Casa Loma, the 35th anniversary party for Arrowsmith and it is good to be home!

It is just over a week since I have been home. Whilst we have been having sweltering days, my first day home was a record breaking 41C, there have been snow flurries in Peterborough, though Simon says it is not too cold yet as most days are over zero degrees Centrigrade. How quickly we adapt! We would have thought that was freezing (literally, ha ha!) in our first winter in Canada.

Lucky me, I have enjoyed long lunches with friends, dinner with friends, sailing on the harbour, meeting up with my writing group, lunch with Emma and her friends, they have all grown into such lovely young women, a 50th birthday dancing the night away, long walks with Rusty through Balmain and going on the People’s Climate Change March. What a mix! It has been fun and this week holds more of the same for me, and into the mix is finding time to write as I plough on with Simon’s story which is slowly taking shape.

Simon is looking forward to coming home, his brain needs a break he says! He is working hard to try to master 6 handed clocks before he comes home, but he seems not to be too desperate, which is a good thing, as with desperation can come disappointment, should he not master. His time is decreasing and he is doing extra homework to help as he asked Matt what he could do to improve his time, showing great initiative. More of that and his academics in another post another day.

As I wrote the other day, we had the opportunity to meet Barbara Arrowsmith Young at the party to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Arrowsmith school. A bus was arranged from Peterborough which was a very relaxed way to travel down the 401 expressway rather than the somewhat fraught drive – I don’t think I will ever get used to driving in 12 lanes of traffic! We dressed in our finery and the students who were over 18, the parents who were able to go and all the Arrowsmith teachers piled onto the bus, the bus was full of chatter until the driver announced he didn’t know where he was going as we sped along the 401!  Jill took charge, as ever, and steered him right to the door where upon Simon announced “I’m home!”. And he was right at home, the castle reminding him of Hogwarts, comfortable in his colourful shirt and red trousers, he is his father’s son in that regard, mingling  and chatting! The party was held at Casa Loma, the only castle in North America, all decked out for Christmas so looking more beautiful than grand.

The atmosphere was one of great celebration, so much love in that room, for Barbara and for all the Arrowsmith staff. We parents have much to be thankful for, our children’s lives transforming before our eyes. There were speeches and we all got teary as a father spoke movingly of his daughter’s life before and after Arrowsmith, she who wasn’t expected to finish high school and who couldn’t cross the road safely is now planning a round the world trip having finished a university course.  Simon raising his eyebrows at me as I got out my hanky. The teachers and staff from the Toronto Arrowsmith school talked of their favourite Arrowsmith moments – too hard to pick as there were so many. I particularly loved the talk by the cognitive teacher who said that while there were many moments in the classroom it was the emails, letter and phone calls sometimes long after the students had left the programme that were her favourite moments – the call or email to say I have just met the man who I am going to marry, I have got into Med School, I have passed my driving test, I have moved into my own apartment, I am going on a backpacking trip by myself, I have cleaned out my closet and tomorrow I am going to clean out another one – all these attesting to things these students could not have done before they undertook the Arrowsmith programme, all manner of things which most people take for granted and which they expect. How thrilling it was to hear how much these students have achieved, and how their participation has allowed them to dare to dream, just as Barbara hoped it would.

Howard Eaton was there from Vancouver, now with 5 Eaton Arrowsmith schools and the Director of Research, research which is proving that there are permanent brain changes, increased lighting up within specific areas of the brain related to specific cognitive improvement exercises. The rats, who inspired Barbara, whose brains grew in a stimulating environment aren’t the only ones! Arrowsmith students brains grow too!

Barbara talked about the prospects for Arrowsmith, strategic directions that are being forged that will allow more students to access the programme. There is so much hope and excitement for the future where increasing numbers of students will be able to realise their potential.

After the talks it was time to head back up the 401 but not before we had a chance to be introduced to Barbara and I thanked her for her life’s work which was changing Simon’s life, and a quick photo.  It was too quick because there were so many other parents waiting for their chance to say their thankyous too. A quick thank you does not seem enough.

