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In the 63 years that I have been part of the learning difficulties world, I have both experienced and witnessed the suffering that is living with a learning difficulty.

Learning difficulties are commonly considered a school-based issue; but struggling in school means struggling in life. This makes learning to be confident and acquiring a healthy mental attitude a particular challenge for those with learning difficulties.

I was born with severe learning difficulties. This restricted my learning, my experiences, the way I perceived the world, and in turn how I was perceived. As early as primary school I worked exhaustively to maintain my grades. I also worked to hide my confusion and lack of understanding of all that was happening around me. Despite these labours, I was called stubborn, slow and lazy.

Conditions have improved since I was in school, but a lack of understanding seems to remain. People with learning difficulties are commonly criticized or even dismissed. How can someone with reasonable intelligence make errors in judgment, fall short of a task, be so irresponsible or so awkward? In fact these can be the very hallmarks of specific learning difficulties. This is the battle cry for those with a learning difficulty — we are intelligent, but we struggle to achieve, at times even to trust our intelligence.

Imagine constantly straining to understand. Imagine missing important instructions, subtle comments, the main point of the conversation, the tone of someone’s voice or the logical consequence of an event. Imagine seeing everything through a fog, or as black or white. Imagine being aware that everyone else understood, while you were miles behind.

Now consider whether a secure self-concept could possibly grow from this experience. Indeed, those of us with learning difficulties will experience diminishing self-esteem. After years of frustration and frequent failure, optimism towards our future is out of the question. Anxiety, depression, addiction, self-injury, aggression and anti-social behaviour have been linked to learning difficulties. Many suffer in silence.

As a society we must reconsider behaviours that are too often seen as lazy, unmotivated, defiant, or just not trying hard enough. Other people’s negative perceptions often become internalized by those at whom it is aimed. How could they not?

Youth who struggle with learning difficulties become adults with learning difficulties who are over-represented in many marginalized populations and more vulnerable to risk-taking behaviour and mental health issues than those without.

I grew up confused, scared and isolated. As an adolescent, I attempted suicide, and in my twenties was considering this again as I saw no future for myself. What saved my life was research that taught me there was a neurological cause to my confusion: parts of my brain were underperforming and I learned that through applying the principles of neuroplasticity, I could create exercises to change my brain. I developed a series of cognitive exercises – each strengthening a different area of brain capacity, changing my ability to learn and ultimately engage with the world. From there, competence and confidence could emerge.

For the last 35 years I have been working with children, adolescents and adults to overcome their learning challenges through harnessing the brain’s capacity to change. There is no doubt in my mind that if children could eliminate their cognitive struggles, they would emerge as healthier adults.

We must create a world where children and youth will not feel they have to hide their learning difficulties. Most importantly, we need to be aware that by cognitively changing their learning capacities, young people can leave their learning difficulties behind and no longer have to endure devastating effects on their mental health.

– Barbara Arrowsmith Young


Barbara will be speaking about her experiences and how you can help children and young people with a learning disability at our Auckland event. For more information please visit Generation Next.