Adults with learning disabilities often feel shame, fear, emotional sensitivity, emotional regulation, and struggle with adjusting to change. We describe these 5 difficulties so you can see if you face these issues.
People growing up with a learning disability often feel a sense of shame. For some, it is a great relief to receive the diagnosis while for others the label only serves to further stigmatize them. For many adults, especially older adults, an accurate diagnosis was unavailable. These individuals were frequently labeled as mentally retarded, written off as being unable to learn, and most passed through the school system without acquiring basic academic skills.
Sadly, these feelings of shame often cause the individual to hide their difficulties. Rather than risk being labeled as stupid or accused of being lazy, some adults deny their learning disability as a defense mechanism. Internalized negative labels of stupidity and incompetence usually result in a poor self-concept and lack of confidence (Gerber, Ginsberg, & Reiff, 1992)
- Myth #1 People with learning disabilities have below average intelligence and cannot learn.FactPeople with learning disabilities have average to above average intelligence (Gerber. 1998). In fact, studies indicate that as many as 33% of students with LD are gifted (Baum, 1985; Brody & Mills, 1997; Jones, 1986). With proper recognition, intervention and lots of hard work, children and adults with learning disabilities can learn and succeed!
- Myth #2 Learning disabilities are just an excuse for irresponsible, unmotivated or lazy people.FactLearning disabilities are caused by neurological impairments not character flaws. In fact, the National Information Centre for Adults and Youth with Disabilities makes a point of saying that people with learning disabilities are not lazy or unmotivated (NICHCY , 2002).
- Myth #3 Learning disabilities only affect children. Adults grow out of learning disabilities.FactIt is now known that LD continues throughout the individual’s lifespan and may even intensify in adulthood as tasks and environmental demands change (Michaels, 1994a). Sadly, many adults, especially older adults, have never been diagnosed with a learning disability. In fact, the majority of people with learning disabilities are not diagnosed until they reach adulthood (LDA, 1996)
- Myth #4 Dyslexia and learning disability are the same thing.FactDyslexia is a type of learning disability. It is not a another term for learning disability. It is a specific language based disorder affecting a persons ability to read, write and verbally express themselves. Unfortunately, careless use of the term has expanded it so that it has become, for some, an equivalent for “learning disability”.
- Myth #5 Learning disabilities are only academic in nature. They do not affect other areas of a person’s life. Fact: some people with learning disabilities have isolated difficulties in reading, writing or mathematics. However, most people with learning disabilities have more than one area of difficulty. Dr. Larry Silver asserts that “learning disabilities are life disabilities”. He writes, The same disabilities that interfere with reading, writing, and arithmetic also will interfere with sports and other activities, family life, and getting along with friends.” (Silver, 1998) Typically, students with LD have other major difficulties in one or more of the following areas:
- motor coordination
- time management
- organizational skills
- processing speed
- Social skills needed to make friends and maintaining relationships
- emotional maturation
- verbal expression
- Many adults with learning disabilities have difficulty in performing basic everyday living tasks such as shopping, budgeting, filling out a job application form or reading a recipe. They may also have difficulty with making friends and maintaining relationships. Vocational and job demands create additional challenges for young people with learning disabilities.
- Myth #6 Adults with learning disabilities cannot succeed in higher education.FactMore and more adults with learning disabilities are going to college or university and succeeding (Gerber and Reiff 1994). With the proper accommodations and support, adults with learning disabilities can be successful at higher education.
Another emotional difficulty for adults with learning disabilities is fear. This emotion is often masked by anger or anxiety. Tapping into the fear behind the anger and/or the anxiety response is often the key for adults to cope with the emotional fallout of learning disabilities.
Feelings of fear may be related to one or more of the following issues:
- fear of being found out
- fear of failure
- fear of judgment or criticism
- fear of rejection
- Fear of Being Found Out
Many adults with learning disabilities live with the fear of being found out. They develop coping strategies to hide their disability. For example, an adult who can hardly read might pretend to read a newspaper. Other adults may develop gregarious personalities to hide their difficulties or focus on other abilities that do not present learning barriers. Unfortunately, some adults will have developed negative strategies such as quitting their job rather than risking the humiliation of being terminated because their learning disability makes it difficult for them to keep up with work demands.
