Case Examples: A College Graduate with Learning Difficulties Faces New Challenges

By: Augusta Gross

It was well into the first consultation session before the client (we'll call him Michael) began to talk about the level of frustration he felt. He'd come, on the advice of an advisor in the learning disabilities program at the college where he'd graduated. He'd come specifically, to talk about his current situation at work. Michael explained, logically, that he needed help to figure out what to do about his job. He had been feeling a little bored, and unsure whether he'd make a good job choice (technically analyzing product samples to determine if they were meeting certain safety standards). He was having difficulty keeping up with certain job demands, especially in writing regular reports and meeting deadlines.

Michael had graduated college just over a year earlier, having majored in physics. He had taken six years to complete his coursework, and had been in the learning disparities program there, getting tutoring and counseling when needed. Michael said that he had long-standing reading disabilities, as well as concentration difficulties, since childhood. He had been placed in remedial reading in elementary school, and had difficulty with reading and writing assignments. He also knew that he did not do well under time pressure, and that anxiety would add to his difficulties. He knew that he had always needed time and frequent breaks; otherwise he would get very distracted.

Thus far, Michael's complaints about having problems with writing assignments at work made perfect sense, given his history of language processing difficulties. He had been tested in high school, knew that he did well in math, knew that he had trouble remembering names, dates, certain facts; also that he had trouble spelling. He appeared articulate, self aware, and genuinely eager for some direction. He seemed to know too, about his strengths; his ability to see projects through to the end at work, to see how to get past the little sticking points that came up in the lab work, for example, and that he had good conceptual abilities for handling the job. He'd had a variety of summer jobs and jobs in college (e.g. bookkeeping, restaurant cashier, lab technician) before graduating.

One of the things that struck me about this able young man, who had come so far academically, was the extent to which he seemed bewildered about his struggles at work-- the troubles of meeting deadlines, or sometimes expressing himself (when he'd forget a key fact, or a co-worker's name); the times he got distractible and couldn't concentrate sufficiently well to read work materials on time. Was he bored and confused in part, because he didn't necessarily want to face his learning difficulties once again, now that he'd finished school and was out on the job and career path?

We went on to talk a bit about his earlier school experiences, and how he had managed his learning difficulties all the way through. Michael was eager to articulate his experiences, and talked about his feelings. He went on to explain, in a matter of fact way, that for him, school had always made him uncomfortable. He explained that for him, schooling had always been difficult, a matter of degrees of discomfort.

Michael described feelings of being humiliated as a child among his peers, e.g. when he could not remember simple things, like people's names, or could not spell simple words, like cat. As he spoke, he looked sad, recalling the memories and lots of feelings. He admitted that, even now, he couldn't understand why he had trouble organizing his thoughts on paper. He wondered why, as he put it, he sometimes still had trouble putting a noun and verb together properly. He described, too, how confused he felt when he tried to write. His words spoke for him: "I hope I don't sound as jumbled as I write…Everything gets mixed up, the beginning, middle and ends are not there. I start and keep writing, don't know where to end. A and I miss little things. I've always wondered why I can't remember simple things…"

As Michael described his own inner experiences of his learning difficulties, it became clearer, that he was talking about how, in his present circumstances, he still could not fully believe, or understand, the ongoing nature of his learning problems. In spite of his considerable self knowledge of his learning problems, his experience of not doing well enough in certain tasks at work (like writing reports to meet deadlines), seemed to bring up feelings of bafflement, and shame. It seemed that he was feeling set back in time.

We talked about his current experiences of not being able to do simple things he expected from himself. It appeared that he was feeling disappointed in himself, in part because his old learning difficulties were resurfacing, the difficulties that he did not expect, or want to have to go through again.

At one point he asked, "Are you going to be able to tell me if "my writing problems" are like writer's block? Sometimes I think so, maybe I want to think so; how could I go through all these years being taught things over and over, and not know them?"

So here, embedded in his question, Michael was expressing frustration and feelings that he should do better. He was also expressing a wish for some explanation of why certain simple things were so hard for him. The intensity with which Michael talked about his academic difficulties, and the way in which he described his frustration, revealed how discouraged he had been feeling. The ongoing daily frustrations he found in work had left their toll.

Michael's hopes and wishes for smooth sailing in a chosen job, or a line of work, were natural, understandable, and one could say, even useful. He was motivated after all, to find a job which would be interesting, in which he could excel. And his motivation was a powerful force in his achievements thus far. But he needed to have hope and motivation to face the new challenges of his job, and what that would require. He would need to forgive himself what he called his errors on simple stuff, because that was indeed, part of his learning difficulty manifesting itself, in simple processing errors. He needed to meet the challenges of this transition time, from college to work, by not mistaking boredom for his discomfort, and thereby giving up too easily.

So we returned to a discussion of his learning difficulties; to review and understand the steep emotional price of being so good at some things, and having basic reading and writing difficulties that made him feel so awful. We talked about how puzzling that could still be, after all these years of school, tutoring, testing, and explanations along the way. ( We reviewed some reading test results, to reinforce his understanding of his very good conceptual abilities, and his limitations in terms of speed.)

Among the things we also discussed were Michael's ways of coping with his difficulties at work. He admitted that he had not been preparing sufficiently when reports were due; that he had (as he had sometimes in the past) reacted by procrastinating, waiting until too late to start writing. He had been skipping the steps of preparing an outline, because he was so discouraged. He admitted that he had felt somewhat embarrassed to let anyone know about his difficulties, and had avoided talking to coworkers who might be able to help him. Because he was afraid of being found out, he was feeling irritated and anxious, and isolated.

Michael needed encouragement, to think creatively about how he could make report writing easier. He needed to change some avoidant behaviors, so that he would procrastinate less, and feel under less internal pressure, because of all the stress he had been hiding.

Michael also needed reminding about his considerable strengths, his ability to express himself, to get along with others, to see problems through conceptually. He had to review his strengths as a way to remind himself that he deserved to be in the job. Specifically, he had to find ways in order to organize his time so that he could write reports more successfully, and tolerate his mistakes in being somewhat slower in reading technical reports, or forgetting a name.

He also began to realize that his bored feelings, and a sense of insecurity, were a natural part of any job, and any new work challenge. Being bored did not mean that he had to jump to the conclusion that he had made a wrong job choice; no career choice would be perfectly interesting and challenging, all the time.

The consultation taught us both a great deal. I came away with a sense of admiration for Michael's achievements, and his dogged determination to make his way in the work world, just as he had in school, and in college. I also came up with a very much clearer sense of how baffling learning problems can be, even if they are recognized and explained.

I came away recognizing that learning difficulties are so hard to absorb internally, because they often get expressed in the most mundane ways, e.g. losing a person's name; trouble getting a good thought down on paper; forgetting simple dates, facts, events in sequence; trouble reading a simple article. Even though the learning difficulties come up in a daily way, they still surprise us in terms of how stinging they may feel. And it may be that we sometimes forget what we know about our specific learning problems, psychologically speaking, because we need to, in order to keep going, and face the challenges of new learning tasks, in spite of them.

Did Michael get a simple answer to his question about whether he had learning difficulties, or writer's block? Not really. He was correct in assuming that writing for him was a matter of processing difficulties, and anxiety under pressure. A full answer to his question was a bit more complicated.

Learning difficulties go hand in hand with blocked feelings of anxiety, confusion, and mis-remembering. More than simple answers, Michael needed to look squarely at the demands he was facing in his job. He needed encouragement to look out for self destructive, defensive behaviors (like procrastinating) which understandably came up when he felt undermined. He was reminded too, that losing speed, or losing someone's name, is a temporary lapse in the rhythm of thinking, not a sign of personal weakness. It may even be a signal to slow down, take a break before refocusing.

Michael needed to look out for the less talked about (and less admitted to) responses he would feel, the humiliation, the sulking, the refusal to let anyone in on some of his difficulties, and how those reactions could hurt him, in the sense of making him feel confused and passive, and withdrawn. He needed to reach out, to others. Coming for some guidance was a positive step. He felt encouraged to creatively think about how he could reduce some of the pressure on himself.

There may be an art to handling periodic lapses in learning tasks such as remembering, organizing, writing. The bigger picture requires that we not take these moments too seriously, in what they tell us about our overall competence. Maybe it's a little like learning to slip on a banana peel--or how to land without getting hurt. How to ad lib a little when we've forgotten our lines. Or keep dancing, when we've missed our steps. Or purposely slow down a conversation when we stop understanding.

Living with learning difficulties is also a matter of how gracefully we come back to the task. Overcoming learning difficulties requires grace, good humor, and self compassion, knowing that things do get better, and we do regain our rhythm and balance.

Michael had in effect, tumbled, and survived, through long years of schooling, including a demanding science curriculum in college. (There was no way to adequately express how much courage and grace that had taken. But it was worth reminding him.)

Now he was out in the world, adjusting to new learning demands and inevitable pressures of a full time job. He would need, over the long haul, to find the right combination ultimately, of a job that would be challenging, and at the same time, not so demanding, in terms of pressure, that he could not function well. He needed to work out with his colleagues and himself, where he could get the support he needed in order to do his very best.

Gross, Augusta, Case Examples: A College Graduate with Learning Difficulties Faces New Challenges. 2003