Respect! The Arrowsmith students are amazing!

Yesterday evening was an eye-opener for me. Simon has been waiting for this evening for a long time as we missed it in his first and his second year. It was the Parent-Teacher night at Arrowsmith but this is not like the Parent-Teacher night as you know it. There was no sitting in front of the teacher waiting to hear the latest about your child, how they can improve, work harder or, indeed, how well they might be doing. This is something else completely – this is getting you to understand how to do the cognitive exercises and how hard it is to do them by doing them yourself. You, the parent, have to do the work that your child (whatever their age) is doing on a daily basis for hours on end, being taught by your child! They are your teacher for the evening!
Simon went through his day with me, talking me through the cognitive exercises, one by one. He explained which area of the brain is being used and what is improved by each of the exercises, for example, reading, writing, speaking more clearly, reading body language and facial expressions or the ability to remember all the instructions you are given when they are given all at once (by a bossy Mum, said Simon!).
I tried each of Simon’s exercises, at a lower level than that at which he is working, for around 10 minutes per exercise as compared to a period of 40 minutes. At the end of 2 hours I have to admit to my brain feeling quite frazzled. It is no wonder that Simon, and the other students, have an aching brain by the end of most days! I have a much greater understanding and a new level of respect for what these students have to do for themselves as they work to improve their cognitive abilities. It is truly remarkable and I am awed by their dedication and also the commitment of their fabulous, always cheerful and encouraging teachers to help them to achieve their best and to realise their potential and their dreams. The photo is me having done an exercise which makes the act of writing easier and more fluent. I did one page and my hand was tired, Simon does six pages of the same combinations and usually three sets of six pages each period! Exhausting! image
I leave you first with the words of Barbara Arrowsmith Young from her book “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”:
My vision is of a world in which no child ever struggles with a learning disability, no child is ever stigmatised as having one, and no child experiences the ongoing emotional pain of living with a learning disability.
That people with learning difficulties don’t dare to dream breaks my heart. We now have the tools to address these problems, strengthen and rewire and improve their brains, and avoid a tremendous amount of needless suffering
And finally the words of Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of “The Brain That Changes Itself” in which I first read of the Arrowsmith Program:
The stigma associated with having a learning disability will ease when we all understand that we can accomplish what was once thought impossible: we can change, fundamentally and profoundly, our capacity to learn.


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.