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How I learned that differences are our greatest strengths


If someone asked, “What makes you different?”, what would you say?

You might tell them about your hair color, your taste in music, or your favorite foods — all of the things that make you an interesting and unique person. But we also have differences that are more complex — and that make us even more unique.

I didn’t truly understand what a difference was until I had my son Max.

Max is part of a broad community, the 1 in 5 of us who learn and think differently. This can make the world harder to navigate. But, as I learned from Max, there’s no reason learning and thinking differences should prevent people from thriving.

I first noticed that Max was different when he was about 10 months old. For instance, he wasn’t making as many sounds as other kids his age. When something fell from his highchair and he didn’t follow it, I knew that might be a sign. He didn’t have what I came to learn is “object permanence.”

As Max got older, I noticed other differences too. He struggled with his motor and language skills and didn’t walk until he was 18 months old. My husband Fred and I found a team of therapists and doctors to help Max. Our world instantly changed when we discovered Max had learning and thinking differences.

A learning and thinking difference, commonly known as a learning disability, is a disorder that results in learning challenges. These challenges are not caused by low intelligence, problems with hearing, or vision, or lack of educational opportunity. Learning and thinking differences include dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and more.

At first, I felt scared, isolated, and even overwhelmed. And this was 30 years ago, so not nearly as much was known about learning and thinking differences. But even today, I think every parent still feels the same uncertainty, the same worry, when they learn their child has a learning and thinking difference. More than anything, I wanted to help Max thrive. I didn’t want his diagnosis to sentence him to a life of “less-than.”

We were lucky that we caught the signs early on and were able to get Max the support and help he needed. Today, he is a thriving 33-year-old. The path to get here wasn’t a straight line, but it taught me so much about people who learn and think differently.

Max’s differences made him special. He’s learned to compensate for his differences and take advantage of his strengths. And because of him, I found a new strength, a sense of purpose, and a community. I knew I wanted more people like Max to be supported and show others the power of their learning and thinking differences. If more people could recognize the value all people who are different have to offer, everyone could be accepted for who they are and be given chances to succeed.

That’s why ten years ago Fred and I started Understood. We were so fortunate to have been able to access resources to help Max. We wanted to do something so all parents and caregivers could have access to free resources to help them support their children — and to a community of people who understood the value of differences. With the help of professionals and learning disability organizations, we were able to make Understood a support hub for families across the country.

Today, we continue to serve families and are expanding our resources to empower more communities. We want every individual to thrive like Max and that means we need to work with educatorsemployers, and so many others. Our work will help more people — from parents to teachers to managers — understand the strength that comes from our differences. We hope you’ll join us as we embark on our broader mission to Shape the World for Difference and ensure everyone, regardless of disability or difference, can thrive.

A driving force on initiatives related to learning and thinking differences, education, literacy, and assistive technology, Nancy is the co-founder and chair of the board at Understood.

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