When Peter Flom was 5, his family was told he would never go to college because of his learning issues. Fortunately, they didn’t accept that.
Instead, they enrolled him in the Gateway School. Started in 1965, it was one of the first schools in the U.S. for kids with learning and attention issues. Flom was its very first student.
Not only did Flom end up going to college, he went on to earn two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in psychometrics. Today, Flom is a statistician. He also speaks and writes about having a nonverbal learning disability (NVLD). Flom is the author of the memoir Screwed Up Somehow but Not Stupid.
He lives in New York City with his wife and two children. In this interview, he talks about his journey.
1. How did you become the first student at the Gateway School of New York?
When I was 5, I was asked not to return to my preschool. So my parents took me to a psychologist for an evaluation. The psychologist said I had “minimal brain dysfunction” (that was a diagnosis back then) and would never go to college. But my mother didn’t take his word for it. She thought I was smart.
My mother started researching and found a teacher named Elizabeth Freidus. (It’s pronounced “freed us,” which seems cool for a teacher of kids with learning issues). My mom and Elizabeth made a deal to start a school.
Elizabeth would do everything that was related to education. My mom would do everything else: fundraising, administration and all that. And that school became the Gateway School. This was only two years after the term learning disability was first used by Dr. Samuel A. Kirk. So the school was pretty revolutionary.
2. What’s the biggest misconception about NVLD?
I think most people have never even heard of it, so they can’t have misconceptions!
But probably the biggest misconception comes from the name. People think we are nonverbal. Actually, most people with NVLD are very verbal—we like words. The Internet is a great tool for us, because we can interact in text.
We have problems with nonverbal stuff, like tone of voice, body language, facial expression and other social cues. People with NVLD can also have issues with space and time relationships. For example, I have trouble with knowing how long it takes to get somewhere or remembering where I put things, like my keys.
The next biggest misconception is that NVLD is autism spectrum disorder.
It’s true that people with NVLD have some similarities with people with autism. For example, we often have trouble with interpersonal relationships. But there are a lot of differences.
Autistic people are often visual thinkers. In fact, one the most famous autistic people, Dr. Temple Grandin, wrote a book called Thinking in Pictures. But people with NVLD tend to be auditory thinkers with strong verbal skills. As I mentioned, we prefer words.
3. What would have helped you (and kids with NVLD) the most in school?
I don’t think there was a good school for me after the age of 9—which is when Gateway ended in those days (now it goes through middle school).
I was what they call a twice-exceptional or 2E child.
Or as I like to say, “Gifted and learning disabled! Twice as weird with extra fun!” In middle school and high school, I had a lot of social issues and didn’t fit in with other kids. I was bullied and picked on because I was different.
I think it would’ve helped if I had the chance to be in school with other kids like me—kids who could solve quadratic equations but had trouble finding their way home. You know, I actually did get lost a lot in grad school.
For kids with NVLD today, they need that chance to interact with kids like them. I also think more understanding of how NVLD affects us would help.
For instance, many of us do well with rules that are spelled out in detail. We don’t have good intuition about things that are left unsaid. We have problems with nonverbal communication, so it would help if parents and teachers were more aware of how much they communicate nonverbally.
4. Do you think schools and society have gotten better for kids with NVLD?
Things have definitely gotten better. The most obvious improvement is funding—back when I was a kid, there was no funding at all for special education. If you wanted your kid to get services, that was your problem and you had to pay for private school.
We’ve also learned a lot about NVLD and other issues. For instance, what people with NVLD can do, what teaching approaches can help, and so on. There’s also a lot more attention being paid to bullying and ways to prevent it.
But there’s still a ways to go! There’s still a lot of misunderstanding. Bullying still happens. There’s still a stigma to the labels we put on learning issues, whether it’s NVLD or something else.
I think these labels should be about as stigmatized as a label like “nearsighted.” Sure, there are some things that are hard for people with learning issues. But the same is true for nearsighted people. I will never be a pilot, for instance, because my vision is lousy.
5. How does your work with statistics fit your strengths?
I’ve always been good with numbers. I was the sort of kid who read the almanac. And I like playing with data. So being a statistician fits my talents pretty well.
I’ve done statistics in various places, but now I am freelance. I like that because I like learning a little bit about a lot of different fields, and I have to do that to do my work.
When I had a client who was an expert on epilepsy, I learned a little about that. I now do some work for Verizon, so I am learning a little about their business. I had one client who was studying the outbreak of civil wars in Africa. I had another who was studying the organization of police departments.
I like the variety and I’m happy I found something I enjoy that plays to my strengths as a person. In fact, I think that’s critical for anyone who has a learning or attention issue.