It was on a breezy in March, an off-day for the Phillies during Spring Training this year in Clearwater, that I spotted a book by renowned psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz on the new arrivals table in Barnes & Noble. It was during a relatively brief period when I was trying unsuccessfully to cut down on the number of books that I buy, taking photos of key phrases or pages with my iPhone. But last week during another habit-feeding trip to our Jersey Shore B&N, I broke down and bought Saltz’s book in hardcover form to read on the plane yesterday without worrying about powering up or down. I was not disappointed.
The subject matter of the link between disorder and genius could subtitled the talent in neurodiversity. But I want to seize on a clinical vignette that Dr. Saltz introduces early in her book, on page four, about Ethan – an adolescent whose hard won success is attributed to his father’s approach. The key to Ethan’s success, notes Saltz, was his father’s determination to help mitigate Ethan’s weaknesses thereby providing opportunities to magnify his strengths. Saltz writes: “The flipsides of Ethan’s challenges are also his brightest sparks of genius.” If you can’t buy the book, here’s a podcast synopsis.
An interesting tidbit that is not in the book can be gleaned from a different podcast interview between Dr. Gail Saltz and Dr. Fernette Eide (who champions the Dyslexic Advantage). At the 11:00 minute mark, Dr. Saltz discusses her brother – Adam Riess – who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Fascinatingly, the class that presented the greatest challenge to Adam when he was a student was Physics, the area which became the subject of his life’s work. Which underscores the point that many of the patients we see will be something special as adults – they just have to survive school first in order to make it. I often tell the parents of these children that I would love to get into a time machine to travel into the future and see them 10 or 20 years down the road. Alexander Ruales was one such child about whom I blogged a few years ago. We aid these children through vision therapy, some of whom are considered “twice exceptional”, by helping mitigate their linear visual weakness for print learning and developing their angular visual strengths for cognitive thinking (shades of Harry Wachs).
The advantages of identifying what we do collectively as “neuro” comes into play in Saltz’s first chapter entitled “Learning Differences”, in which she emphasizes dyslexia. The chapter begins: “Schuyler is a bright and wise-beyond-her-years sixteen-year-old child attending high school in Manhattan. When she was just two years old, she told her mother, Erica, that she couldn’t see. Yet every doctor to whom Erica took her said the same thing: Schuyler had perfect vision. One doctor went so far as to suggest that Schuyler was an attention-seeking middle child and gave her a pair of fake eyeglasses to wear, telling her that they were “magic”. Schuyler wasn’t fooled, nor was she attention seeking. She told her mother that the magic glasses were broken.”
Dr. Saltz proceeds to discuss how individuals with dyslexia tend toward highly attuned peripheral vision. This processing mode enables them to take in the big picture, but contributes toward their substitution of similar looking or meaning words. She refers to this as a neurological difference rather than an eye or mechanical difference. The key is to help these individuals develop a balance between their unique strengths and their apparent weakness. And I would add, in this instance a balance between central and peripheral processing.