The physician in the following story invited the Stern Center to share the story of her struggle with a nonverbal learning difficulty because, as she says, “If children show signs of a difficulty, a block, with a certain course, teachers should try to figure out why. What is it that has the child bamboozled?… There seems to be a way to overcome difficulties if you use a person’s strengths to overcome their weaknesses.”
Because learning differences come in many varieties, not just dyslexia, the Stern Center has a mission to improve the quality of life for individuals with many different thinking styles. One fascinating type of learning disability involves weaknesses in the area of nonverbal, visual-spatial thinking, commonly referred to as a nonverbal learning disability or NLD.
My personal journey to help an individual with this type of learning style occurred when I taught a physician to build her visual-spatial thinking skills. Despite good performance on other aspects of her medical board examinations, she had failed on three occasions to pass the boards because she struggled to interpret information from slides and X-rays. After a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation at the Stern Center, this doctor was identified as having a visual-spatial (or nonverbal) learning disability, which compromises her ability to visualize and interpret two-and three-dimensional spatial information despite superior verbal thinking skills.
In our first instructional session, the doctor shared her frustrations with me. She often became confused finding her way out of a parking garage, she was not able to assemble complex puzzles, and found reading a map to be extremely challenging. She first encountered problems during a high school physics class and subsequently in medical school as difficulties emerged in anatomy and organic chemistry, because these courses require visualization of minute arteries and veins as well as molecule structures.
This doctor and I worked hard to explore the language of visual inspection, relearning the meanings of such basic spatial terms as horizontal, diagonal, vertical, upper left, lower right, periphery, centered when applied to two-dimensional information. It became apparent that she needed to “talk though” visual information in order to effectively grasp the underlying concepts. In three fascinating sessions, I learned to work with this physician in ways that were counter-intuitive to how I learn. The more I ignored my own learning preferences, the more clinically effective I became. During the last session, she brought in pictures of pathology slides and we discussed captions as she clarified the visual information through self-talk. Taking the principles learned in our three sessions, the doctor then proceeded to work independently to prepare for the boards. She passed them in the 50th percentile, thanks to her diligence and commitment to self-improvement.
In presenting this wonderful experience to educators at the Learning Disabilities Network Conference in Boston last March, I expressed gratitude for this physician’s candor and courage. Without her willingness to share her story, the Stern Center would have less information about how to help other professionals with similar learning differences.