I was re-reading the article where I first read in some depth of Barbara’s work. At the end of the article, having described Barbara’s struggle in early life and how she devised the exercises which allowed her to overcome her learning difficulties, Janet Hawley writes

“I put it to Arrowsmith Young that her life sounds a bit like Sleeping Beauty waking up after being kissed by the Prince.

“Yes” she replies with a soft laugh, “but I was my own prince”.

Barbara’s work has allowed all the Arrowsmith students to be their own prince too.




Writing 101 – day 7 and more


Writing 101 - day 7 and more

Write a post based on the contrast between two things — whether people, objects, emotions, places, or something else.
AGH! This is the challenge for today – and the twist is to write it as dialogue. I have come to the sad conclusion that I must have no imagination since I have been thinking about this all afternoon, looking for things to write about. Life and death came to mind, and then the remark of one of my friends popped into my head “Not another bloody story with Death as the narrator, I can’t stand it!”. I was horrified as she was describing “The Book Thief”, one of the most moving books I have read recently so…. no, not life and death and besides during my musings I came to the conclusion that life and death have a remarkable number of similarities – I suppose that could go into the compare part. Anyway, I digress.. must get on with the challenge in hand!
I just explained to Simon my problem with writing this blog as he spotted me nipping back to my emails and onto facebook!
“Well, you could use me” he said. He gave me an idea but it still doesn’t entirely fulfil the brief – just can’t do the dialogue thing but here is my comparison and contrast between the Arrowsmith programme and other programmes for children with learning difficulties.

Take a student with learning difficulties, put them in an inspiring environment, give them an individual programme (at which they have to work extremely hard) which gives them the means to overcome their learning difficulties, give them specific exercises which stimulate neuronal growth (based on the science of neuroplasticity), give them the encouragement, emotional and psychological support they need to get them through the difficult patches, give them the knowledge that the gains they make are because of their own hard work, give them the confidence to tackle difficult tasks and you will see growth and this is what it looks like:
a sparkle in their eyes, a belief in their dreams, a skip in their step, a confidence in their voice, more choice to do what they want, more ability to state what they want, or don’t want, more freedom to be who they want.
Take a student with learning difficulties, put them in a hostile environment, try to compensate for those difficulties but don’t resolve the difficulties (albeit sometimes with the best intentions) taunt them, bully them, lower their self esteem and this is what it looks like:
head down, no eye contact, no belief in themselves, no hope fortheir future, a greatly increased risk of mental health issues, health issues, relationship difficulties, greater risk of unemployment,
The question remains when will there be a paradigm shift in conventional education to allow for the fact that the brain can be changed, that neuroplasticity has a place in education and that learning difficulties can be overcome not simply accommodated.

Sorry, I really couldn’t do dialogue – I will have to work on that! As for the rest of my day, it was bittersweet, a lovely walk with the Parent’s Walking Group through the wild flowers at the Trent University Nature Reserve, the last walk with two of our special Aussie friends as they head homewards, their time at Arrowsmith coming to an end all to quickly. Then onto a leaving party at Carpe Diem, sitting outside under the trees, such a beautiful spot where we spend our very first night in Peterborough with some of the same friends who will soon be leaving – all too sad! I have to keep reminding myself “Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy that it’s been”.

More on learning difficulties and their impact

Another area that Barbara Arrowsmith Young has defined is called “symbolic thinking” – for anyone with a deficit in symbolic thinking life is very difficult. They have great difficulty developing strategies for studying, are easily distracted and appear to have a short attention span. Organisation, planning, self-direction and establishment of long-term goals are all major challenges which means they live only for the moment (as they are unable to look any further) and may be viewed as flighty and/or untrustworthy.

One of the students with a deficit in this area described it like this: imagine a wall in front of you that extends in either direction as far as the eye can see – you have to get past that wall – the wall is a problem and that problem requires problem-solving. Imagine that the wall provokes no thinking at all, only mental paralysis. This is what it is like to have this deficit – you have no mental initiative, leaving you distractible, disorganised and unable to plan and set goals. You can never get past that wall.

