Learning difficulties – but there is hope

To continue on with the emotional issues and learning difficulties…

Norman Doidge began to see that some of the emotional issues that he, as a psychiatrist, was dealing with were the direct result of learning disabilities.  And I quote (again)..

I saw people getting better cognitively with the Arrowsmith exercises, and I saw children, young people who had always desperately wanted to learn, suddenly able to become avid readers and enjoy the learning that they had always longed for. I also saw, as I was never able to see before, the absolute devastation, emotionally, that their learning difficulties had caused them. Why could I not see it before? Because they were so trapped in the present, in the talking about the unfinished essay, trapped in avoidant behaviours, trapped in oppositional behaviour. All of which I began to realise weren’t primary, but were secondary defence mechanisms covering over their cognitive tragedies.

I also saw that as they improved cognitively, the emotional damage of the learning disorders didn’t go away immediately. They enjoyed the present, but their sense of confidence was often still haunted by years of thinking of themselves as stupid or lazy. And so, ironically, it was back to doing psychotherapeutic work – to help them understand what they had been through. Once they were liberated from their cognitive deficits, they could go back and deal with other garden-variety psychotherapeutic issues and make progress at times much more quickly.

It still makes me very sad to think about the effects of these learning disorders. And this is a side effect of plasticity. This is a kind of overlearned behaviour (the negative view of self resulting from one’s experience s living with cognitive deficits), plastically wired into their brains that is not so easy to get rid of, which is why anyone who thinks this question through with any level of profundity, realises that plasticity isn’t simply our friend. It’s a property of the human brain and it can give rise to things we like or loathe.

A child with a learning disability can be told innumerable times that she is competent, but who can blame her for not believing it when her own experience flies in the face of that encouragement? (Oh, this sounds all too familiar to me with a he (Simon) rather than a she) This is why I feel so strongly about addressing there cognitive changes as early as possible (if only we had known earlier) so that a person can have a positive experience as a learner and develop a healthy self- concept based on real competence.

The stigma associated with having a learning difficulty will ease when we all understand that we can accomplish what was once though impossible: we can change, fundamentally and profoundly, our capacity to learn.

So, there you have it, the psychiatrists view of the impact of learning disabilities, ultimately hopeful but not an easy road to tread. But tomorrow I shall tell of Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s vision.


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