Being a Scientist with Learning Disabilities

It’s ironic to feel capable of such complex endeavors but to simultaneously find some of the simplest things– those things even first graders can do– challenging, if not downright impossible. I can’t tell you how frustrating and embarrassing it is to stand at my workbench with an aliquot of an antibody and not remember, for the hundreth time, how to calculate the dilution. I’ve had to ask so many times and every time people mutter at me that I should already know this stuff. And I do. I’ve learned it all a very long time ago. But no matter how many times I review it, the math just doesn’t stick. And please don’t ask me to calculate a tip without my calculator! Most of the time I just use the “This amount feels about right” method. And yet I can go on pedantically for hours on various biological theory (and often do to the chagrin of my family, bless them), write manuscripts, design experiments, and do all manner of educated complicated things.

I’ve also had challenges with reading comprehension, although not in the phonemic dyslexia sort of sense. I can read aloud beautifully but my comprehension cuts in and out and usually in order to read I must be at a peak of concentration. I gather from others that I give the impression that I’m extremely well-read. Little to do they know that is not really the case. Granted, I do cover a lot of ground, but I often just read snippets, find the piece I’m looking for, and go on my merry way. Having a deficit in reading has probably conjured a keener sense of predicting what piece of information I’m still missing and then going and quickly finding it without the need to patiently wade through numerous materials. But there is a part of me that would love to just be able to sit and read for hours and let all that information sink in. I’m quite envious of people who love reading. But excepting in the case of some of the Harry Potter books, I can’t recall ever having read for hours. (Don’t tell anybody that, my nerdy street cred would plummet.)

I had a mentor tell me one Friday afternoon, “You should read through these five articles this weekend and we can discuss them on Monday.” I thought to myself, “Ha! You’ve gotta be kidding me. Me? Read through five articles in a single weekend? Analyze and resynthesize all these? He must be mad.” I wasn’t intimidated by the analysis and synthesis of them; it was just the sheer act of getting through them in the first place! I can’t honestly remember whether I made it through them all. Truthfully, I think he simply forgot by Monday morning what he’d assigned me on Friday. But it was assignments like this that allowed me to hone my bullshitting skills to perfection throughout my grade school and high school careers. I rarely read a textbook and only a few of the assigned books for Literature. I was a consummate bullshit essayist.

And what LDer could have focal deficits without having executive dysfunction? It just wouldn’t be a complete set without executive dysfunction! So, please, in advance: don’t ask me to multitask. Don’t give me an audible list of instructions and expect me to follow them as clearly as you understand them yourself. No, wait, strike that: don’t even give me a list of instructions, numbered 1-to-whatever, written in plain English, clearly, precisely, so that any simpleton could understand them. Because I won’t. Yes, I’m the Molecular Biology equivalent of the nerdy physicist who figures out the science of worm holes but can’t remember where he parked his car. Or dropped his keys. Yes, I will destroy your fancy microscope through some sheer act of inattentive stupidity because I can’t remember in what order to press the buttons, even though you’ve told me numerous times before.

But ask me to find patterns where others haven’t. Ask me to connect disparate nodes in unrelated fields. Ask me to see the blatantly obvious that everyone else seems to have missed because they’re so focused on their own little field of research… and then I’m your girl.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome, although this blog was moreso about learning disabilities which may or may not be associated with autism, and so I wanted to make this more general so that many more people could relate to it. But I do also struggle with social disability in science. I can’t tell you how much miscommunication and misunderstanding I’ve been faced with in my short career so far. It’s been very emotional and probably one of the hardest things to overcome. But we can overcome our challenges with the right support and the right attitude. In my case, the support hasn’t always been there, but there’s that voice inside me that tells me to keep going, keep pushing through, keeping working, and eventually I’ll come out on top. With a little luck and a lot of work, we can come out on top and be better for it.

For the end of this blog, I’m leaving you with a great video on a young woman with Aspergers who illustrates why, in the face of challenges, being ingenious can be worth the struggle. So heads up, LDers of the world. Keep plugging away. You’ve got some fantastically unique views to share.

7 responses to “Being a Scientist with Learning Disabilities

  1. You and my son belong to the same tribe. I’m sending this to him. He has Aspergers AND Dyslexic “symptoms”, which is probably more common than we’ve yet discovered. My best friend in H.S., and his Godmother, I just found out, is Dyslexic, and she said it’s a matter of yin and yang. When something is taken away, something is added. This may be an awful comparison, but the blind person’s other senses are heightened in comparison to his peers. She has had an amazing life because she has no fear of failure. She dropped out of H.S.—but she worked for NOAA for years, and now is an agent for Homeland Security. I love her…. She is far more capable than this housewife nerd who found school easy.She is no imposter, but the real deal. May you never give up!

    • Funny enough, I’m starting to consider many neurodevelopmental conditions on a similar spectrum, since not only do they occur so frequently with each other, but they often share similar genetic risk factors, and may even share some structural/physiological similarities within the brain. It’s really more of a whole Neurodevelopmental Spectrum.

  2. You don’t need to print either rather personal comments from me, I won’t be hurt. But science needs you…there are many “brilliant” scientists who might find their car keys, but live in the land of being “correct”…a throwback from their testing prowess. As long as they can memorize the book…We need people who can think outside the book.

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