Down in the Trenches: My Life with Nonverbal Learning Disorder

By Rick Chefitz

My name is Rick Chefitz and I have a relatively unknown learning disorder called Nonverbal Learning Disorder. I also have been given a diagnosis of Asperger's Disorder. Admitting that there is problem is the first step in a long journey of self-discovery, of becoming the best person that I can be. It has been a long road, but at least the 33-year journey has not been boring!

Nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) has affected me in many ways. It has affected me socially: I have had immense trouble fitting in with others, including trouble getting close with my family. I have had trouble getting and keeping a job; I am living with my dad as at present I cannot afford to live on my own. In short, my learning disorder has prevented me from having the life I want to have.

My problems began literally from day one as I was born prematurely. My problems were so severe that my mom took me to doctor’s to see if there was anything wrong with me. I was even tested for autism but did not meet the criteria. However it was shown that I had poor language development (thought to be due to hearing trouble), stereotypic and ritualistic behavior, difficulty relating to people, poor frustration tolerance, and hyperactivity. Of course, this was due to having NLD and my reactions to the world around me. In fifth grade I took an IQ test; I got a 111 on the verbal but only an 80 the performance. However, no one knew what it all meant. I was simply considered an “exceptional child.”

I grew up in Canton, a suburb of Boston where I spent my entire childhood. School was rough. Academically, I was the classic C student, and I needed special help just to get those grades. I had problems with reading comprehension, geometry and trigonometry, and Spanish. I hated school. Most of the time I simply stared into space.

I also had problems with the other kids. Though I made a few friends, who also had special needs, I did not have the social life I wanted. I did not really date and felt cut off from what “everyone else” was doing. All I wanted was a normal social life and it seemed like it would not happen.

I went to college at the University of Hartford determined to get a “fresh start.” After all, hardly anyone would know me from my past. Any problems I had when I was little were history —I thought! Besides, both my brother and sister, who were not exactly “Mr. and Ms. Popular” in high-school, found their places in college and did extremely well academically, socially, and in extra-curricular activities. I wanted to follow in their footsteps and become a major success story!

The “fresh start” did not happen. I was still different from everyone else. I was picked on mercilessly by the other kids, even being called Rain Man. Again I made a few friends, but was shunned by the majority. And again I did not date at all. Academically I was a well-below-average student. I majored in political science, but I zoned out in most of my classes. As a result I did not learn much in college beyond the “bumper-sticker” level of sophistication. I transferred to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst hoping for another fresh start, but the results were not dramatically different. I was picked on a lot less but I still did not have many friends (though the friends I did make were good ones). I still struggled academically just getting by, needing five years overall to get my degree. I actually tried much harder then most of the others—I just was unable to show it.

But my problems really began after college, when I tried to earn a living. I moved back to the Boston area—though this time I actually lived in the city. I have had more jobs than just about everyone else, it seems. The longest I have lasted at one job is just over a year and a half; my average length of employment in a job is a whopping six months. I got fired from many temp jobs—jobs I thought were beneath me because I have college degree. I flunked out of jobs such as political campaign work, sales, customer service, and various clerical jobs (I could not keep up with the paperwork). My biggest job success has been in accounts payable, but even there I was isolated from the other people and occasionally screwed things up, like the check runs. I was having these problems even when the there was a real labor shortage; when the economy tanked, I was in real trouble.

Socially, I had a very slow start. I did not make my first new friend in Boston until after being there for over a year. I kept moving from apartment to apartment every two years—and the places I lived in often got worse. I was not making the money I needed to really have a life here. As a result, I was able to do only the minimum socially.

I could not understand what was wrong. There was no question I was in a very competitive area. Even if I did not have NLD, I would have had a lot of trouble as it is simply hard to meet people here. As for work, it is also very hard as Boston in general is very fast-paced and work obsessed—and I could not make the grade. I saw Boston as the reason for my problem.

But Boston was only part of the problem. After I suspected I might indeed have a learning disability, I underwent a whole battery of tests and learned that I have always had NLD (officially categorized as a cognitive disorder with visual-spatial processing deficits). I was also officially given the diagnosis of Asperger's as it is the DSM-IV, the "Bible" of mental disorders. The mystery had been solved! I now realized I had been missing all those nonverbal social signals all those years: I was trying to get by on just words which carry less then 15% of the message. Therefore I was making social decisions on a daily basis on less then 15% of the available information! I also realized I did not do well in school because of my poor visual memory and inability to “think in pictures.” Most people with AS are good at thinking visually, but I am not. That is the biggest difference between AS and NLD and is why I fit the NLD label. However I have the same social (to a lesser extent), vocational, and executive functioning issues as most others with AS.

Things are slowly getting better for me. I am getting better at managing my disorder and coming up with compensatory strategies. I have made some friends. I have also been involved with AANE, going to some of the social events as well as joining a discussion group. I am also involved with an NLD e-mail list. I was just on the adult panel at a conference in San Francisco run by the Nonverbal Learning Disorders Association (NLDA), and that was an incredible experience.

I have also done well on the job. I worked for close to a year at a local hospital, filing medical records, and improving my time management and work habits. After years of frustration with vocational rehab, I started seeing a new career counselor who specializes in people with disabilities. Rather than trying to fit clients into “the system,” my counselor believes it is the clients’ needs that are paramount. I realize now that I am a good match for the accounting and finance field. It fits my ability with numbers and ability to do detail-oriented work. It also fits with my introverted personality as social skills are not as important in this field (though even there they can be helpful).

The journey is not over. It has just begun. I want achieve a rebirth or a Renaissance. I still believe that success is possible, but it has to be on my own terms. All my life I had tried to be like “everyone else.” I have given up on that “dream,” but now I have a new dream: to accept myself as I am, and live the best life that I can live.

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