Learning Disabilities and Sensory Integration Disorder in Education: A Personal Account

Autobiographical story of the struggle with learning disabilities and sensory integration disorder in elementary school. The author is related to and received direction from Jean Ayres, well known founder of the sensory integration movement.

By Philip R. Erwin, co-author of Love, Jean

Going to school seemed to be a very grownup activity. It was a practice that conveyed status. At least that was my view as I, the preschooler, watched my older siblings come and go so independently. They came home from long days away speaking strange languages and carrying tall stacks of thick and important-looking books. While I complied with "bedtime" - often by dusk with day-like activity still echoing into my window from distant, more grown-up activity elsewhere - my brothers and sister sequestered themselves in private intellectual spaces and turned heavy pages. Like scientists and magnates (and my inconceivably grownup and important dad with his papers and folders in his briefcase), they were learned and important and in control.

Grade school years passed by with me anxiously anticipating the day that I would join them - no doubt - and be seen with my armload of important books striding home to the grave business of homework and adulthood. Well, it didn't quite work out the way that I had imagined it. Sometimes it doesn't seem like I got a fair shot at it. At least not until much later.

By fifth grade one could say that my best days as a student were behind me. The years before then were effortless and successful because - I suspect - of my sense of humor and my natural ability in the areas emphasized in pre-teen education. Art, music, reading, creative writing, simple and fairly non-competitive sports - all undertaken in the context of letting the child "blossom" worked out well for me. (As did cracking up the teacher.) Unfortunately, the privilege of carrying those hallmarks of adulthood and responsibility home coincides with the "real" business of educating kids. Math. Schedules. Deadlines. Gym class.

Mathematics stopped making sense with the advent of times tables and memorization. Math (not cool important stuff) got sent home - along with its cruel books and mocking mimeographs. Flash cards made their hideous debut in my life and stayed for many years, as did a succession of unsuccessful tutors and summer schools. At every juncture lay the opportunity to demonstrate that I could not remember what I had been taught a few moments before. Math gave me a chance during evenings, weekends, and summer breaks to chew the same biter cud and roll the same boulder up the same unconquerable hill for the bulk of my pre-teen and early teen life. I can only wonder how fate discovered that math could only be made worse by putting it on a schedule.

"Now, children," the teacher would chirp, "put down your crayons and get out your times tables. It's time for arithmetic." But, my picture isn't done yet. I'm not done reading. My short story has no ending. I hate math. No one ever sent picture drawing assignments home for homework (although every incomplete, hastily-pulled-together, sloppy, incorrect book report, take-home quiz, and math project was turned in late with lovely illustrations and signed collage for a cover).

Soon I became expert at ducking for cover. Some say that there is no person as The Invisible Man. Even the idea of being invisible seems preposterous to the rational minds. I don't agree. If I tried hard enough I was periodically able to become so small, to radiate so little presence in the classroom, that I could become invisible and go home having put off discover by my adversary, the teacher, for one more day. If any one feeling remains palpable from those years of decline it is the feeling of putting off today the inescapable misery of tomorrow. The same lack of ability and preparation that I hid from view in class Monday would certainly - given the odds - necessitate a public airing when, on Tuesday, my lowered head, averted gaze, and still hand failed to prevent my being called on for a turn at the blackboard.

If there is a God, why didn't He prevent this humiliation? I did not raise my hand because I did not know the answer. Believe me, if by some miracle I knew what stupid 12 x 12 was I would have knocked other students over to get the teacher's attention.

My powers of invisibility failed me the worst in gym class. They make you take off your clothes - see how scrawny I am. They make you take the President's Physical Fitness Test in front of your classmates - watch me fail the United States of America everyone. We all get a chance to walk on a balance beam - perhaps I'll fall and crush my own skull, altogether less painful than wind-milling and klutzing off the beam at the two foot mark. Rope climbing race, anyone? It's fun! See who gets to the bell first. Or, perhaps if I'm lucky, I'll get to stand in a firing squad and have a big kid whip a ball at my head in order to enrich my physical and mental development.

The gym teacher, "Mr. Pudarski," rarely waited for me to raise my hand to let him know that I was ready to participate in his regimented, rule-bound games. Instead, fittingly, we counted off. I could only hope that he would have us count off in prime numbers or by sevens. My utter lack of ability in gym and math would then come full circle in front of one and all. A lousy student, a weakling, a dummy.

Philip R. Erwin is a co-author of Love, Jean: Inspiration for Families Living with Dysfunction of Sensory Integration. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher.