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Learning with an Invisible Disability

I have been away for a few months, in Ontario and with Covid for a longer period of time than I anticipated but now I am attempting to get my head back in the game although I’ve been feeling a little cognitively unmotivated lately.

For this post, I have decided to introduce “Seed” as a character to accompany a sensitive and uncomfortable topic for me. If you grew up experiencing difficult learning circumstances in school and in society, then this post might both be a trigger and also a catharsis for you, to not feel isolated in your journey. When I decide to talk about this topic, Seed will be there. Seed is a concept where the seed (creative idea) and the nervous system sensitivity are represented together in a cute image, in order to feel safe.

At a very young age, I was diagnosed with a highly sensitive nervous system and was easily startled by noise. My life-long struggle with sleep began as a toddler and was prescribed (by a doctor) caffeine to fall asleep – this doesn’t work for me as an adult though lol. By the time I reached daycare, I endured a head trauma when an older child threw a brick at my head when I was playing alone in a sandbox, resulting in a rush to the ER for stitches. Further along in elementary school, in order to reduce distraction, a cardboard box was placed around my desk while situated next to the teachers desk, producing a humiliating spectacle in front of my peers. Additionally, I was placed in the special education class as I had difficulty learning. I experienced tremendous anxiety when it came time to reading out loud in class. The teacher would randomly select a student to read and I did everything I could to disappear from being selected. When I would read out loud, I found that I experienced some kind of cognitive delay between reading and speaking and this was traumatic for me causing me to gap and stutter. Even today, I find my eyes can jump around the page. I failed grade 2 and lacked the support around me to nurture my unique learning needs. Additionally, I was bullied at times by other groups of classmates who clearly saw me as an easy target. By the time I reached high school, I had learned how to better blend in, although I moved around often so I didn’t have long before relocating. During grade 11 English class, a girl took my essay prior to handing it in, and read it out loud to the class while laughing out loud, her laugh is forever embedded in my memory. You can already guess that what I wrote wasn’t supposed to be funny but after the fact I realized my writing was so bad that it was accidentally comical. I remember laughing along because her laugh was contagious. I don’t remember being offended just taking note of the event. I forgave her.

To say I was relieved that school was over, was an understatement. I managed to graduate and with decent marks, who knew! Now don’t get me wrong, I actually love learning and have found throughout my adult life that it’s one of my biggest passions. I soon realized after high school that I was destined to take the creative path so I went on to study a BA in Image Arts. I created films that were screened in film festivals and even nominated for awards. After that I enjoyed steady years of creativity while working as a digital designer. I think this is the time in my life where I actually thrived – between my 20s and 30s. In my 40s, I went on to study a MA in Communication and Technology however once again, found myself experiencing some of the obstacles that followed me throughout my childhood. I hired a tutor early on to help establish a proper writing style and confidence. During our in-person residency, I found myself often needing to sit to the side of the class while wearing a hat and sometimes sunglasses as I was so sensitive to the fluorescent lights that I couldn’t concentrate – this created a familiar feeling of humiliation and alienation I felt as a child. During my final in-person residency, I fell ill with N1H1 and struggled to recover to the point that I threatened to quit but was granted an exception with flexibility. My Masters took me 4 years to complete even though I wasn’t doing anything other than part-time design work at the time. I found myself extremely exhausted by the mental tasks of reading mountains of peer-reviewed articles and endless computer screen exposure. I suppose it was no surprise that by the time it was over – yes I finally graduated – I had reached complete burnout, and was diagnosed with a large tumour that resulted in major surgery. Since then, my life has been forever changed.

Realizing I had succumbed to a complete physical breakdown, a life riddled with insomnia and anxiety, a vertigo condition brought on by a virus in 2004, and myriad of health problems, I had come to terms that I was not able to adapt my body to the world out there and I was going to have to figure out how to find my way. I have spent half a decade practicing and learning stress-relieving healing arts therapies (eco therapy, reflexology, art therapy) as a means of coping and are now built into my daily routine. Ultimately, it is my creativity that has saved me from self-destruction. Without it, I am not sure how I would be coping today. Miraculously, I have not fallen to substance abuse or any other kind of self-destructive habit and I don’t judge others who have. However, I still continue to live with anxiety and uncertainty. I am learning that gratitude is my biggest ally.

Now, in my 50’s, I am taking inventory of my life and looking at the bigger picture. Why has my life been so challenging? Why have I struggled? Why did and why do people treat me differently? Why are some people mentally abusive towards me? What do I need to know about myself so that I can achieve peace and stability in my life? Tired of hiding, masking and pretending, I started to do some online research and found that my life experience is very similar to those who have autism. It turns out, all of my diagnosed health problems and sensitivities, fall under the umbrella of autism. As it is a spectrum, each person can have different symptoms but we are bound by a few hallmark ones; sensory overload is a big one. I experience quite a few characteristics but I wouldn’t say my case is extreme although enough to impede on my ability to thrive in certain ways. In 2005 after I fell ill from another virus that left me with vertigo issues, I went through a battery of tests and an EEG determined I had a cognitive disability. Although I was motivated to understand my vertigo condition at the time, I now realize this disability has always been there. Learning disabilities also fall under the autism spectrum. I took a series of online tests and they all came back the same – my results fell outside of the “normal” range and were pushing their way about 1/4 of the way up through the autism spectrum. It has been recommended I be analyzed for an official diagnosis but with our medical system being so difficult right now, I will wait. What is important for me is understanding who I am, why I am, and how to go forward with better community and support. I also want to make myself visible to others who like me, are struggling to find their place and people in the world.

After a long break from both academics and digital creative work, I am back but with a new found appreciation in online learning and content creation. Now, unlike when I was growing up, there is better understanding of how people learn and what is needed to accommodate different types of learners. For instance, I am a visual learner and I learn best by doing. Although I employ all forms of learning, there are types that help me to absorb information better than others. I have new found appreciation and excitement for learning because even though I have struggled with it, it is something I love doing on a daily basis. Learning excites and motivates me to live. I no longer compare myself, feel ashamed, feel I need to hide or pretend that I am like everyone else. I know that I am a talented, creative person who has so much to offer. That is the thing with autism, it also comes with gifts. I don’t see it as a disability rather a difference, I no longer see myself as subordinate, just different. I have come to terms with the fact that I process information differently, always have and that I have been deprived time and time again from the flexibility that I needed to learn by and thrive. I am so relieved that things have changed for the better. Although not diagnosed, I think learning about autism is probably the missing link I needed to discover, in order to better understand who I am, so I can thrive in ways I have not before.

If you find any errors, don’t hesitate to let me know. I can read and reread and not catch them 🙂