I'm Nolan, a junior at the university. I am a physics and astronomy major. I plan to attend graduate school in physics. I have two learning disabilities: Dyslexia, a reading disability, and Dysgraphia, a writing disability. I was diagnosed by a clinical psychologist when I was nine years old, and have been reassessed two times.
My Dyslexia and Dysgraphia are severe. I can read, but it takes me a very long time, and I can write but writing is extremely slow and exhausting. I have strong verbal and analytical skills, but reading print material and expressing myself in writing or using a keyboard are very slow. Before starting classes as a freshman I met with the counselor in the disability services office to talk about my accommodation needs. In high school I was accommodated with extended time on exams. I was concerned that in college exams would be longer and require more writing.
My disability documentation was accepted by the disability services office. The college learning disabilities specialist reviewed my documentation and felt that three times the allotted time was justified for most exams, especially essay or long-answer exams. The specialist indicated that my Dysgraphia was very severe. She recommended that I use audiobooks or electronic text. Note-taking assistance was also recommended, but I decided not to use that accommodation, because it would mean more reading and, since I am a strong auditory learner, I remember classroom lectures and discussions. The learning disabilities specialist was most concerned about faculty accepting the recommendation for three times the allotted time since most students receive at most two times the allotted time. She wrote specific letters for me to give to instructors regarding the justification for the extended time recommendation, and I personally talked to each instructor. When I started to take physics courses, the learning disabilities specialist and I went to meet with each instructor to explain and discuss my needs. Several physics instructors were reluctant about that much extra time for exams; some said that their exams were time-sensitive since they wanted to measure how much and how well a student could produce in a one- or two-hour exam. One professor disagreed about the amount of extended time and went to talk with the disability services director. He then agreed to the accommodation, and there were no problems. Some of the professors later understood why I needed that much time when they observed me trying to write exam answers.
This case study illustrates the following:
- Students with learning disabilities have individual needs, and there may be great variation in academic accommodations for students with the same diagnosis.
- Sometimes it is more important for the student, faculty, and disability services staff to meet to discuss accommodations and needs, especially when the accommodation recommended is atypical.
- Student self-knowledge and management of a disability are important in determining accommodation needs (e.g., this student recognized himself as a strong auditory learner, hence no need for note-taking assistance in his case).
- It can be helpful for the student to thoroughly discuss concerns with disability services staff in advance since they might be able to facilitate sensitive situations (e.g., anticipating that some faculty in physics would likely be hesitant about the amount of extended time for exams).
The following are some case studies of dyslexics with whom we have worked over the past years. In each story, we provide background information, the course of therapy that integrates the individual's strengths and interests, and the outcomes—all of which are positive.
Case Studies for using strengths and interests
Case Study One:
Grace has a diagnosis of dyslexia. She has trouble with visual scanning, processing, and working memory. She also has difficulties with spelling and sequencing for problem solving. She has strong verbal skills and is artistic abilities. She learns well with color and when her hands are occupied.
Grace struggled with note taking because of her difficulties with spelling and visual scanning (looking from the board to her paper). Furthermore, she could not keep up and got "lost" in the lecture (particularly for subjects that were already difficult for her). Grace’s teachers thought that she was not putting forth the effort, because they often saw her daydreaming in class. When the therapist asked Grace about this, she admitted that sometimes she would daydream because she did not know where they were in the lecture. She also desperately wanted to blend in with her peers, so she looked to them to see what she was supposed to be doing. However, when she was permitted to follow along with a book that she could highlight in and make her own doodles and notes in the margins during the lecture, she was able to focus her energy on the teacher and have notes that she could refer back to later with all of the main points highlighted. Using Grace's kinesthetic learning style and preference for color, she was able to participate with her peers, decrease her anxiety in class, and develop a skill that will help her to learn better across the curriculum.
Due to her difficulties with sequencing, working memory, and reading, Grace struggled with numerical operations and story problems in math. Her problem solving skills were good when she could leverage her strengths: connecting abstract ideas and thinking at the macro level. Hence, when she could connect a concept to a real life problem, she could inevitably come up with a creative solution and grasp the concept; however, her poor numerical operations skills were still holding her back. The therapist remembered Grace's interest in color and tactile learning style and introduced her to a number of "hands-on" ways of solving the problem: calculating probability with colored marbles, using her fingers for multiplication, and solving equations with objects to represent the variables. In this manner, Grace not only grasped the concept that was presented at the macro-level, but using her love of color and keeping her hands moving she could reliably solve for the answer. Employing colored pencils for numbering steps or placing hash marks in multi-step directions helped Grace stay on point and not skip steps in complex problems. These strategies were incorporated into her 504 Plan and were communicated to her math teacher.
Case Study Two:
Amy has a diagnosis of dyslexia. She enjoys creative writing, fashion, and art. She is extremely bright and has a strong memory. She benefits from rule-based instruction. If you tell her a rule once, she will be able to recite it to you the next time you see her. She delights in being able to be the teacher and teach the rules herself or correct others’ errors.
Amy’s stories often jumped around without any cohesion or plot. The clinician suggested that Amy work on her stories on a daily basis. Amy drafted her stories about glamorous people and enjoyed illustrating their wardrobes. Her clinician helped her to expand and revise her story using a multi-sensory tool to teach her the parts of story grammar. She was able to revise her own story, by adding the components of a good plot (characters, setting, initiating event, internal response, plan, and resolution). With several revisions, she produced a well-developed story and colorful illustration that was framed and displayed. The combination of using Amy’s interests, learning style, and a powerful reinforcement (framing and displaying the finished product) lead Amy to become proficient in telling stories and in revising her own work.
Case Study Three:
Ryan has a diagnosis of PDD-NOS that affects his language, social, and literacy skills. He also struggles with anxiety. He has a number of interests including: pirates and treasure, cooking, watching his favorite TV shows, and drama. Ryan has a strong memory and conveys a great deal of social knowledge when he is acting or drawing.
Due to Ryan’s anxiety associated with reading and writing, he often protested and completely shut down when presented with something to read or write. Ryan watched a number of shows that taught lessons about friendship or had a “moral to the story.” He was able to take some of those themes and stories and modify them, inserting kids from his school as the characters, and adding himself as a character and narrator. Given his interest in drawing, he illustrated his story, and made it into a short book.
The clinician wanted to incorporate his interest in writing and illustrating stories to improve his social skills. The therapist suggested that Ryan make his story into a play, and that he could be the director. Through a series of role-plays, Ryan was able to overcome his social anxiety and invite a peer to act in his play. Numerous social skills were targeted: greetings, turn-taking, active listening, problem solving, and flexibility for handling unforeseen circumstances. Ryan has now directed four plays, and has written countless others. To date, five of his peers have come and acted in his plays. (It has become a “cool” thing to do in Ryan’s social circle). He has gained a great deal of confidence in relating to his peers and in his strength of writing and directing plays.
In addition to social skills, Ryan has struggled with reading and following directions, asking for clarification, and comprehending and using abstract vocabulary. These areas were addressed using his interests in cooking and treasure hunts. Ryan participated in a number of baking projects that required him to locate the directions on the package, sequence and follow each step in a sequence, and determine the meaning of new vocabulary. Since this was in a context that he enjoyed, his attention was high and his anxiety was non-existent. Furthermore, Ryan had the opportunity to learn a new recipe and build on his strength for baking. Since his learning was in context, he was able to remember the meanings of abstract vocabulary. Ryan’s social skills were targeted when he went to the various offices in the building and offered his baked treats. He inevitably received positive social feedback.
Another motivating context for boosting Ryan’s reading for directions and vocabulary skills was participating in scavenger hunts around the building. He enjoyed the challenge of complex directions because there was an element of surprise and adventure. There was a notable consequence if he incorrectly followed the directions. This created the opportunity for Ryan to ask for directions or seek clarification. Since his learning was in context (i.e., he was looking at a fire extinguisher when he was reading the word for the first time), it was memorable. Many conjunctions (but, therefore, so, if) and sequence words (when, at the same time, before, after, next) were targeted multiple times, which led to mastery. This multi-sensory activity was enjoyable for both Ryan and the clinician. For Ryan, it resulted in greater participation, gains, and retention than traditional teaching approaches.