When Having a Learning Difference Feels Like Being from a Different Planet
It’s not that I didn’t want to be doing important things, or understand the need for them. In theory, I could appreciate that they were good things to be doing. I just couldn’t connect to the necessity of getting them done right then. Unfortunately, when “right then” doesn’t happen, and many tasks are handled this way - or not handled, as the case may be - it can mean that a lot of things just don’t get done.
Some might say that choosing to step back from the hustle and bustle to philosophize is a good thing, in moderation. What happens with neurodiverse individuals is that we cannot count on moving beyond those moments into productive phases where we reliably take needed actions.
Because neurotypical individuals can visualize initiation and follow through, they can achieve great results with or without support. However, the ability to respond pragmatically and systematically to academic challenges is not how things play out for individuals with learning differences. It’s as if we are living on a different planet.
Struggling learners experience academic challenges through what I have come to call a lens of vagueness. In other words, they miss both the large picture and individual pieces within it. Pressing actions seem indistinct. Significant goals feel remote and blurry. Urgent to-do items seem irrelevant.
Without a solid tie to need, individuals with learning differences may see academic responsibilities as something outside themselves, dictated by others, with standards of excellence that don’t resonate.
While the challenge of vagueness is an ongoing hurdle for struggling students, it’s nothing the average learner needs to overcome. When neurotypical students are faced with a standard academic challenge, they automatically translate it into concrete action. For example:
- Neurotypical students are able to apply hierarchies and priorities to tasks.
- They can predict how long academic projects will take, create lists, and manage time.
- They are also able to visualize their path to success, and anticipate the satisfaction they will feel when the task is complete.
- They are able to confront setbacks in the learning process with specific problem solving techniques.
- They get rewarded on a biochemical level for planning and executing in a way that is likely to lead them to success.
- They have confident self talk patterns and an inherent sense that they can do whatever they put their minds to.
By contrast, neurodiverse learners may not easily form connections with how externally imposed criteria, including deadlines, tasks, and grades, relate to them. Individuals with learning differences may struggle to successfully navigate critical requirements and constraints, even when they wish they could do this with ease. Not being able to connect meaning to essential components, and to connect those components with each other in the right order, and at the right time, creates a barrier to completing tasks.
Struggling students may not understand the full scope and relevance of a project, or see how completing a specific task will work to their advantage. They may not recognize why they need additional tutoring or coaching help to achieve those goals. Thus, they may not take advantage of available support at crucial moments, such as the weeks prior to finals. As deadlines get closer, the student may take shortcuts with assignments just to get them done.
Without a concrete, personal connection to the need for learning concepts and completing tasks, learners may feel distracted during tutoring sessions, and then the opportunity for critical “aha” moments of discovery that could happen in that one-on-one interaction may be lost.
While academic coaching may help students maintain a steady academic track record, it does not guarantee that they will adopt better study practices, cultivate new organization habits, or see themselves operating in the context of a community of learners and educators. In order for learning support to help a neurodiverse student internalize more motivation, consistency, and resilience, concepts need to be made tangible and relevant.
To learn more about how struggling students can overcome vagueness and make learning concrete, book a free consultation now.
As an executive functioning coach and academic tutor, I specialize in helping individuals with learning differences exceed their goals for academics, organization, and college transition.