As far back as I can remember, my mother insisted I go to the Christmas and New Year’s parties she threw, even though I couldn’t speak properly until I was 16. My mom was the only person who could really comprehend what I was saying. It took four throat surgeries and years of speech therapy before I could participate in conversations. Nonetheless, she felt the more I was around people, watching and listening, the more it would help me learn how to speak. I didn’t know most of the people who attended these parties—let alone what they did for a living. However, I learned they were very important people who had a lot of authority in Washington, D.C.
My earliest memory of a party was when I was six or so, and my mom had just put me to bed. She had always told me that I wasn’t allowed to come downstairs after bedtime unless the President of the United States called or the house was on fire. Both of which, at six years old, I thought were highly unlikely. However, about an hour later the phone rang. I let it ring a few times and when no one answered I got curious so I picked up the phone. A familiar voice was on the other end asking to speak with my mom. So I went downstairs to the party wearing my OshKosh B’gosh onesie trying desperately to get my mom’s attention. After about a minute or so she asked what I wanted with a frustrated voice. I told her that the President of the United States was on the phone and she rushed to answer it. Bill Clinton himself was waiting on the phone for my mother. Here I am, a little boy who can barely speak and the one time I answer the phone it’s the President of the United States. I may have only said a couple of words, but they were heard by the President of the United States!
My life growing up was different than most people. It was different for a few reasons, one being who my parents knew, but more importantly because I have VCFS, a genetic disorder that results in a wide variety of physical ailments, learning disabilities and attention issues. I have dyslexia and ADD, as well as short term memory loss. As with many people who have LD, I have trouble reading social cues. And because of my speech issues I was a late bloomer socially. So that’s a double whammy.
My LD affects my social skills in many ways. I interrupt people. Or I’ll abruptly change the topic of conversation when people are in the middle of talking about something. Or I’m really blunt and direct, without realizing I might offend someone, which can get me into trouble. But sometimes, I’m told, people find it refreshingly honest. When you stop pretending and get real with people, it tends to bring you closer to them. I think that can be especially true with famous people. They’re so used to others sucking up to them that they appreciate when someone is real. I think that was true with my experience with Steven Spielberg. I was talking to him at a party about my dyslexia and how it affects me, and he opened up about his own experiences with dyslexia. I then blurted out that I’d like to interview him about it. And that’s how I ended up getting an exclusive interview with one of the most accomplished filmmakers opening up about his LD for the first time.
My social skills have improved over time and I have my mom to thank for it. She always said parties were the best thing you can do for your child to help them gain social skills. She even wrote a how-to book that was called “The Party”. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was around a lot of famous people growing up—Barbara Walters, Johnny Cochran, Alan Greenspan, Nora Ephron—to name a few. Even though I have LD, I learned to not be intimidated by anyone, and to speak with confidence without worrying about what others think of you.
I believe that the more social experiences you have the better, and one of the best times for gaining social skills are during the holidays. I remember my grandmother’s Christmas parties. My grandparents were from the South, so when they threw parties, it was all about southern hospitality—food, friends and of course family. I think that’s why the holidays have always been my favorite time of year. For me it’s not about the presents, but about the people. It’s about being surrounded by family and friends. It’s a time to feel comfortable with the people who you love most. I know I have grown up differently than most but I have always appreciated my experiences, and know that the true spirit of the holiday season is family.
Quinn Bradlee is the founder of Friends of Quinn, an online community and resource center for young adults with learning disabilities and their friends and family. He has dedicated his adult life to helping others with learning disabilities.