Thanks for checking out our first post here at Understood! Although we plan to write regularly, we’re going to share in this first post the one thing we’d say about kids with learning and thinking differences if we only ever had one chance.

It’s this: Your kids are not broken.

They’re not defective. Their minds are not trying, but failing, to work like “normal” minds. Their minds learn and work differently because they’re supposed to work and learn differently.

That’s why they often have such unusual and surprising stories, like our friend Tiffany. When Tiffany was in fifth grade, her teacher said she was so bad at reading, writing and math that she’d be lucky to get a job working at a fast food restaurant. Today, Tiffany is managing director of one of the world’s fastest growing communications agencies.

This pattern, where “easy” things are hard, and “hard” things are easy, is a clear sign of a mind that does things differently. It’s not a simple matter of being “smart” or “dumb” on a single scale.

Their minds are organized differently. Over the years, we’ve worked with thousands of people with learning disabilities and ADHD. We’ve studied the research literature on how brains work and develop. Through this process, we’ve learned that the minds of these children are built to learn, develop and do their best work in ways that are different than others.

Many people know about the challenges these differences create. Children with learning and thinking differences usually struggle to learn the basic skills that are the focus of early school years—things like reading or writing or arithmetic. These skills are usually taught by drilling or rote memorization—approaches that don’t work well for kids with learning and thinking differences. As a result, they really can appear “disabled” in many school environments.

Different wiring may bring advantages. But these challenges aren’t the whole story. Gradually, researchers have begun to recognize that people with learning and thinking differences actually do some things better than other people. In other words, there appear to be advantages to having these different kinds of wiring.

In our own work, we’ve seen these advantages over and over again, like the abilities to:

  • Learn and understand through experiencing and interacting with the world, rather than just talking about it

  • See connections and patterns that other people miss

  • Shift and combine perspectives

  • See the world through other people’s eyes

  • Build, create, invent and compose

  • Understand complex spatial relationships

  • Tell stories, and use examples and analogies to understand the world or to create new and imaginative ones

  • Imagine and predict, often by leaps of intuition, what will result from certain conditions or events

  • Function well in certain fast-moving, complex environments that others find confusing

Don’t overlook their strengths. We don’t mean to downplay the challenges for kids. We know these challenges very well, both as parents and professionals.

But too often the strengths that students with learning and thinking differences have are overlooked. Sometimes in our well-meaning attempts to help them “fix” their deficits, we use up so much of their time and energy that we fail to identify and develop their talents.

This is a huge mistake. Our experience has shown us that understanding, building and using these strengths is just as important to helping these children succeed as addressing their challenges. It’s like rowing: We’ll only go forward if we use both hands.

It comes down to a vision for how we look at differences. Ultimately, it all comes down to our vision of how we look at the differences between people. If we believe that every mind should work the same, then we’ll see every difference as a sign of a disorder. We’ll focus on problems that need to be fixed.

But if we see that some minds are meant to work differently, then we can ask questions like: Why does this mind work differently? What are those differences for? What advantages, skills or strengths do those differences create? It’s by looking for and building on those strengths that we’ll find the meaning and purpose of those differences.

Kids with learning and thinking differences possess enormous amounts of creativity and innovation. We’ll all be blessed when we learn to better understand and nurture these special minds.

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