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Characteristics of Adults with Specific Learning Disabilities

Paul Gerber discusses the wide variety of behaviors, abilities, and difficulties found in adults with LD.

How to think about characteristics

A number of considerations should be kept in mind when considering the characteristics of adults with learning disabilities (LD). First, there is a great diversity within the population (Gerber & Reiff, 1991). This diversity exists because learning disabilities are not a unitary construct. An individual can have one specific problem or a constellation of problems. Moreover, learning disabilities do not manifest themselves in individuals in exactly the same way. Some learning disabilities can be mild, while others can be quite severe. Those who have severe learning disabilities obviously are those who are most challenged (Dowdy & Smith, 1994; Gerber & Reiff, 1991).

Second, it is important to note that, by definition, an adult who has learning disabilities is of average or above average intelligence. This wide span of ability means that it is possible for IQs to be low average to high or even gifted. What is noteworthy about those who have learning disabilities is that ability does not match achievement — whether in academic areas, in functional behaviors, or in employment outcomes. There seems to be a significant gap between what would be expected, given the individual’s ability, and what is actually accomplished (Reiff, Gerber, & Ginsberg, 1993).

Last, we know that learning disabilities are a persisting problem, a life-long condition that evolves throughout the developmental continuum (Gerber & Reiff, 1994). For example, what is problematic in a grade-school student can be very different from what is manifested in an adolescent with a learning disability. Similarly, learning disabilities in adulthood present some different themes, challenges, and issues. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that the experience of being learning disabled varies as an individual progresses through the various levels of development — childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Even in adulthood, a stage of human development that can be as long as 70 years (early adulthood to senior citizen), there are a multitude of issues to address. In the field of learning disabilities, it is not prudent or wise to approach an understanding of the characteristics of learning disabilities simply by taking a generic approach— that a learning disability is a learning disability no matter what age, stage, or phase of development (Gerber, 1992).

Critical characteristics

Adults with LD show a wide array of critical characteristics that are problematic for them in their daily lives (Gerber & Reiff, 1990; Gerber & Reiff, 1994; Johnson & Blablock, 1990). First, academic skills that were not mastered during the school-age years remain difficult. Problems arise in such areas as reading, math, spelling, and writing. In each case, there can be a wide variety of reasons for lack of attainment of academic skills. In reading, for example, the reason might be poor comprehension enhancement strategies. Related to mathematics, problems evidence themselves in using math concepts and thinking in mathematical ways (either for daily use or for more sophisticated applications). Finally, in writing, whether the problem is spelling, handwriting, or written expression, there can be many reasons for apparent difficulties.

In each case, there is a high probability that the source of the problem(s) is the underlying dynamics of the learning disability: the psychological processes that have a bearing on the presenting problem. These psychological processes include cognition, perception, language, attention, motoric abilities, and social skills. These processes, individually or collectively, have a bearing on academic skills, but they have equal impact on all areas of adult functioning — whether at home, at work, or in the community.

Secondary characteristics

There also are numerous secondary characteristics relevant to the adult learning disabled experience. These characteristics can be viewed as the “next layer” of manifestations of learning disabilities, which emerge as a collection of coping mechanisms or a set of thoughts and feelings evidenced in either positive or negative ways. Because of the complex nature of learning disabilities in adulthood, generalization about secondary characteristics must be viewed with a “discriminating eye”; that is, the characteristics discussed below may present themselves in various forms and exist around a multitude of themes. An understanding of the secondary characteristics of adults with LD, therefore, must be based on the perspectives of the individual as an adult, the learning disability, and the context of lifespan issues.

Social and emotional characteristics are most notable in adults with LD. An overall feeling of lack of self-worth, low self-esteem, and a poor self-concept can be pervasive (Barton & Fuhrmann, 1994). A number of writers in the area of adults with LD have commented that this area typically is where this otherwise heterogeneous population shares a great deal of similarity. Many adults with LD have had particularly painful experiences during their school-age years, both in and out of the classroom. And it seems that they carry their pain each day of their lives, whether they are successful or unsuccessful in their adult lives. Consequently, it is not uncommon for them to feel dumb, stupid, and incompetent (Gerber, Ginsberg, & Reiff, 1992).

Many have carried self-attributions into adulthood, stemming from the notion, “I am a person who cannot,” as opposed to “I am a person who can,” and they often take on the attitudes and behaviors of learned helplessness (Groteluschen, Barkowski, & Hale, 1990). As a result, many adults with LD see themselves as incapable or as losers. In essence, they feel that if they get something right, they are lucky, and if they get it wrong, then they are dumb! Even adults who have experienced mostly successful lives have reported that they sometimes feel as if they are “impostors.” Their impostor syndrome (Clance, 1985) always make them feel that, despite past accomplishments, they still are not worthy of achievement, and that someone “will find out” that they are not qualified or capable.

