The advantage of adulthood

Many people are designed to be better adults than children. A child has little opportunity of selecting those things that he enjoys or finds easier, and to avoid those he dislikes or finds difficult. He is required to be an all-rounder, performing a wide range of activities, many under the critical scrutiny of his teachers and peers. It is daunting to think of what many children are required to do regularly at school: reading aloud, writing something that will be marked (for content, neatness, and spelling), doing arithmetical computations that will be checked, playing competitive sport, performing in a play in public, and playing a musical piece to a critical audience. An adult, on the other hand, can have a successful career and avoid any, or all, of these activities.

Many famous people are said to have had a specific learning difficulty as children, but it is very difficult to know for certain if this is true. Nevertheless, many of their stories are highly suggestive of the condition. What they all show, whether they had a specific learning difficulty or not, is that problems with learning in childhood need not be a bar to outstanding achievements in adulthood. There follow some examples.

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875). Famous as an author of children’s stories such as ‘The Little Match-girl’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’, his handwriting shows characteristics of specific learning difficulty.

Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Now famous for his sculptures, such as ‘The Thinker’ and ‘The Burghers of Calais’, he was regarded as ‘an idiot’, and ‘ineducable’ as a child. Throughout his life, Rodin found academic skills such as spelling and arithmetic impossible to master.

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931). The inventor of the electric light bulb and the phonograph, and the holder of over 1300 other patents, he was thought to be a ‘dunce’ as a school boy. His teacher said he was ‘addled’ (confused) and he came bottom of the class. He never mastered basic skills in writing, spelling, and arithmetic. At 19, he wrote the following letter to his mother:

Dear mother

started store several weeks i have growed considerably I don’t look much like a Boy now Hows all the fold did you receive a Box of Books Memphis that he promised to send them languages Your son Al

Harvey Cushing (1869-1939). A world famous medical researcher, brain surgeon, and author, Cushing won a Pulitzer prize in 1926 for his biography of Sir William Osler, despite being unable to spell the most elementary words. His manuscripts abound with spellings such as: ‘definate’, ‘croni- cling’, and ‘pharcical’.

Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965). Britain’s great politician, orator, historian, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. His school reports show a boy failing miserably. His father despaired of him (‘I have an idiot for a son’), and put him in the army class at Harrow. He failed there twice, but was given special coaching and then managed to gain a place at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955). The greatest scientist of the twentieth century, he was capable of the most advanced thought but failed hopelessly at school, where he had great difficulty learning to read. (He was nine before he began to read.) Even as an adult, writing continued to be a great problem for him.

Paul Elvstrom (1928-). A world champion racing yachtsman, professional sailmaker, and expert yachtracing tactician. Elvstrom, a coauthor of a number of books, has said of himself, ‘I am word-blind. I can’t read and I can’t write. I get a headache and then I can’t think. In school I was the worst in the class. I was not lazy, but I just couldn’t read. It was such a big handicap for me’. Despite this disability, he won the World Championship in eight different classes, and earned four Olympic gold medals. His story, like that of Edison, is one of determination, not just talent. He won a World Championship with a broken leg still strapped up, and he would often jump into the cold sea before a race, fully clothed, to increase his weight and so give his boat extra ballast.

All these famous people demonstrate that, despite their special talents, they had great and unexplained difficulties with learning certain skills. In all, the school years were a time of great hardship because of the emphasis on these skills at this stage of life. Later they could overcome these difficulties, many becoming famous writers despite poor skills in handwriting and spelling. They all lived at a time when they could not benefit from an enlightened approach to their problem. Today, children experiencing such difficulties at school can be referred for an assessment to determine the nature of their difficulties and to plan ways of helping them.

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