Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.
Carly Priest is a rising senior at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she studies history and English. In her free time she dives for the Swimming and Diving Team, works in a local kindergarten, and writes for the school newspaper. Carly attends the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) conference as a representative for Eye to Eye, where she has served as a mentor, intern, camp counselor and Diplomat.
Everyone has a different path to figuring out who they are. My own journey is far from over! As a senior in college, I continue to learn about myself every day, but the ability to advocate for the resources I need continues to make all the difference. I share my story as a different learner to remind others who struggle with learning and attention issues, as I do, that success is not only possible, but critical. In learning differently, we have something unique and important to offer the world.
From kindergarten through eighth grade, I was seen as the “wacky” kid. Even though I was the “wacky” kid who had difficulty with spelling and a hard time following sequential instructions, no one suspected a learning disability because I loved to learn. Even with my love for learning, thinking back on my early education, I vividly recall feeling hopeless in the classroom. I had no words to communicate how I struggled!
My elementary school was a small public charter school that centered on a nature-based education model. The school’s kinesthetic and experiential approach to education allowed me to learn with my body, oftentimes outdoors. This emphasis on learning in motion, along with alternative instructional methods, ultimately mitigated my learning challenges enough to get by until high school.
Although mostly unnoticed through elementary school, my learning differences became apparent when I transitioned into a traditional high school. Within the first few months, my English teacher, sensing something was wrong, suggested we look deeper into what was going on. Evaluations revealed my visual processing disorder as well as attention deficit. It was good to finally have a diagnosis, but as I quickly realized, finally having a “name” for the difficulties I had always experienced was only the first step in the ongoing journey. Even though my diagnosis meant I suddenly received several types of accommodations, I still didn’t understand why I had accommodations, how they would help me, or when I should use them. I still needed to figure out what kind of tools would allow me to succeed.
Things dramatically changed for me in high school once I became involved in mentoring a younger student through Eye to Eye. Eye to Eye is a nonprofit, art-based mentoring program for students with learning and attention issues. Each art project focuses on developing students’ self-esteem, self-advocacy skills, and helping them understand how they learn and what they need to succeed.
More than anything, mentoring with Eye to Eye taught me so much more about myself. I learned that different accommodations could be helpful in different situations. I started to understand that extended time on tests was important, but in my case, it was far more important to have a testing environment with limited distractions. I looked for strong allies at school and found them. When I realized I processed information much better if my body was in motion, a psychology teacher encouraged me to walk around the back of the classroom during lectures, and would toss me baseballs to keep me focused and engaged in class. With these newfound allies, I was able to explore new ways of learning. With newfound confidence, I embraced my capacity to think differently, and began to explain to others what my “labels” meant. If I could self-advocate, success in college would not only be possible, but (as my allies assured me) inevitable.
Research shows that self-awareness and self-understanding are keys to success for young adults with learning and attention issues. A Student Voices study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities shows that young adults with learning and attention issues who are successful after high school have three things in common: a supportive home life, a strong sense of self-confidence, and a strong connection to friends and community. My community of support and allies, including my family, Eye to Eye, and my teachers, helped me develop and grow in these areas.
Now that I am in college, advocating for myself has become more important than ever. I speak to each professor about which accommodations I need and when I’ll need them. I am able to customize learning in a way that works for me. In addition to college, I have even had opportunities get involved in advocacy on a larger scale through an internship with the U.S. Department of Education as well as working with the National Center for Learning Disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy and personalized learning.
As I began to understand how I learned differently and developed the ability to communicate those differences to others, I laid a foundation for my future. Every learner should have the same opportunity to understand how they learn differently and embrace those differences. If we do not help our students access the resources they need, we will lose out on the intelligence, creativity, and passion of so many students with learning and attention issues who fail to see their future as one full of opportunities for success.
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