For these reasons, it is understandable that adults with LD often experience a sense of frustration and exasperation. The cost is a set of “emotional baggage” that is carried into most social and learning experiences and daily living tasks (Barton & Fuhrmann, 1994). Confronted with myriad challenging tasks every day combined with a history of self-doubt lays the seeds of emotional liability (Gerber & Reiff, 1991). Moreover, stress and anxiety become part of the mix, often leading to an uncontrollable feeling of being overwhelmed by what has to be accomplished. When, in some cases, everything becomes too overwhelming, more intense and protracted emotional reactions become likely, leading to a wide array of mental health problems, including depression.

Within the social and emotional realm, it is particularly difficult to generalize about positive or negative motivation, which in so many cases is situation-specific. For example, some describe adults with LD as having little motivation because of the accumulation of failure experiences over the span of their lives. Unfortunately, this often can be the case. Others are highly motivated at times during their adult years for a variety of reasons. Motivation can be heightened, for instance, when a parent wants to learn to read so he/she can read bedtime stories to his/her children, or when he/she wants to learn a new skill for job advancement or for retraining purposes. In addition, when adults with LD want to take control of their lives, motivation that fuels initial success, and that begets further success, can create an awesome set of dynamics and become a source of lasting intrinsic motivation.

Certain secondary characteristics have been found to be effective for taking control of one’s life, which, in turn leads to greater possibilities of successful adaptation to adult life. One characteristic is the capacity of some adults with LD to be resilient despite past failure. In many cases, the lives of individuals with LD are punctuated with successes and failures. Those who been able to move forward undeterred by failure (and sometimes strengthened by it) have a greater sense of inner strength and self-confidence. In essence, in tough times, they know that there are good times ahead, if they are able to stick with it (Gerber, et al., 1994).

Resilience is a set of dynamics that affects different segments of the population of adults with LD in different ways. Whereas all individuals with LD have the capacity to be resilient in some cases (e.g., those who typically attend literacy centers), resilience may be more of an exception than a rule.

Another positive characteristic is the unconventional way in which some adults with LD devise learning strategies or adaptive methods to master a task or learn a new routine. They have unique ways in which they approach tasks, and, when given the time and opportunity, they are able to problem solve in their own style. This process has been termed “learned creativity” and is credited with adaptive techniques used in employment, daily living tasks, and social situations (Gerber, et al., 1992; Reiff, et al., 1997).

What are the myths?

The myths regarding adults with LD begin long before adulthood. In fact, one major myth has been debunked as a result of studying highly successful adults with LD. Oftentimes, students with learning disabilities are “written off” as individuals who have limited potential, leaving a guarded prognosis for adjustment to adulthood. But a seven-year-old student with learning disabilities can become a hard-working 17-year-old high school student, a focused 27-year-old parent and employee, and a successful family member and contributor to his/her work group. In essence, there are many possibilities and opportunities for adults with LD to be successful in myriad ways, despite a past spotted with failure and dire prediction of future problems (Gerber, 1992).

Another myth stems from the general notion about employment outcomes for adults with LD. Learning disabilities do not preclude individuals from becoming successful, from being leaders in their organizations or, even better, in their fields. There are countless examples of adults with LD across the country who have ìmade itî in the professions, in business and industry, in politics and the arts, and some who have become well-known entrepreneurs (Gerber, et al., 1992; Reiff, et al., 1997).

Nevertheless, it should be remember that there are low-income and poor adults with LD. Learning disabilities are not a middle-class phenomenon, as once believed. There are numerous adults with LD who are underserved and, if identified through social service safety nets, have potential to learn to read, find suitable employment, and participate more fully in their communities (Young, Gerber, Reder, & Cooper, 1996).

The penultimate myth acknowledges an aspect of adult development not written or spoken about in the adult learning disabled literature. Not only are adults with LD different because of the heterogeneity of learning disabilities, but adults with LD are different depending on the phase of adulthood that they are in. There are distinct differences in physical, mental, and psychosocial traits depending on early, middle, or late adulthood. Research even has shown deterioration in cognitive and other abilities as individuals with LD age (Gerber, Schneiders, et al., 1990). Thus, adulthood is not a constant, and adults with LD are not the same - and should not necessarily be approached in the same manner.

Last, adults with LD have a great deal in common with non-disabled adults. To stress differences without recognizing similarities is to miss the big picture. All adults have strong qualities and human frailties. They yearn for independence, love, and acknowledgement. They are mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles. They are line-workers, supervisors, and leaders in their professions. They have an agenda that is incomplete in terms of making their adult experiences full. But they are adults first, and their learning disabilities define only part of what they are all about!

This article was excerpted from Characteristics of Adults with Specific Learning Disabilities by Paul J. Gerber, Ph.D. The entire article can be found in Serving Adults with Learning Disabilities: Implications For Effective Practice, edited by B. Keith Lenz, Neil A. Sturomski, and Mary Ann Corley ( 1998). U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 600 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20202-7240, (202) 205-9996, or the National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center, Academy for Educational Development, 1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20009-1202, 1-800-953-ALLD.
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