The fear of being found out is particularly troublesome for many older adults who have never been diagnosed with a learning disability or those who received inappropriate support. Such adults were frequently misdiagnosed with mental retardation, inappropriately placed in programs for the mentally disabled, and/or stigmatized by teachers and classmates. In later life, these adults often return to learning through adult literacy programs in order to make up for lost educational opportunities.
Seeking help is a difficult step forward for these adults because it requires them to stop hiding their disability. The simple act of entering a classroom can be an anxiety-producing experience for adults who have been wrongly labeled and/or mistreated by the educational system. For these adults, returning to a learning environment is truly an act of courage!
Low literacy skills and academic difficulties are not the only type of learning disabilities adults try to hide. Adults with social skill difficulties may live in constant fear of revealing social inadequacies. For example, an adult who has trouble understanding humor may pretend to laugh at a joke even though they don’t understand it. They may also hide their social difficulties by appearing to be shy and withdrawn. On the other hand, hyperactive adults may cover up their attention difficulties by using a gregarious personality to entertain people.
Fear of Failure
The National Adult Literacy Survey, 1992, found that 58% of adults with self-reported learning disabilities lacked the basic functional reading and writing skills needed to experience job and academic success (Kirsch, 1993). Most of these adults have not graduated high school due to the failure of the school system to recognize and/or accommodate their learning disability. Needless to say, adult literacy programs are a second chance to learn the basic academic skills missed out in public school.
As mentioned above, going back into an educational environment is often a fearful experience for adults with learning disabilities. One of the main reasons for this is the fear of failure. Many adults reason that, if they have failed before, what is to stop them from failing again and, if they do fail again, then this failure must mean they, themselves, are failures. The tendency for adults with learning disabilities to personalize failure (i.e. failure makes ME a failure) is perhaps the biggest self-esteem buster for adult learners. Educators need to be aware of these fears to help learners understand that failure does not make them a failure and making mistakes is a part of the learning process.
For most people, anxiety about failing is what motivates them to succeed, but for people with learning disabilities, this anxiety can be paralyzing. Fear of failure may prevent adults with learning disabilities from taking on new learning opportunities. It might prevent them from participating in social activities, taking on a new job opportunity, or enrolling in an adult education course.
One positive characteristic that often helps adults overcome their fear of failure is their ability to come up with innovative strategies to learn and solve problems. These strategies are often attributed to the “learned creativity” that many adults with learning disabilities develop in order to cope with the vocational, social, and educational demands in their everyday lives. (Gerber, Ginsberg,& Reiff, 1992).
Fear of Ridicule
Adults with learning disabilities frequently fear the ridicule of others. Sadly, these fears often develop after the individual has been routinely ridiculed by teachers, classmates, or even family members. The most crushing of these criticisms usually relates to a perceived lack of intelligence or unfair judgments about the person’s degree of motivation or ability to succeed.
For example, comments such as you’ll never amount to anything, you could do it if you only tried harder, or the taunting of classmates about being in the mental retard class has enormous emotional effects on individuals with learning disabilities. For many of these adults, especially those with unidentified learning disabilities, these and other negative criticisms, continue to affect their emotional well-being into their adult years. It is not uncommon for adults to internalize the negative criticisms and view themselves as dumb, stupid, lazy, and/or incompetent. Such negative criticisms often fuel the fear adults with learning disabilities have about being found out.
Fear of Rejection
Adults with learning disabilities frequently fear rejection if they are not seen to be as capable as others. If they come from a middle to upper-class family where academic achievement is a basic expectation for its members, fear of rejection may be a very real concern. They may also fear that their social skill deficits will preclude them from building meaningful relationships with others and may lead to social rejection. Prior experiences of rejection will likely intensify this sense of fear.
Many adults with learning disabilities have difficulty in performing basic everyday living tasks such as shopping, budgeting, filling out a job application form or reading a recipe. They may also have difficulty with making friends and maintaining relationships. Vocational and job demands create additional challenges for young people with learning disabilities.
