Thursday, 22 May 2014
I always took the path of least resistance. 22.05.14
(This is going to sound very MEMEMEME, but please bear with me. There is a point, and I don’t know how else to make it.)
I’m not neurotypical – i.e., “anyone who does not have atypical neurology: in other words, anyone who does not have autism, dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, bipolar disorder, ADD/ADHD, or other similar conditions.” I’m slightly atypical in three very different ways, which have had very different results on the person I grew up to be.
I have mild dyslexia, which is just great. I grew up surrounded by books and reading was my passion from forever. I didn’t always pick up a book the right way round, mind you, but I learnt to read very well at a young age simply by doing it all the time, and writing followed. In fact I did so well that nobody realised I had dyslexia until my last year of College, when I started tutoring students with learning difficulties. I had managed to develop so many “work-arounds” growing up that it’s never actually stopped me doing anything.
My diagnosis made me terribly happy: not only I finally had a rational explanation for why I struggled with certain things, but I also realised that there is a whole load of things I can do that the “norms” can’t. I love my dyslexia and I am seriously glad I have it. I wouldn’t give up my “super powers” for a standard view of the world.
I also have mild dyspraxia, or “developmental co-ordination disorder”. I hate it, it sucks, and it’s made my life a misery. I can’t tell left from right, can’t learn sequences, have non-existent co-ordination, lose stuff, my handwriting is illegible (even to me), and the list goes on. I try to explain how bad it is to people by saying that I can’t juggle one ball, and every time I get told “but that’s not possible!” Guess what – it is. And it’s no fun. And it all gets much worse if I’m under any kind of stress, with my memory, laterality and co-ordination completely failing me.
I spent most of my childhood with no skin on my knees, as I was constantly falling over. In school I always struggled with PE, nearly failing a few times. Outside of school I avoided most physical endeavours like the plague, particularly if there was an audience. I found it so hard to be so bad that I never tried to get better. I just gave up. I only found out what the hell was wrong with me through a friend whose daughter had been diagnosed as a young child. She knew not only the condition (I’d never heard of it) but also some useful work-arounds. However, it still sucks. It sucks that it takes me a whole load more effort to achieve worse results. It sucks that I can’t make people accept that I am doing my best when I’m doing so badly. It sucks that my body feels so utterly stupid and just can’t keep up with my head. It’s incredibly frustrating, it gets in the way of what I want to do, and I hate it. Having said that, the more I practice physical skills, the easier it gets to learn them. With time and patience and effort, I am slowly getting better. I’ve gone from being absolutely terrible to just merely very bad – progress! I believe I wouldn’t be half as bad now if I had not thrown in the towel at such an early age.
I also struggle with social relations. If an expert had looked at me at a young age, I’m pretty sure I would have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome . Having lived in a lot of different social settings and adapted more or less successfully to each of them, I know that I don’t lack the ability to learn social skills. My problem is that I didn’t pick them up at home, because I grew up in a severely dysfunctional family. The way my relatives interacted with me and with each other was so far removed from “normal” that I had nobody to model. What they did was unpleasant and didn’t work in the outside world. How the outside world operated was a mystery to me. I have yet to find the manual.
As a young child, I avoided social interactions as much as possible because I found them so convoluted and confusing. Left to my own devices I would have avoided people altogether, connecting with them only through books and music. Luckily, I wasn’t allowed to do that. I was dragged kicking and screaming to kindergarten and school. I had to be with people, so I had to learn how they operated. I still have a tendency towards introversion and I still grind social gears more often than I’d like. It seems sometimes that everyone is operating instinctively, while I’m essentially painting by numbers. It’s not fantastic, but it could be infinitely worse had I not been forced to socialise against my will.
The thing is, when I was growing up all these labels weren’t there. My school gave you two options: mainstream or special ed. There were no grey areas, no wiggle room, no exceptions. You were either normal, hence had to do develop all your skills – academic, physical and social – to meet set criteria, or you were in a special class playing with plastic scissors. I am not exaggerating. I am not saying it was “right” or helpful. That’s just how it was. At times it sucked greatly, and I still wish I could hit my PE teacher with something – on purpose, for a change, not because I’m “spastic”. However, I have to admit that without the pressure I would have done much worse, because I have always chosen the path of least resistance.
If I was good at something, I’d practice hard at it and got even better. This makes great sense from an Operant Conditioning point of view, as I was getting instant reward for my efforts. From the point of view of developing the skills for being a functional human, however, it’s a really stupid approach. You don’t learn what you don’t practice. I only did the stuff I found hard or unpleasant when I was forced to, regardless of whether the difficulties were caused by nature or nurture. Had I not been pushed to overcome my difficulties, I would most probably not have tried at all. It would be nice to think that an early diagnosis or three would have helped my development by providing me with much-needed extra help. In reality it would have probably given me a nice excuse to give up on myself. I would have hidden behind the label and avoided failure by not even trying.
(Before someone jumps down my throat, I’m not saying all diagnoses are unhelpful, or false, or bad in any way. I’m not saying that people with special needs shouldn’t get special help. All I’m saying is that, for me, if you’d given me the opportunity not to suck at something by simply avoiding it, I’d have taken it like a shot.)
I wonder whether it’s the same for a lot of us. I wonder if it’s common and natural to avoid anything that’s difficult, and focus on what’s easy. I wonder if what we think are our “gifts” are actually skills that we developed without noticing by focusing our efforts on stuff we had an initial talent for. I wonder whether some barriers to learning are not unreal, but allowed to grow unchecked because we don’t fight against them. But most of all I wonder if we’re all guilty of forgetting that nothing much comes natural, and that we make who we are by practicing (or not practicing) everything that makes a person.