10/28/2009

What it feels like to have a learning disability: error detection without error correction


Funny Cry for Help Ecard: All I've learned from my mistakes is that I can't stop repeating them.

Tanya* is a highly gifted girl who is increasingly coming to wonder whether she has some sort of nonverbal learning disability, but is increasingly frustrated because none of the labels she's encountered seem to fit very well.

For her, the central experience is that she can detect her own errors, but can't stop herself from making them.

"In my AP psych class, they talked about how rats could learn how to do things like avoid pressing a bar so as not to get an electric shock. I always wondered how rats knew they were pressing on the bar so they could stop. If I were a rat, I wouldn't be able to stop pressing the bar.

I used to be good at taking tests as a kid, but now in high school, I'm not. First of all, I get all the 'stupid questions' wrong, the ones that are supposed to test how well you remember every word of the textbook. OK, so I can't remember whether Jamestown was founded in 1603 or 1607 (it was 1607). But I know it was founded before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, I know most of the early settlers died of disease because they stupidly decided to land in a swamp, and I know they were mostly young men out for adventure, not families like the Pilgrims. But any time I get a question like "Which year was Jamestown founded, 1603, 1605, 1607, or 1609?" I ALWAYS get it wrong.

It really makes me mad that kids who ask questions showing they don't understand a word of the textbook can get these questions right, and I can't. I study hard and try to remember that stuff, but I still get these questions wrong, every time.

But that's not so important, right? After all, there aren't enough questions like that to bring down your GPA too much. And at least I can feel all superior because I understand what I've learned, I haven't just memorized it. Ah, but that's the least of my problems.

I had a bio teacher who was a stickler. If you didn't put your graphs on a separate page, on graph paper, she'd take off points. If your intervals went up by 2 instead of by 1, or vice versa, she'd take off points. If you gave one of your lab writeup sections a different title than she liked, or centered it instead of left-justifying it, or some other formatting "mistake," she'd take off points. I don't think I ever got a point off from her for content, but I routinely got half the points taken off my homework for formatting. She never said at the outset what her rules were, or gave us a list of them to look at when we did our homework. I could never remember and follow all her rules, even though I spent hours trying to get my lab reports right. I would dread getting my lab reports back because I never knew what she was going to pick on, but I knew there'd be something wrong. I thought her rules were stupid, but I really tried, because I got sick of failing half my homework assignments.

Bio was a real problem, but at least there, the teacher had it in for me. (You should've seen the sour look on her face when she handed back my A+ final--multiple choice, so she couldn't do anything about it). My math teacher, though, was actually a nice guy. It didn't matter. I used to dread seeing all the red marks on my homework when he handed it back. I lined problems up wrong, forgot about negative or double negative signs, and probably did lots of other stuff I couldn't identify. Often, I had no idea why I was getting these problems wrong. I knew what all the steps were. It was always a calculation error I made, and it seemed to be different every time. I paid lots of attention to how I lined up my work. I wrote out every step of the problem so it'd be easier to check. Every step, I checked to make sure I was using all the negative signs. And after I finished each problem, I checked it repeatedly. It didn't help. I never caught everything.

Needless to say, it was the same way in French. Pages of complicated, creative sentence structure and ideas with a red mark on practically every line. Obviously, I read my work aloud to myself and checked it for mistakes, but I didn't catch the missed accents, misconjugated tenses, etc.

Every time I have homework or a test, I would read it over carefully, see nothing wrong, and smile with satisfaction at my perfect assignment. Then I'd be shattered when it came back covered with red ink.

It'd be even worse, because every so often, when it really counted, I wouldn't make these mistakes. I got a class grade of A- by the skin of my teeth in math and bio by getting a perfect score on key tests. I didn't know why I suddenly wasn't making mistakes, because nothing felt any different than it usually did. And then my teachers were surprised, and started expecting more from me. Then they were disappointed when it was a fluke and I couldn't deliver.

It felt like this was completely out of my control. It was like the mistakes appeared by magic. It was like they were falling out of the sky, or like I had a magnet that attracted them all. They didn't feel like they were coming from me. After all, I couldn't even see them. I could never figure out why I was making them, and I could never stop myself, either. Since it was irrational to think I was cursed, or somebody up there hated me, I decided I must be becoming stupid. That sure answered the everlasting question: if you're so smart, why are you doing so badly?

My parents would tell me to work harder, pay more attention, check my work more. As if it were under my control. All I knew was, something was wrong, it wasn't under my control, and it was terrifying. After all, if I had a choice, why would I make these mistakes? I am angry and frustrated with myself and disgusted because something is obviously wrong with me. I'm frightened about my future, feeling helpless, out of control, and demotivated. And I'm frustrated that I can't convince my parents and teachers, who have such high expectations, that I'm doing the best that I can.

The whole point of a learning disability is that you can put you best effort into something, be really smart, and still do worse than you "should." If I had one, it would mean that I'm not becoming stupid, I'm not lazy, and yes, I really am paying attention. And if there's a name for what I have, then someone's probably studying it. And if someone's studying it, then maybe someone can fix it, before my grades and self-esteem go completely down the toilet."