Adults are often overwhelmed by too many environmental stimuli (e.g. background noise, more than one person talking at a time, side conversations, reading, and listening at the same time). Many people with LD and ADD have specific sensitivities to their environment such as certain fabrics they cannot wear, foods they cannot tolerate, etc.
Many adults with learning disabilities see themselves as more emotionally sensitive than other people In its most extreme form, high levels of emotional sensitivity are both a blessing and a weakness. The positive features of these traits help adults with learning disabilities build meaningful relationships with others.
For example, they are often very intuitive and in tune with both their own and other people’s emotions. Sometimes they are actually able to perceive other’s thoughts and feelings. However, this strength also serves as a weakness due to its propensity to overwhelm individuals. Emotional difficulties occur when they are unable to cope with the onslaught of emotions they are feeling.
Highly sensitive adults with LD may be moved to tears more easily or feel their own and other people’s pain more deeply. For example, Thomas West, writer of “The Minds Eye”, not only gives a thorough explanation of Winston Churchill’s learning disability but also describes his sensitive nature. West details Churchill’s tendency to break into tears quite easily” (West, 1997) even out in the public eye. He notes one incident in which Churchill was moved to tears after witnessing the devastating effects of a bomb.
This description of Churchill also serves to highlight the strong sense of justice that many adults with learning disabilities possess. Unfortunately, this sense of justice often serves as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is refreshing to behold the passion of many of these individuals in their fight to overcome injustice. While on the other hand, this very passion, when it crosses the line into aggression, can cause social rejection and/or emotional overload.
Often the individual may be unaware that their behavior has turned aggressive. They only wish to make their point known and have others understand it. This type of overreaction is not a purposeful attempt to hurt anybody. It is more likely to be caused by difficulty with monitoring their emotions and consequent behavior.
Difficulties with regulating emotions are common for highly sensitive adults with learning disabilities. Dr. Kay Walker describes the connection between learning disabilities and self-regulation problems in her paper “Self Regulation and Sensory Processing for Learning, Attention, and Attachment.” She asserts that self-regulation problems frequently occur in those with learning disabilities (Walker, 2000) In its most extreme form, individuals may easily shift from one emotion to the next. Others may experience difficulty regulating impulsive thoughts or actions.
Fortunately, most adults have learned to handle their emotional sensitivity to avoid becoming overwhelmed or engaging in negative social interactions. Nevertheless, some adults may be so deeply affected that they become depressed or suffer from anxiety. A lack of school, job, and/or social success will likely add to this emotional burden. Some adults with LD, especially those who have been ridiculed by their family members, teachers, and/or peers, may be more apt to take criticism to heart because of their experiences and/or their ultra-sensitive nature. Emotional wounds from childhood and youth may cause heightened emotional responses to rejection. In turn, social anxiety and social phobia may result
Change is scary for everyone, but for people with learning disabilities and other neurological disabilities, change may be particularly difficult. Children with learning disabilities may prefer procedures to stay the same and have a hard time moving from one activity to another. Usually, this difficulty becomes less of an issue as the child matures. However, adults with learning disabilities may still experience difficulty adjusting to change in more subtle ways. For example, some adults will have trouble moving from one work task to another without completely finishing the first task before moving on to the next one. Adults with learning disabilities are frequently described as inflexible when it comes to considering another person’s viewpoint or a different way of doing something.
Adjustment to change is difficult for adults with LD because change brings the unexpected. In general, people with learning disabilities are less prepared for the unexpected. The unexpected may bring new learning hurdles, new job demands, or new social challenges. Since all these areas can be affected by learning disabilities, it is no wonder why change can produce so much anxiety for adults with learning disabilities.
To avoid the tendency to blame the person for their lack of flexibility, it is important to understand the neurological basis for this difficulty with adjusting to change. With this said, through social skills practice, adults with learning disabilities can improve their ability to tolerate change. In addition, parents, instructors, and other professionals can help adults with learning disabilities by making transition processes easier through understanding and accommodating the adults’ needs.
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West, T. G. (1997). In the mind’s eye: visual thinkers, gifted people with dyslexia, and other learning difficulties, computer images, and the ironies of creativity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.