Charles in Toronto

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10 things I always knew about myself but never had the words to explain

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I recently got the results of a professional assessment to determine the best and not-so-best ways I learn and perform, in order to help me gain a better understanding of how this will affect me in the workforce. I have learned that my performance is consistent with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD), which truly came to me as a surprise given my relative success in educational environments. It turns out that about 80% of people with Asperger Syndrome (or alternatively Autism Spectrum Disorder) fit the diagnostic criteria for NLD. After some reflection I can only conclude that NLD is a much better description for me, as I do not share some of the most prominent and noticeable AS/ASD traits.

So what does this actually mean for me? I think it confirms a lot of what I already knew but didn’t quite know how to express. 

Anything but arithmetic. It was a long time ago, but I recall some of my times tables and simple additions/subtractions being hard to remember. My assessment scored high on most math-related measures, except, I had a lousy score compared to the population at large on what was essentially a speed arithmetic test. It must be a combination of factors – for example, my tendency to spend more time checking my answers, my penmanship, or the time it takes me to scan each question rapidly. At a higher level of math, though, my reasoning skills are strong enough to surpass these delays.

Fine motor skills. Tests requiring motor output showed markedly lower results than similar tasks with less motor output. My writing is not highly legible unless I expressly intend it to be. When manipulating small items I compensate for any unsteadiness by focusing on the task at hand and making corrections based on visual and tactile information. I’m somewhere in the “average” range on these skills, but in scientific school and work environments my peers have often been well above that average. I suppose that the motor skills involved in touch-typing must reside in some other part of my brain, as I have been a rapid and reasonably accurate typist for years.

No, I really can’t tell you what it looks like. In the short term, I don’t remember images very well. If I narrate myself through the details as I observe, I may remember more, but anything I failed to focus on will probably be lost to me. In the long term, I can definitely store faces and images for the purpose of matching but I can’t output that information very well. I know what the faces of my friends and family look like but I cannot easily hold a full stable image of a face in my “mind’s eye” without pieces of it blanking out. And in particular I have great difficulty in trying to draw anything that I have to retrieve from visual memory. I often forget what someone was wearing because I was only focused on the conversation at hand.

Listening versus hearing. In order to remember the important details of spoken information, I need to encode it in a way that survives in my brain. So there are at least two types of processing going on – one that translates sounds into meaningful information, and one that converts it further into something I can remember. If a speaker continues talking while I’m still processing, I may well listen to a bunch of syllables that fail to convert into anything meaningful. In one test, I listened to short stories a few sentences long, and had difficulty retaining enough details to answer questions. One useful strategy is taking notes. If I can output the information before I forget it, and input it again, my memory improves.

I ask a lot of questions. Active listening beats passive listening. Information with context is also much easier to retain, as I am a conceptual learner. Without context I can’t see it as a coherent concept. So I will ask questions about context and details to help form a bigger picture of what I’m learning. Some people teach and learn in a much more linear fashion and may find questions disruptive, especially if what I’m asking is what they were going to explain later anyway. I am now quite sure that this is a coping mechanism I developed to improve learning and memory. The more senses I can use on the same information, and the more times it can cycle through my brain, the better I’ll retain it.

The “basics” are harder than the next level. If learning the basics of a task requires mainly fine motor skills, but higher-level work depends on reasoning skills, then I will be much better at the latter. If the first step of learning a concept involves a big pile of information without context, my learning will be slower until the larger context is clear. In the workplace, this can be a problem if my competence is judged solely by how well I can do entry-level tasks that are not my strongest capabilities.

Non-verbal cues make sense to me, but I have to think about it. One of the tests I did was for recognizing facial expressions, and the results showed some errors or delays when it came to faces representing anger and disgust. I consider myself very perceptive, but maybe on some level I learned to consciously search for non-verbal cues such as body language because it’s not as instinctive to me as it is to others. I would guess maybe I’m about 80% accurate when reading non-verbal cues. Sometimes I face a double barrier if I’m speaking with a person who relies heavily on non-verbal communication to compensate for a verbal language barrier.

Do you read me? I’m probably also about 80% when it comes to sending non-verbal cues. When some people experience behaviour that does not make sense to them, they assume there must be an underlying reason and search for an explanation. In reality if I’m interacting with you and something seems odd, it may well be that I’m just experiencing the world in a different way. If I’m processing other information my body language might reflect what I’m thinking about rather than my response to you or our environment. I hope that if I can gain a better understanding of how this affects my life, I can avoid being misread before it leads to negative outcomes.

It’s more than just “everyone has some things they’re not good at”. Yes, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. With learning disabilities it’s much more uneven; sometimes in the same class of skills there are both very high and low scores. According to the assessment, my full-scale IQ “cannot be interpreted as a meaningful single score” due to the discrepancies between results. Looking back over the years I can see how many of the aspects of NLD have quietly acted as barriers in my life. I naturally gravitated towards a field where I would be surrounded by bright people, only to be deeply frustrated when I could not match all their expectations of my skills. I certainly wish I’d been able to read this assessment in my teenage years to give myself a better framework for understanding these challenges.

I perceive the world in a very unique way, and this can be a strength. The unusual way I experience the world also gives me great insight. I have a strong sense of the best ways I can learn, and I love to apply what I’ve learned in new and interesting contexts. When something does not make sense I notice and try to understand why. As a conceptual thinker, I often have an intuitive grasp of how to approach problem solving. I look forward to discovering the best ways to apply what I’ve learned about myself.

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Written by Charles in Toronto

March 11, 2015 at 7:02 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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