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Nikki Luongo

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'You Seem So Normal!'

Posted: 08/19/11 06:53 PM ET

During the 1990s and into the 2000s, before the days of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, we had to suffer face-to-face abuse over clothes, personality and even mamas.

I knew I was different from most kids. No, I wasn't a paste-eater, and I didn't lick the chalkboard. Instead, I struggled with concepts that most kids got instantly, like cutting in a straight line with safety scissors, tying my shoes and writing in cursive. In 13 years of education, I have never learned to write, read or even understand the concept of cursive writing.

But even in kindergarten I knew something was off. I always did poorly on tests, hated art (because my drawing skills were so awful) and never participated in projects, and new concepts were a nightmare.

Every day I'd come home crying, asking why I was not smart like the other kids, and why my stuff was never on the bulletin board that screamed proudly of the other kids' work and not mine. After about 10th time my mother finally went to the classroom and pointed out that my work was indeed on the bulletin board. There were 15 kids in the class, and 15 pieces of classwork were thumb-tacked to the wall.

"No, that's not my work!" I insisted. I have been behind, but not so behind that I wouldn't recognize my own name.

My mother finally asked the teacher what was going on, and the teacher replied, "I didn't want to make her feel bad, so I just added another kid's work to the board as hers."

After that incident and my mother going nuts (growing up, I thought my mother was the Italian version of Bella Abzug), it was decided that I would be tested for a learning disability. If I had been a gambling woman at the age of 6, I'd have won enough to send myself to Harvard, because I was diagnosed with nonverbal learning disorder, attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia.

Wikipedia explains nonverbal learning disorder this way:

Non-verbal communication



People with this disability may misunderstand non-verbal communications, or they may understand the communications but be unable to formulate an appropriate response. This can make establishing and maintaining social contacts difficult. Eye contact can also be difficult for people with NLD, either because they are uncomfortable with maintaining it or because they do not remember that others expect it. Similarly, knowing when and how to use physical contact and recognizing emotions in others and expressing them for oneself can be problematic.



Verbal communication



People with NLD will often tend to lapse into "cocktail-speech," talking too much and too quickly. People with NLD have strong verbal communication skills and must often rely on verbal communication as their main method of gathering information. Trying to process too many non-verbal stimuli can confuse them.



People with NLD often have strong verbal skills, and learn how to use those to compensate.



Numerical and spatial awareness



Arithmetic and mathematics can be very difficult for people with NLD, and they often have problems with spatial awareness. Problematic areas may include:



  • Recognizing faces




  • Paying attention in noisy environments




  • Navigation




  • In mathematics: the confusion of X-axis and Y-axis




  • Remembering the names and locations of places




  • Map reading, or plotting or remembering routes. People with NLD are often best-served by giving landmarks along with repeated directions.




  • Estimating the speed of cars while crossing the road




  • Self-awareness of where their body is(frequently bump into other people and objects)




  • Backing out a car




Motor



People with NLD often have motor difficulties. This can manifest in their walking and running, which are sometimes stiff, or in difficulty balancing. They may also be more likely to run into things, due to judging distances poorly. Fine motor skills can also develop abnormally, causing difficulty with writing, drawing, and tying shoelaces. NLD sufferers are often labeled as "clumsy" or "stiff".



Anxiety



People with NLD, more than many others, fear failure. They may feel that they have to do too much at once, and then do not know where to start. This allows them to stagnate, and then do nothing. Sometimes they try to multitask and again end up doing nothing, which can lead to frustration. They may experience the world around them as a chaos, the actions that they must perform well and quickly creating a sense of helplessness. Clumsiness in performing tasks may be criticized by teachers or in the workplace, causing further fear of failure.



There is a high incidence of suicide in the NLD population.

Basically, I can't read people's faces if they're angry or upset; I might take the opposite view and laugh. However, I can usually tell when someone is BS-ing me or lying; you learn to recognize certain traits if you know people well enough.

This also tells me that I wasn't a klutz on purpose; it was a result of my learning disability. God help anything that is in my path, because I lead a path of destruction without even realizing it.

I also had left and right hemisphere confusion, which means that when I was writing and reached a certain point in the page, I would switch hands, even though I wasn't ambidextrous.

From that initial diagnosis and over the next few years, I was put into specialized classes: speech therapy, counseling (which did nothing, as you will later see), and the "resource room," which was hysterical in its own right, because it was a place to avoid classes; we'd go in and play games, which were supposed to be learning games, but we got to do our homework, and we'd get the teachers to give us the answers, because we'd play up our learning disabilities.

The teacher in charge was this blonde woman who doused herself in Jean Nate perform and had bright pink lipstick on her teeth, and who constantly drank coffee and popped Mentos. In order for her to teach something, she'd get right in your face, and I swear even now that the smell of mint turns my stomach. She would make an attempt to teach a concept, and when that didn't work, she'd hint at the answer until you stumbled across it, but she'd act like you came up with the whole thing by yourself.

