Roughly 1 in 5 Americans learn and think in fundamentally different ways than the rest, and regrettably, these 20 percent pay an unjust price simply for being different in these respects. That translates to millions of people in the United States who have unfairly been stigmatized and misunderstood as being weak or lazy, though nothing could be further from the truth. Such differences are unrelated to intelligence and to work ethic. They relate instead to differences in how information is collected from the environment and processed as well as unique challenges around language, communication, social skills and sensory sensitivity, to name a few. In short, these learning differences stem from how the brain is wired. They illustrate a natural diversity of neurologies within the human population, all of which deserve to be respected, though sadly, those neurologies that collectively constitute the 1 in 5 are often viewed as aberrant and undesirable, resulting in labels such as disorder, disability, condition, etc.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia and expressive language disorder are but a few examples of the alternative neurologies to which I am referring. Two or more of these often coexist. I am a case in point in that I am both autistic and learning disabled in auditory perception. I became accustomed to being misunderstood, brought down and bullied a long time ago, though I am one of the fortunate ones. In spite of confronting all kinds of challenges and adversity, I managed to earn solid grades in school, attend my first-choice college, make a few good friends, become a husband and a father, write and publish a book, establish a lasting and rewarding career and build up enough self-esteem to feel good about myself. Intelligence, a work ethic, motivation, optimism and being a good person at heart helped me get to where I am. Help from others also accounts in part for why I have managed to find happiness and success.

I want for others what I am lucky to have for myself. I realize that in order for this wish to materialize, support resources need to be available to assist people in getting there. As such, I champion the work of organizations whose mission is to help those who have been marginalized carve out better lives for themselves. Understood is the name of one such organization. Shaping the world for difference is what they are all about: a world in which millions of people who learn and think differently can thrive at home, at school, and at work. A world in which support is readily available to parents and caregivers who want their child to prosper, educators who want their students to flourish, young adults who want to shape their own journeys and employers who commit to a more inclusive workplace. In doing so, Understood seeks to raise awareness and address the stigma which not only compromises the 1 in 5 with learning differences but also society as a whole. Everyone wins when these differences are accepted, better yet, embraced.

Understood offers a variety of resources aimed at helping neurodiverse individuals discover their true potential, advocate for their own interests and take control of their lives. One such resource is an online community of parents, friends and experts who engage in private support groups, open groups and one-on-one conversations to share their experiences, ask questions and seek advice. The expertise that is present in this community reflects Understood’s partnerships with all kinds of organizations with diverse specialties who share Understood’s passion for shaping the world for difference. The Children’s Health Council (CHC)National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), Child Mind InstituteEye to Eye and GreatSchools are but a few of the 15 founding partners who came together several years ago to provide families of individuals with a learning and thinking difference with a single, comprehensive resource. An extensive online knowledge base of information, videos and articles about the many diagnoses and challenges which the 1 in 5 face is also available.

The writing is on the wall and is begging to be taken to heart: If the world is in fact going to succeed at embracing difference, education and support are both essential to this outcome. Understood and other like-minded organizations deliver on both of these. We, as humans, tend to turn away from what we don’t understand, though once we open our minds, educate ourselves and learn, we do begin to understand and consequently are more likely to accept and perhaps even embrace that which we dismissed beforehand. As such, we can become better educated, learn, understand, accept and embrace difference.

With respect to support: once the proper supports are in place, those of us who are neurologically different and struggle for this reason are able to thrive and consequently feel a greater sense of belonging. Not too long ago, I joined a Facebook group of parents of students with learning differences. One of the group members shared how her son, an autistic PhD student in physics, had been doing before and after the proper support system was implemented, and her story is a case in point. She wrote that initially, she and her son had been overwhelmed by a myriad of challenges stemming from the son’s professor’s unrealistic expectations of him, the department’s lack of experience with autistic graduate students, difficulty getting settled into an apartment and the struggles involved in figuring out how potential crisis situations would get resolved. In addition, having to work with a student services coordinator who was “nice but clueless” and a social worker who was “wonderful and supportive but had no authority.” The result: extreme stress, regression and years of hard work and confidence building now at risk. Recently, I felt relieved when I came across an update from the mother that after several weeks, she was finally able to set up a functional support system for her son, the result of which was his return to the lab and to his work, and seeing him smiling again.

Clearly, it goes to show that having the proper supports and assistance to turn to when necessary is a game changer, and not only for the 1 in 5 with learning differences but for everybody. Support from my family, clinicians, my parents, friends and teachers certainly helped me turn my life around when I was contending with the fallout from my autism spectrum diagnosis. But the resources that exist to help us are only as helpful as the extent to which they are used. Doing so is not a sign of weakness but of the courage to acknowledge that we are all imperfect, that being imperfect is ok, and to bring ourselves, and the greater society, to the next level. We can shape the world for difference and make it a better place for all of us simply by admitting that we all need support and by reaching out and grabbing it when we need it most. 

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