From the Adult Panel: Sixth Annual NLDA West Coast Symposium 2002

by Lisa Marti

      When I was first diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability my reaction was one of relief 

and grief.  I always felt that I had significant and sometimes incapacitating difficulty with learning

 in most aspects of my life but no one ever believed me, perhaps because my verbal skills were so

 strong.  My belief was minimized by friends, family and professionals and never sufficiently confirmed 

until my last diagnostic testing  three years ago when I was 36.

    As a young child the only problem that really stood out was that I had severe motor coordination problems.  I got some kind of treatment for this which was successful advancing me to the average or above average range.

    The first time I was formally diagnosed with a learning disability was at age 22, the diagnosis was vague, and they concluded that I had mild deficits with an impairment in learning, memorizing, and processing nonverbal information.  My learning problems never seemed mild to me in that they affected all aspects of everyday living. I always felt like everyday tasks were tremendously more difficult for me than anyone else who crossed the path of my life.  These tasks ranged from grocery shopping, cleaning and organizing the house, planning and cooking a meal, packing a suitcase or backpack, taking a bus or cab, getting off at the right stop, paying and tipping the correct amount and making sure I got the correct amount of change, reading anything, fixing something, and taking in and comprehending information from auditory sources such as TV, film and conversation.  Mild? Mild by whose standards?

    I do want to say that despite all of the struggles I have had with nld I have had many successes educationally, vocationally, socially and athletically. I am going to share them with you today.

     Elementary school was not a problem for me but school became hell for me starting in seventh grade. I began to study 5 hours a night.  I always had a hunch that if I did not study 100 times harder than everyone else I would have come home to a report card full of F’s. I was a B student in high school graduating with a 3.0 but it took extreme effort for this to happen.  The only year I did not do well despite the same effort was tenth grade when the school work was primarily nonverbal. Geometry was a nonverbal disaster and we were starting to read more complex novels in Spanish class. I did fine when we were reading “ El Frijolito Saltones” …. “The Mexican Jumping Bean” but when we got into Spanish crime stories I lost it. I got C’s and D’s that year despite trying just as hard.  I always had a tremendous amount of trouble concentrating during classes, reading and homework.

    I went to the University of Rhode Island my freshman year and then transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder where I went on to earn my BA in Sociology.  My overall GPA was 3.1 with a 3.4 in my major.

     I had a very resourceful, survivalist approach. I would get all the syllabuses ahead of time before I decided which courses to take and then go to the bookstore and pick my courses by the ones that had the least reading and tests and the most projects and presentations. I also did a lot of independent studies in which you volunteer somewhere for the semester and then write a paper on it for three credit hours.

    So what have I experienced on the vocational front? For one thing whenever I try to learn a new job or new information on an old one, there are times in which absolutely nothing registers. When this happens I watch how the people around me learn. Generally they are given information auditorily, visually, through reading materials and hands on experience. They look, listen, read and do---within moments its as if the information is super-glued to their brains; to be retrievable within seconds of when it needs to be used.   I was fired from my first job at 17 because I could not run the cash register. So when it comes to choosing a job or career I know I need to find work that leans into my strengths.

    As far as some of my work successes…. I marketed credit cards on college campuses for 7 ½ years. I was one of the best reps in the country at this at this very lucrative job.  Most of the time I worked within commuting distance from my home in Colorado but I also traveled all over the state, as well as Wyoming, North Carolina and California. As and nld person some of the biggest accomplishments in this work were finding my way around when I was traveling.  My first business trip or business marathon as I would call it was a nine week trip in California. . I had to work at a different school in a different city each week. Each destination involved finding my way to several locations. These included finding the campus, where to park, the parking office, where to unload, where to set up and the student activities office to check in. I swam Masters everywhere I went so after work I had to find the pool, and then a restaurant for dinner and once again find may way back to my hotel. By the time I got all my directions down the week was over and I was on my way to the next destination.

    Now as far as the job itself. My style was to be assertive but kind. I related well on a social level with the students and used good strategies. I think these are some of the reasons I succeeded.  Even though the students usually only wanted the visa card, I made it a package deal that they had to fill out all four applications with the additional ones having no annual fee. I was unrelentingly firm about this as I made my living solely on commission per application.  I often signed up 100 people in a day. It was not that unusual to have 10 students at my table at once each filling out four applications each. The applications had to be filled out perfectly. If they crossed things out such as their age, or social security number then they would not get their card and I would not get paid. I was able to get them to fill their forms out over and over until they got them right. In the mean time I never missed any prospective customer who glanced at my sign and I kept repeating my whole sales pitch and instructions to new prospects.

    Another successful job was I was Operations' Manager at the Volunteer Connection. This is a volunteer center that matches prospective volunteers with volunteer positions at the approximately 300 nonprofit agencies registered in Boulder. I started as a volunteer and then was hired as Operations Manager.  My volunteer positions there included receptionist, referral counselor and group project coordinator.  Running the volunteer connection was the most challenging job I have ever done.   In this position I recruited, placed and trained our in house volunteers who were necessary to the running of our agency. Many of our volunteers had disabilities of all kinds. I was very good at working with them. I tried to place them in positions that they enjoyed and would build their self esteems so they would stay in the positions for a the longest time possible. This was helpful to them and helpful to the agency. I made a point to encourage them and give them positive feedback whenever appropriate.

