Imagine there’s something about you that sets you apart from your peers. Something that makes you…different. While they’re doing one thing, you might get pulled out of the classroom to do something else. Something they’ve already learned. Something they’re effortlessly good at. Imagine when you’re called on to read a paragraph, and the letters run off the page. Imagine when you pick up a pencil, and the letters careen over your paper, your spelling unintelligible. Or perhaps you don’t understand your peers’ social cues, don’t get when they want you to be quiet or go away or lower your voice.
Kids can be tolerant, given the chance. But kids can also be cruel.
Studies show that kids with learning disabilities often feel isolated, tend to be less popular, and have fewer friends than neurotypical children. One study done in the Journal of Learning Disabilities found that, when asked to tell personal narratives about their time in school, students with learning disabilities emphasized “themes of isolation, undervaluing, and oppression.”
This is how I felt growing up with untreated inattentive ADHD. I was dreamy and spacey; I frequently forgot things, blurted out answers, and made careless mistakes. Worst of all, I had difficulty reading social cues as I got older and didn’t always have a sense of the appropriate. Because of this, I had very few friends, starting in elementary school. I had even less friends when I switched to a different junior high, though the structure there helped me learn to stay organized. I was a lonely kid, a sad kid, and one who frequently felt isolated.
It doesn’t have to be so much as total social ostracism. Chris, 36, has dyscalculia (a neurological difference that hampers his ability to do math), and he used to get “comments” from his teachers and peers. “Why can’t you do this? You’re so smart!” people would say. Teachers assumed he was lazy. And when the so-called smart kid found himself in remediation with the so-called bottom of the class, everyone acted dumbfounded. He was frequently embarrassed by his disorder and his need for extra help, by his failing grades.
Great Schools consulted with Israeli professor Dr. Malka Margalit, head of the Constantiner School of Education at Tel-Aviv University in Israel, and “a leading researcher on the issue of loneliness among children with LD.” She found that children with learning disabilities are uniquely suited for loneliness because they “often have real social difficulties, which can result in a poor social network, low social status, and rejection by other kids.”
This is what happened to Jim, age 35, an adult with (self-identified) Asperger’s growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. He says he was “very isolated — I was very much a loner growing up.” This was, in part, because of his enforced environment: “On top of that I was in special education, restricting my early education to few social development opportunities and behavioral ‘training.’” Jim eventually had what he calls “a Dream” when he was 14, leading him to start a group where teens and 20-somethings with autism and Asperger’s could associate together in the company of a psychologist and therapist. He served as the chairman of this organization until recently, and several chapters are still active in the Midwest.
Another reason Dr. Margalit cites as a cause for loneliness among children with learning disabilities is what she calls a “performance deficit”: “Even when they have age-appropriate social knowledge, children with LD may not be able to turn it into appropriate social behavior.” Davis, age 30, diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, had these problems from the time he started school. He says he remembers “many, many trips” to the vice-principal’s office in first grade, and being paddled at least once. “Needless to say,” he says, “I only had one friend.” In second grade, he says his feelings of isolation stemmed from the behavior that went along with his ADHD and kids not liking him because of it. Almost every single day, he says, he went home with a red or yellow card instead of a “good” green one.
Another kid with ADHD, Sara, age 31, says she also had a lot of loneliness and isolation, “but mostly because I didn’t get how to interact with people.” Dr. Margalit calls this a “knowledge deficit: they may not have acquired the age-appropriate knowledge they need in order to develop satisfactory social relations.” Sara goes on to say that, “I always felt like I was studying kids around me and trying to do what they did but couldn’t pull it off.” She would give up when material got too hard or too complicated for her, causing bad grades. “But in high school, when I started suffering the most with this, people just thought I was really lazy … I was mostly isolated. My friends were mostly outside of school.”
This doesn’t stop in childhood, either. An essay in Learning Disability Quarterly talked to adults who had learning disabilities. While they said it made them stronger people and more resilient, there was a darker side to living with a learning disability. They suffered from the “imposter phenomenon” — which California State University, Fullerton, explains is thinking “that even though they are successful they believe that their accomplishments were the result of luck or some external circumstance.” It’s a sign of low self-esteem. Worst of all, these adults suffered from social isolation and “damage to emotional health.”
Clearly, we need to do more to support our children with learning disabilities and special needs. Beyond helping them learn to do their schoolwork better, we need to tend to their socio-emotional needs as well. Only when we meet the emotional needs of these kids, along with their educational goals, can we say we’re truly succeeding. Only when we help them holistically can we say that we’re really giving them the best that we can. And they deserve it.