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Obtaining Goals Through Self-Advocacy

special-needs-stories-girl-with-notebook-portraitEyes rolling. Voices sighing. My math teacher stared at me with hesitant eyes and raised eyebrows as I explained my confusion with the problem on the board. Every so often he would try to clarify the problem, glancing between me and the board, and pointing with his marker. Students began side-conversations in low tones, accentuated by uncontrollable laughs. Finally I told him, "I understand," when he turned to quiet the growing voices of the class, even though I felt it was no clearer than when we started. I was often behind, lost and confused.

Up until 5th grade I had been able to get good grades, to prove myself a top student. But the state-wide testing of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) uncovered the truth about my grades in math and reading, coming back as "needs improvement," a category, if maintained, would mean I would not graduate high school. The principal said not to worry, the MCAS was not that important. But my parents worried. And they took me off to be tested. The school had said there was no need to test me but clearly something did not match; I was getting good grades in school yet I was struggling. I hated to go to school and often begged to stay home.


Nicholas Wiggins' story focuses on his dedication to academics and hockey in the face of a non-verbal learning disability and a slow processing speed. He learned to self-advocate as a student and inspired teachers to learn how to better accommodate students with learning disabilities.

Dr. Kaufman, who conducted the evaluation, was friendly enough, but slightly unnerving. My perception may have been exaggerated because the activities she had me doing just didn't make sense. One involved figuring out how to manipulate shapes to match other shapes, progressively getting more complex. Staring at the shapes in front of me, my frustration mounted. I longed to tear them off the cards and squeeze them until they were microscopic fragments, so that they could no longer torture my mind. Yet they remained and time ticked by, the lady's eyes patient but piercing me, my hands and feet cold with sweat, my eyes staring blackly at the paper, trying to force my brain to recognize the unseen relationship between the shapes. But the tests kept coming. Why couldn't I do these problems before time ran out?

"Let me tell you what Dr. Kaufman learned from the testing," my mother offered. I thought, "What can she tell me that I don't already know?!"

"What do I know?" That sometimes when I look at math problems the numbers from one problem end up in another problem. That I have ideas in my head and when I go to write them down I've lost them. That when the teacher is explaining something, and I think I understand, I realize I don't five minutes later. I had never told my parents this. Then I began to cry.

I have a non-verbal learning disability and a slow processing speed. It has taken time for me to understand it. Most people don't recognize me as having a learning disability. I may look like a "typical" learner from the outside, but inside my brain a firestorm is often going on, my brain wiring sparking on and off in its own uncontrollable fashion. Some days are better than others. I don't know why. Other days brain input and output both suffer. The side of my brain that's responsible for organization and synthesis doesn't keep up with the other side of my brain. Another tick of my brain is that its capabilities are mixed up, so, for example, I have a good memory but the speed at which I can process information is slow. It is very frustrating and often painful to know that you can be capable of something but can't make your brain cooperate. I've read that teenagers with non-verbal learning disabilities are at great risk in high school because the frustration of the gap between what you know is possible and what you can actually achieve can be too demoralizing, and people give up. I refuse to give up. Instead I look to challenge myself.

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