Being described as flighty is never a good thing- such a person as described above will often make social arrangements and then get distracted by what they are currently doing and not turn up – and I am sure you can understand that there are only so many times you can let people down, your friends, your boss, your family. Another example of a real life situation, which Barbara quotes, is that such a person may have a medical condition but not think to go to see a doctor which would seem so obvious to  you and me! Many people have difficulties keeping their jobs or maintaining relationships – the impact of this difficulty is enormous.

And finally, a deficit in symbolic recognition leads to poor word recognition, slow reading and difficulties with spelling. The part of the brain that is not working here is the left hemisphere which allows us to recognise and remember a word or symbol. Those with this deficit have to study a word many more times than average before being able to memorise it and this recognise it, and say it correctly next time they see it. In many cases, they cannot learn sight words even with multiple repetition, and every time they are presented with a word that should be familiar, they need to sound it out as if they are seeing it for the first time. This means that learning to read and spell is a very slow process. This will obviously impact on their future employability as well as having profound effects upon their self-esteem.

These are just some of the areas Barbara Arrowsmith Young has defined and I hope that these few posts have shown how learning difficulties in these areas can have significant long term implications if they are not addressed but the marvellous thing is that they can be addressed. Each of the exercises Barbara has devised address a specific difficulty and Simon says all of the exercises are very hard!  Particularly because once you have mastered a level in a specific exercise, then you have to go onto master the next level of that exercise until you get to a rating of average or average to above average or even ultimately above average. The length of time this takes depends upon where you are starting from and there are many levels you have to go through and it also depends upon the effort that the student puts into the exercise and how precise they are in doing the exercise. Always you can hear a pin drop in the classroom, such is the level of concentration and the determination of the students, but oftentimes it looks as if they are simply daydreaming as they are working on the exercises by thinking! That these students have the chance to overcome their learning difficulties is (excuse the pun!) mind-boggling, that mainstream education has yet to embrace the concepts of neuroplasticity is equally mind-boggling but I continue to be hopeful of change, as well as being awed and inspired by the dedication of the students, teachers and  by Barbara Arrowsmith Young and her life’s work.


More on the everyday impact of learning difficulties

Well, apart from the fact you probably think I am mad with my headtorch on and supergluing kitchen roll to my finger (don’t ask), you must have wondered what the heck I was talking about in terms of the photo – I didn’t realise it hadn’t been uploaded and neither is it uploading tonight so clarification as to what is happening in the photo will have to wait for another day!

To continue with various types of learning difficulty and what it means to the person who is struggling  with them…

Another of the categories of learning difficulty defined by Barbara Arrowsmith Young is Predicative speech and, as Barbara explains, with this deficit the neurological process that converts thought into an organised sequence of words is flawed. This results in an inability to learn the rules governing sentence structure which in turn results in speaking and writing in short sentences and having a hard time following longer sentences. Another consequence of this deficit is having no ability to rehearse mentally (through what is known as internal speech) what you are going to say or do (and usually we all do this internal speech, without knowing it) so there is no anticipation of the consequences of your words or actions which means you could appear rude and tactless. For instance blurting out that you already one of those when you receive a birthday present of something  you already have  and yes, Simon has done this on more than one occasion!

A person with this problem is not deprived of words but of the ability to order words to formulate a complex thought or sentence. Students with this difficulty might have any or all of the following:

a reduced amount of speech, restricted vocabulary, use of short, simple and often incomplete sentences, missing functional words, substituting general words such as thing or stuff for a more precise word and I think they may also shrug and say “I dunno” in answer to any enquiry of “how are you?” or “what have you been doing today?”  because it is simply too hard to work out how to answer with a well formulated answer.

On the surface it appears that external speech is the primary difficulty but in fact it is far more profound than that – this difficulty affects both internal and external speech. Internal speech allows us to guide and regulate our behaviour. This deficit affects memory, thinking speech and writing.