Every year I'd get tested to see if my disability had changed at all. We'd go to this big hospital outside Boston. I always knew when it was testing day, because there were clues everywhere: my mother wouldn't nag me about getting to bed early, and she wouldn't bother to make my lunch or even tell my father to pick me up. Also, she'd go through my closet and pick out the dorkiest clothes imaginable, clothes I'd only wear on testing day.

I couldn't figure out the questions ahead of time, so when they'd throw a question at me, I'd stick to "I don't know." The testing would last all day, and in the end I would beg my mother not to make me do it, but she wouldn't listen, and we'd go through the same thing until the 12th grade.

Because I lacked social skills and the ability to communicate with my fellow classmates, I didn't make friends with them, and therefore, we had nothing to do with each other, so I hung out with my cousins, who were much cooler and knew my M.O. and didn't care if I rambled or did something out of the ordinary.

But that didn't stop my fellow classmates from verbally abusing me because I wasn't a fashionista at 13 years old. I didn't dress like I was going to an MTV party every day: I wore overalls and baseball caps, and I had thick glasses (this was a good five years before Tina Fey made Coke-bottle glasses fashionable) and wire braces. I basically looked like Katy Perry in her "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" music video -- oh, yeah, really sexy. Believe me, at 26 I look back on it and realize that I should have just beaten the hell out of myself and saved them all the aggravation. Plus, I had hair that for some reason wouldn't stay down, despite the eternal sugar-bowl haircut I had growing up, and in those days I didn't like anything in my hair, so I would just brush it, and it would just stick in every direction. In sixth grade I earned the nickname "Medusa" because of my hair, and the nickname soon caught on -- that and "Daisy Mae" because of my overalls. I had never been taught that sixth grade is a time of fashion and attitude; I thought I was there to learn, and because I wasn't up on the latest fashion trends, I was deemed a loser and became non-existent, and a few times I was tossed into the lockers for crossing paths with some chicks who thought they were the 1990s version of the Heathers.

I admit that once, when they had finished abusing the hell out of me, at least for a moment, they turned the tables on some other girl, and instead of defending her like I would do now, I joined in and nearly sent the poor girl over the edge -- if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. But this girl was much worse, whereas I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She would come up with ridiculous statements, and the verbal abuse would just write itself. Years later I heard that her parents had taken her out of school and put her into private tutoring after her grandfather had given her permission to sucker-punch one of her tormentors and she did it; she went right up in broad daylight and punched this girl in front of 30 witnesses. After that, it was either pull her out of the school or face an assault charge. These were the pre-Columbine days -- but not by much, in fact. If it had happened now, I'm pretty sure the whole school would have been expelled and arrested for harassment.

Why is it that we feel the need to torture each other? We pick on each other for such ridiculous reasons.

So between being called "Medusa" and getting tossed around like a rag doll, my self-esteem, which had been shaky to begin with, suddenly plummeted, and I slipped into a depression, and I stayed there for nearly my entire seventh-grade year. I still did my homework, but I didn't hang out with the regulars in my neighborhood that I had grown up with. I got lost in books. Suddenly, Helen Keller and other tragic figures became my world.

My mother dragged me to every child psychologist, hoping to get to the bottom of my depression, because I completely closed down about what was going on at school. Basically, I'd come home at 3 p.m., sleep until dinnertime, then, after doing my homework, I'd go back to sleep. Each psychologist would make an attempt, and one psychiatrist even put me on medication, which turned me into Sybil at the Switch: I became angry, violently angry, so much so that once, when the vicious girls tried to start something, I went nuts and beat the hell out of one of them in a girls' bathroom. After that, I was dubbed "Psycho."

My mother took me off the medication after I told her where to stick a tuna sandwich, and after I tried to kick my dog for getting in my way. My father, at this point, would just steer clear of me, because he would be at the center of my wrath for even breathing.

After two years of verbal abuse, a few fights and many nights of crying that I couldn't handle it anymore and that I'd be better off dead (I apparently talked in my sleep, because, according to my mother, I threatened to drown myself -- even my unconscious was screaming for help), my mother pulled me out of public school and put me into private school, where I slowly regained what I had lost. By 10th grade I was like the Queen Bee, and I had completely forgotten about those two years.

It's so bizarre when I tell people that I have a learning disability. They say, "I can't believe you have a disability! You seem like such a normal person!" like they expect me to grow a third head on command.

Once, when I had to present a statistics project on the number of learning-disabled kids there are, nearly half the class had some sort of experience with growing up with a learning disability. I was always taught that my disability was a burden, that it was something that could always be seen as negative. In fact, I used to make fun of myself, blaming my mistakes on being learning-disabled -- a "sped," in fact. One Christmas, I made that crack one too many times, and my cousin swore that she'd beat the "sped" right out of me. After that, I kind of backed off the "sped" chat; instead, I created "brunette moments," which are like "blonde moments" and "senior moments," but my brunette moments are much ditzier.

When I got sick, my learning disability took a major backseat; in fact, I don't even mention it anymore. It's not what matters anymore. I grew up, and priorities shifted completely to what was in the moment.

So tell me, fellow readers: what have been your experiences in the joyous world of learning disabilities?

 

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