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Adults Suffer From Learning Difficulties, Too

By: Scott E. Smith (1999)

Although learning disabilities and attention-related problems are not being diagnosed more effectively in children, many people don't realize that adults can suffer from these problems, too. In fact, for many adults, the diagnosis and treatment of learning issues was not readily available when they were in school. So it is likely that many people with learning and attentional issues passed through the education system undetected. Now they are facing adult responsibilities and demands with the same processing problems that may have limited them in school.

Have you ever known someone who seemed very smart, but whose best efforts often fell short of the goal? Do you have a friend or family member who begins projects with the best of intentions, only to watch him repeatedly go off track or stall, sometimes creating more problems than he solved? have you ever observed someone who just can't seem to organize herself, resulting in chronic lateness and missed activities?

These are just a few examples of people who may be struggling with an undiagnosed learning or attentional problem. In one such case, a wife often wondered why her husband kept starting new projects when he had never finished those he already begun. As she surveyed her home, she took note of the half-painted wall, the detached cabinets and tools still cluttering the corner of the kitchen, the stack of bricks in the yard next to a partially completed barbecue, the piece of graying lumber for the still unbuilt deck, and a mound of overdue bills resting on the dining room table. She knew her husband was an intelligent person, but she felt frustration considering the time, money and emotional energy lost in this pattern of inefficiency.

She's not alone. Many people do not understand what constitutes a learning disability, and surveys of the general public have found some astounding misconceptions. One survey found that a significant number of people confused learning and attentional problems with mental retardation (80 percent), deafness (66 percent) and blindness (60 percent). Of course, these conditions have nothing to do with learning disabilities, which can occur in any segment of the populations and often affect intelligent, capable people. Current estimates of the percentage of adults affected by learning problems range from 5 percent to 20 percent of the population.

Learning disabilities are defined as disorders that impair the ability to acquire and use skills in listening, speaking, reading, writing or math. These difficulties occur at the level of the central nervous system and involve peculiarities or idiosyncrasies in perceiving, understanding and using verbal or nonverbal information.

Diagnosing learning and attentional problems in adults involves understanding the individual's delayed history, observing current performance, and testing cognitive functioning. Specific error patterns in attentional capacity, reading, writing, speaking or math helps to differentiated a disability from a normal low strength area.

Adults with learning problems often have suspected that something was wrong for years. They say they had to work harder than others in specific area to get the same information, took longer to finish assignments, and sometimes had to retake classes or get extra help. Many found the educational process so frustrating that they left school early, even though others often felt they were intelligent enough to succeed.

Adults struggling with a learning disability face many challenges in life. Adjustments must be made in work, education, daily routines and social interactions. They also often have to deal with secondary emotional issues such as frustration and low self-esteem.

Research on those individuals most likely to adjust to their problem suggests that "reframing" the disability is crucial. Reframing involves several stages, but ultimately means that the individual views the problem as a challenge to be overcome rather than something destined to hold him back.

In addition to understanding the disability and personally working to overcome it. assistance may also come from situation accommodations and technology. Some adult schools and employers now recognize learning disabilities and offer options to help. This help includes use of technologies devices, alternative assignments, tutoring, extended time for work completion, organizational aids and -perhaps most important-understanding and patience.

Learning disabilities are now recognized by the Federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act to help accommodate learning differences and minimize discrimination. Knowing one's legal rights is important, but perhaps even more important is facing head-on the challenges of a learning disability.

About the author

Scott E. Smith is a licensed clinical psychologist with Specturm Behavioral Health in Annapolis and Arnold, Maryland. This article first appeared in the Annapolis, MD Capital, June 13, 2002.