I think you can see how devastating this particular difficulty can be and how it will affect communication with others, understanding conversation, particularly in a group situation, where grasping what is going as conversation parries back and forth is almost impossible – I liken it to learning a foreign language – you get to a stage where you can converse reasonably with one person but in a group situation where the conversation moves quickly, you take too long to work out where the conversation is heading and by the time you do, it is too late to take part, the conversation has already moved on. Living with that everyday must be enormously frustrating and in the end, unless the conversation is really interesting, why would you bother to take part? I am sure this leads to withdrawal and social isolation.

Another learning difficulty is Broca’s speech pronunciation and this results in mispronouncing words and avoiding using words you know and understand because you are uncertain of the right pronunciation.

Since speaking requires concentration, it is hard to talk and think at the same time which means it is easy to lose your train of thought. A person with this deficit can have flat and monotone speech which lacks rhythym and intonation, a tendency to mumble and when learning to read it is difficult to convert letters into sounds.

For such a person when they look at a word it is like us looking at a Welsh word – complete befuddlement! So, they (like we with the Welsh word) stare at the word helplessly, not knowing where to start. As they have trouble learning the rules of pronunciation they can’t call on these rules to help them to break the word into its component sounds, sound them out and then blend them into a word.

This you can see makes reading a nightmare, in addition to conversation being hard with losing your train of thought – and the older you get, the more inadequate you feel comparing yourself to your peers, difficulties relating to your peers and again, social isolation and possible mental health consequences.

There are just a couple more areas of learning difficulties I will go into tomorrow. I appreciate that it makes for quite depressing reading as did the blog post I wrote about mental health and learning difficulties but I feel it is so important for as many people as possible to have some insight into how these students feel so there is more understanding of their plight. I am just so enormously grateful that we have found and come to the Peterborough Arrowsmith school where Simon has a means to begin to overcome his difficulties, with a great deal of hard work and dedication on his part, support from his fellow students and encouragement on the part of his teachers and of course, an especially big thank you to Michael for supporting and encouraging Simon (and me!) to pursue this.

Learning difficulties and how they impact everyday life


Learning difficulties and how they impact everyday life

I have been reading “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” once again in order to try to understand more clearly how learning difficulties impact the lives of those who live with them, particularly Simon, obviously. My interpretation of what Barbara Arrowsmith Young has done is that she has defined 19 areas of learning difficulties and devised specific exercises to improve cognitive function for each weakness – the premise being that, rather than avoiding those areas, if you exercise them, much like a muscle, the cognitive function associated with that area will improve.
I have summarised some of the impacts that will result from weakness is a specific area (again to try to understand how these impact on life in the real world) – these are generalisations and not all of the difficulties described are always seen in every case.
A weakness in “motor symbol sequencing” has profound consequences. A weakness in this area results in impairment of processes involving input through the eye (reading) and output through the hand (writing) and mouth (speaking). At a severe level of difficulty speech lags far behind thought, so it is rambling and disjointed, wandering in the same way that writing does. The person could have all the information in their head to tell their story properly but the leave out critical parts (though they think they have stated them) making it difficult for others to follow. They may stumble or hesitate or become shy and withdrawn because of their inability to express themselves. They may have trouble writing neatly. Their spelling of one word may vary even on the same page. For these students performing any task that involves using this area of their brain takes extra effort, the additional load on the brain means that they tire quickly and can’t sustain attention. Clearly this will impact upon their performance in the classroom or work place and has social implications also.
I can’t finish this tonight as Simon has gone to bed and I am sitting here with my headtorch on trying to read my notes! Quite a sight, I am sure you can imagine! And my other difficulty is that I have superglued some kitchen roll to my one of my fingers, making typing a wee bit tricky! It makes feel even worse for the old lady, and for her husband, who put superglue in her husband’s eyes thinking that is was his eye drops – terrible!
Does anyone know what is going on in the photo? More preparation for winter I think, with hay bales being put at the base of trees on the slopes where sleds may run into them?