Learning Differences: How We Can Help Ourselves

How much do you know about Learning Differences? Maybe you have one, maybe you know someone with one, maybe you’ve just read about them in passing. You know what, let’s just do a quick survey, just to see where everyone stands.


Do you have a learning difference (LD)?

Yeah, I have an LD
No, but I have a close friend or family member who does
No, but I’m aquainted with someone who does
Nope, not at all


How much do you know about LDs?

Pretty much nothing, to be honest
I know a bit, but not too much
I know a lot, but I’ve got some blind spots
Dude, I probably could have done this project better than you


And just for entertainments sake.

What percentage of the population would you guess has a LD?


online polls

Well I’m sure that will prove interesting! For those of you that wouldn’t know dysgraphia from dyscalculia, I suppose we should start back at the beginning.

LDs: What the Heck Are They?

Learning differences, aka difficulties, aka disabilities, aka disorders, are neurological disorders. It essentially means your brain is wired differently, and in a word they can’t be cured or fixed, just dealt with. People with LDs are just as smart as people without, to use the old adage, it just means that certain things like reading (dyslexia), math (dyscalculia), or handwriting (dysgraphia, my thing) are really, really annoying.

For example, I present to you my math homework. Welcome to Hell, Population: my math teacher

Now there are plenty of LDs, and they range everywhere. You probably know about ADHD, for instance, which affects focus, memory, motivation, and all that fun stuff, but you might not know about Auditory Processing Disorder or APD, which causes problems processing sounds, specifically speech. Thus, LDs require a lot of different kinds of help.

You might be wondering at this point about the answer to that third question on the survey. Well… Simply put, not sure. Some studies say the percentage of people with LDs is around 4%, others estimate somewhere between 15-20%. Yeah, it can never be that simple, can it. Either way, that means there’s a pretty decent chance you know someone with a learning difference.

Yeah, I’m not going to touch on the gender thing, seriously, can of worms right there, and we don’t need to get into gender politics. Point being, statistics get weird, with that much variation in the US alone.


I’m going to skip the history lecture for brevity’s sake and move right on to the present. For students with LDs in public school, at least in America, if you’ve got a diagnosis there are options. Sometimes you’ll get put in special ed, in extreme cases, and let me tell you American public school  special ed is a whole other can of worms best left for another time. Otherwise, you might qualify for accommodations. There are classroom accommodations, like sitting up front, testing accommodations, like getting extra time or letting you use a keyboard, and assistive technologies, like calculators, audiobooks, and the like. Private schools do this too, and a lot of the time they can even do it better, given their resources.

Cliche image, but a good example of how NOT to do testing.

Most of the time, those work awesome. They were thought up by smart people who are real bigshots in the field, and the methods themselves have been beta tested to Mordor and back. Take extended time for ADHD, that works great. If you get off track, it’s not apocalyptic, and when you’re less stressed, for me at least, you’re less likely to lose focus completely. The problem comes when people who don’t know a lot about LDs or don’t have LDs, or at least don’t have yours, try to weigh in. At best its might be a bit helpful, emphasis on the might, but typically it can be summed up as benevolent ‘no duh’. This, of course, is where my project comes in. Prepare the drum roll!

My Project

Now I know you’re just trying to help, it’s human nature, but believe me, nine times out of ten we’ve already heard it. I’ve found that, if you’ve got to ask for advice, at least ask someone who’s had the same problem before. It’s a pretty basic heuristic, but it does it’s job. When it comes to my LDs, some of the best advice that I’ve gotten, to help me focus, to get started on tasks, to have my hand not hurt like the devil himself has injected discomfort into my tendons, comes from suggestions off the internet from people who actually have my brain things. In any case, I got on that and interviewed a few people with LDs, more specifically what problems they have, what helps, what doesn’t help, and anything they’d like to say to people who don’t have LDs. All in all, I interviewed three people, plus some comments from myself, all of whom, coincidentally, have ADHD. I’ll introduce you to them, shall we?

The People Involved

First up, there’s Skye. Skye is a senior at my school, Punahou, and is ADHD. She has problems with concentration (especially on tasks that she doesn’t find all that fun), disorganization, impulsivity, and zoning out. All these problems impede her ability to do schoolwork, chores, and other necessary tasks. She’s currently on medication to help regulate symptoms, which is working perfectly well, thank you very much!

Next is another Punahou student, this one a junior, by the name of La’amaikahiki, but thankfully for my lackluster spelling abilities, he usually just goes by La’a. He’s ADHD as well, and he has trouble with prioritizing tasks, focus, and motivation.

Last, but not least, an anonymous student from out of state, for the sake of things let’s just call him Bird. Bird has ADHD too, as well as dyslexia and autism. He has problems focusing on schoolwork, staying organized, and keeping track of tasks. He’s been diagnosed with both ADHD and autism and can sometimes have trouble distinguishing what problems come from which disorder.

Yeah, we’re calling him Bird. Don’t ask, it’s a long story.

I myself have ADHD and dysgraphia, a disorder that caused problems with handwriting and stringing sentences together. What really causes problems is my bad handwriting, and when I say bad, I mean BAD. I have trouble sometimes getting numbers in the right order, writing letters that mirror, like bs and ds, in the right direction, and spelling long, repetitive words. My hand cramps up in five minutes flat, and all and all, it makes essay tests a living hell.