     I recruited a very professional, experienced and committed full time volunteer computer team. One of them was an IBM retiree who volunteered 7 hours a day seven days a week. I guided this computer team through the transition and implementation of a new database. I also directed them in preparing a much more comprehensive statistical recording system of the agencies referrals and placements. Additionally advising them on how I thought we could make the new database more user friendly to our disabled volunteers.

    I interacted with the nonprofit agencies that were registered with us.  I got an incredible reference from the executive director. My husband said he thought it was one of the best references he has ever read.  Here is a sample paragraph from the reference….”I’ve been a supervisor for over 30 years. During that time, I can honestly say there are few people that match her eagerness to work hard and contribute. Her people skills are wonderful and she is a delight to be around.”

    As some of you may know I had an nld website and bulletin board.  It was called Lisa Marti’s Nonverbal Learning Disability Advocacy and Support Group. The website is still up but the bulletin board is not. The main purpose of my website was for me to research and find nld resources and answer people’ questions about nld. The nationwide resources included an array of specialists and schools.           

     As far as social skills, I don’t really have the classic nld social problems but the nld can affect me on more subtle levels socially at times.  I  have been with  my husband for almost twenty years and have a very good relationship. We have been married for almost seven and lived together almost 16.

    I have had a number of  accomplishments in athletics and in the outdoors activities.

I have been a Masters swimmer for 18 years., This is a national coached swimming program with interval training.   I swim approximately 3000 yards a day at high speeds.

 I have taken a four and half day backpacking trip all by myself in the wilderness in Colorado, hiking over four 12,000 ft. mountain passes with 50lbs. on my back.

I have hiked to the top of seventeen fourteen thousand foot peaks.

     My husband and I took a week long bike tour in Colorado , biking over a mountain pass in Rocky mountain national park which is twenty miles uphill with four miles of it above 12,000 ft.. We rode with all our camping gear on our bikes.  This is something we only plan to do once.

    Despite my nonverbal deficits, I found my way through the Los Angeles maze of highways and safely made it back from the four and half day wilderness route.

    My biggest area of difficulty with nld is likely executive function, focusing on the details instead of the picture and problem solving. I am finding the more time that goes by since being diagnosed the more I learn about how to think differently and compensate for these problems. Being aware that there is a specific problem is the first step.

    One aspect of problem solving is the ability to generalize. I would like to tell you guys a story about my problems with generalizing. The first time I had full responsibility for our four pets when my husband was out of town….my large talking Parrot, Clyde got out of his cage. He was hanging out on the top of his cage. I did not know how to get him back in and I was stressed out so I called my husband. He told me to get a stick and either get him to step up on it and carry him back to his cage or use the stick to scare him off the top of the cage, open the door of the cage and give him a chance to go back in on his own.

    Since I have problems with generalizing I thought I needed to go outside and get a certain length stick. It did not occur to me I could use a plunger, a broom stick, or even my husband's guitar .

    Now that I am aware that I have problems with generalizing I watch out for this and am better able to think out solutions.

    I always like the quote “if you fish for a man, he will never do it for himself. If you teach a man to fish, he will fish for life”.   I think this is a great motto for helping the nld child.

What I am going to suggest is no easy task.  But I think the biggest service you can do for your child is do your best to find the right balance on what you do for them and what you teach them to do and expect them to do on their own. This of course all depends on the specific strengths and weaknesses of your child. You should not make them do what they are truly unable to do but you need to teach them to do whatever they are able to do and expect them to do it on their own once they are competent. The more they can do for themselves the better, easier and happier their lives will be.

    There is a father of an nld son from NLD In Common who posted something that impressed me and sets a good example. He said his philosophy is to spend a ton of time now making sure his son knows how to do things and will do things so he can spend a lot less time later. His example is when his son takes a shower, he shows up afterwards and makes sure his son hangs up his towel when he is done with the shower. He does this every time and sticks around until his son hangs up the towel. This is an extra effort but is worth it in the long run.

    I recommend that you take the time to make sure your child learns how to do everything needed to be independent. Teach them to cook, to clean and organize in an efficient manner. Pay attention to your child’s specific learning style. Don’t give up on teaching them because they seem uninterested. They probably just are having trouble learning. Be patient until you figure out exactly how your child learns.

I didn’t get any accommodations or intervention. I do want to say that if I did I am sure it would be a truly different picture. So I think there is a lot of hope for your kids. Early intervention is critical.

             Due to my nonverbal learning disability my abilities are quite uneven. Over my lifetime it has felt like my strengths reach toward the sky and my weaknesses fall below the earth. There are many days when it feels like my weaknesses climb all the way up to my strengths and knock them on the ground and beat them up saying “ We won’t let you taste the good in life” As you can see a nonverbal learning disability can take a big emotional toll.

    I have decided to turn a handicap into a gift by devoting my time and energy to advocating for people with nld.