age to talk to, or a mentor who had been through it, I wouldn't have felt so alone. I needed someone who wasn't a psychologist or a teacher or a parent. Because I didn't talk with anyone it wasn't until I gave a speech about my learning disability at high school graduation that everyone finally knew.
I wish I had been more active in correcting misinformation and educating others about learning disabilities. Now I think I'm a better advocate for myself, but I would like to really promote self-advocacy for all students.
Q: What have you learned about yourself and LD?
A: I never really fully understood my learning disability until college, but I still have a hard time and sometimes feel like I don't understand it at all. I have to keep going back to the evaluation report, especially when I'm feeling dumb. I'm never sure if something is hard because I lack the intelligence to do it or because of my learning disability.
When I was in high school, I was at the top of my class and my teachers didn't believe that I really had a learning disability. This became a hassle because they hadn't been exposed to students like me who, despite their learning disability, excelled in school. They would say things like, "Do you really need extra time for your test?" They just didn't believe me.
College has really made me realize the impact of my LD. Reading is much more important now. Readings aren't covered in class, and it takes me so long to read and absorb the information. I read an average of 130 words per minute whereas the average person probably reads 300. Then, on top of that, I only understand about half of what I read.
Q: What types of strategies do you find useful?
A: When I was younger, my strategies were terrible. I would lock myself in my room from 3 pm until midnight, and memorize my notes at the expense of not spending time with friends or family. I now realize I have to be inventive and creative with learning strategies. I'm actually learning now, rather than trying to get good grades. Grades are nice, but it's really the active process of learning I focus on.
I have good time management strategies. I have a Personal Digital Assistant that keeps track of everything in a given day including breaks, meals, and study time. I schedule more time for tasks than I need so I won't get behind.
I also have a system for note-taking. I use a double-column legal pad. I take notes in one column and summarize key points in the other. I pick up little tricks here and there and then constantly tweak the strategies as I learn more. It takes time and patience.
Q: What advice do you have for younger kids?
A:Talk to your parents, and let them know how you feel. This is easier said than done, but you should use your parents as resources. If you need to talk to other people, let your parents know so they can help you find others with similar difficulties. It's important to have one person you feel comfortable with who is not a parent or a psychologist. Once I stopped hiding and told one friend about it, I felt a huge sense of relief.
Q: What advice do you have for parents?
A: I'm leery about giving advice to others because all situations are different, but I'd tell parents to take an active role in their child's learning and life. Really listen to his needs and wishes, and congratulate him on what he's doing well.
Don't impose your own dreams on your child. Set expectations in line with his goals and expectations for himself. Understand his motivation and values and encourage his success, as he defines it. Parents have to look at the whole picture and find a good balance.