Tips and Tricks: a users guide to your brain

Now, I feel, would be a good time to give a rundown of ADHD and it’s lovely little intricacies. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is divided up into three types based on symptoms. Hyperactive-impulsive type is marked by an inability to stay still (you know, the stereotypical kid with an inability to stay in his chair), risk taking, and poor impulse control, inattentive type has problems with concentration, distractedness, and organizational skills, and combination type is a lovely cocktail of the two. Symptoms start showing around the age of seven and last for life.

For those who are still confused, don’t worry buddy it took me years

There are things you can do to cope with ADHD. Common suggestions include shutting off devices, keeping your space clean, and writing stuff down. Of course, there are other methods, which leads us to…


Something Skye finds really helpful is to let people know about your situation in the first place. If you’re able to get help, you should get it. Whether it’s from a psychologist, the school’s resources, teachers, or friends and family, being able to communicate your needs can save a lot of unnecessary anguish. As well, she finds it helpful to plan things out in advance so she doesn’t get overwhelmed.


Similar to Skye, La’a finds it helpful to build a support network. He’s made a habit of being sure to talk to teachers and to ask if he needs something because of his ADHD, such as an extension on an assignment or extra time on a test. He likes to make lists to keep track of what he has to do, and to make sure he hasn’t forgotten something, and a strategy he’s found particularly useful is to find someone who can remind him to stay on task. When he has someone pushing him to finish his work and stay off the Internet, he’s found that he can finish tasks a lot quicker than he would without an outside influence.


Bird’s suggested methods are a bit more down and dirty. He make a lot of use of stim toys, especially when working at home, to keep his mind from wandering and to keep him on task. Stim toys, typically associated with autism, are items used to self regulate your level of stimulation, like fidget toys, chewable jewelry, and weighted beanbags. He also sometimes self medicates with caffiene. “Coffee,” he says, “in small doses can actually like help your adhd.” It calms him down and helps him focus in on his work, enough to become lucid enough to suppress the other symptoms.

Some examples of stim toys, and believe me a little something to fidget with can be a lifesaver in a boring lecture

For my dysgraphia, the thing I’ve found the most helpful day to day is to use a computer and to warn my teachers. Once they’re aware, they know to give me the option to use a computer on essay tests and that, no, this isn’t my attempt to make my homework so illegible you don’t read it. As for ADHD, checklists are my eternal savior. To say I use a lot is a colossal understatement, I have at one point made a checklist for my checklists to make sure I didn’t lose a checklist and forget to do something. (Given, I then lost that checklist. The irony haunts me to this day.)

What not to say, or please just shut up about yoga

(Not to diss yoga, some people find it very helpful to center themselves and clear their heads, but oh my Valar, it’s not the solution for everything, Helen.)

Look, I said it before, I know you’re just trying to help. I get it, it can be an awkward topic sometimes and you just want to give a friendly suggestion, but there are certain things we are just tired of hearing. There are uncomfortable questions, bad advice, and misconceptions that we’ve heard a few too many times. And, for your sake and especially mine, here are a few of those things.


Stop asking about meds. We get you’re curious but, please, some people just don’t want to talk about it. That’s between a doctor and their patient, and maybe the parents if they’re a minor. Just please. Stop.


If you think your kid has an LD, get them tested, just in case. In the long run, it’s beneficial, and it’s a lot better than them thinking they’re just dumb for ten odd years.

Stop saying things like “What’s wrong with you, why won’t you just work?” It’s not helpful, it’s not funny, and it’s not nice. We really are trying our best.

Really, if I’d known what I had sooner, it would have saved all of us a lot of anguish and a lot of bad grades.

As for my own issues, let me suffice to say this. Yes, I have tried writing slower. No, I can’t just “fix” my grip. Practice isn’t the problem here, I really am trying. If you thought of your quick fix in less than a minute, I can assure you, sworn on my 17 years of living with dysgraphia and ADHD, we’ve heard it, we’ve tried it, and it probably didn’t work miracles.

The Grand Finale, and what you should really consider

I’m just going to end this with Skye’s quote to that last question, which puts not only the thesis of my project, but a thesis for life in general, more succinctly, more simply, and more eloquently than I ever would have managed.


“Everyone has a story or a background that make them who they are, and it’s very unfair to judge any person based on stereotypes or whatever image they choose to portray. Some people put out images or behaviors that mask who they really are and it’s very easy to judge people upon whatever facade they put on but often times it isn’t their true self. People should be more empathetic and understanding, not only to people with learning differences or mental disorders, but to every person in general. Likewise, two people with ADHD probably have very different stories and experiences so I hope that other people would stop generalizing certain traits or behaviors. Someone with ADHD does not know everything about everyone else with ADHD, because each person has a unique situation/story/certain symptoms.”

That’s what I’m trying to say. Be empathetic, be understanding, be kind. Look past the mask and understand that everyone has problems and they really are doing the best they can. Everyone has a story, so don’t judge a book by the old tropes without ever turning the first page.




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