Managing Social-Emotional Issues: For Adults with Learning Disabilities

J Schultz photoSome guidelines for adults with learning disabilities: Managing (and perhaps mastering) the social-emotional aspects of living with a learning disability.

It’s important to start out with the reminder that although a learning disability (LD) is a life-long condition, that does not mean that it’s a life sentence. With increasing frequency, adults have found success in navigating a world lived through the lens of a learning disability, either in spite of it, or more importantly, because of the LD. A learning disability has certain common features, but it shows up in different people in different ways. This is especially true in adults. Two people born with the same type of disability may have entirely different life paths, influenced by educational, social, emotional, financial and health factors as they mature.

The path of some adults has been paved with positive experiences, while the lives of others have been shaped by the reactions of others, resulting in life conditions that are far from ideal (and even adverse), and can include negative self-thoughts and a lack of opportunities. Like any condition that throws you a curve ball, a life plan can help you navigate the often challenging social-emotional aspects of a life with LD. A learning disability does not have to define you as a person, and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse that keeps you from realizing your potential. But without a plan to guide you, the road to success may be a rocky one. This FAQ sheet explores some of the common challenges faced by adults with LD, provides some practical strategies to help you create your own life plan, and helps you take the next step toward a more fulfilling and satisfying “rest of your life.”

The questions and answers (Q & A’s) that follow are based on the questions many adults have about their learning disabilities and the impact of LD on their social-emotional functioning. It’s my hope that these “conversations” contain advice that may change the life paths of many adults with LD.

Q: What are some of the common problems that adults with LD have with forming and maintaining friendships and romantic relationships (including marriage)?

A: Many adults say that they “hide” the LD from potential friends or romantic partners. While it’s understandable–and perhaps desirable–not to “lead with the LD,” the unique characteristics of the LD usually find their way to the surface in any relationship. At some point, it’s important to share with your significant other the fact that a learning disability has impacted–and might continue to impact– your life. In this conversation with your partner or friend, focus on what you have done to work around or overcome challenges in the past, and how likely that will be to continue into the future. Making the effort to manage a life with LD is sign of character and strength. A good friend or lover is more likely to sign on as your partner in this venture when they feel like they are pairing up with a person who lives by the motto, “This might be hard, but I can do it.”

Q: How do I talk about my LD with that “special someone?

A: If you meet at a mixer for folks with LD, you might find a person who understands you better than anyone else. It might be like sparks going off, and many adults with LD find that forming a mutual support system for each other strengthens their relationship. You might bump into each others’ quirks from time to time, but if you think about that proactively, you’ll be prepared for when that happens and have a plan to work through these tough times. You might want to establish rules like, “We never accuse or blame each other.,” “We don’t argue in public,” “Please don’t talk until I sit down,” or “Never promise or threaten anything when we are upset.” If you are tech-savvy, you might want to make a video of yourself saying the things you want to say to your friend or partner, and play the tape a couple of times before you share the message in person. This kind of social rehearsal can save you embarrassment or regret later. One note of caution: don’t post this on Facebook or YouTube and don’t email it anywhere. You have no control over where these videos show up, and they live a long life in cyberspace. Writing or dictating your feelings in a paper or electronic journal might help you get the message out, and give you the chance to review it before you decide to share it (or not!).

Q: What are some work-related stressors, and how can adults manage anxiety, self-doubts, or self-esteem issues in the workplace?

A: If you have a job that takes advantage of your strengths, it will be a better fit for you than jobs that make demands on skills that are not strong.

Like everyone, folks with LD can find themselves under significant stress in jobs that require them to do tasks that they don’t do well. If you have a reading difficulty like dyslexia, or a specific math disability, or you are not great at organizing and managing tasks, and your work requires any of these skills, this means that you will not only have to work harder than other people, but also, you’ll have to work “smarter” to keep up the pace and quality of your work.

Using this extra effort can make people crabby or short-tempered, or very, very tired. This means that you’ll have make sure that you take care of yourself. Getting proper sleep, nutrition and exercise will help your brain work better. Being with friends and having fun is a good way to do that, but a trip to the gym with them before or after work is generally a better idea than stopping off at the local pub! If you do something at work that you think will get you in trouble with the boss or a co-worker, let them know about it before they find out in some other way, then apologize and let them know you will try very hard not to let that happen again. Let them know that you learned from the experience, and never, never, never blame it on your LD. Also, if you’ve made a mistake, try not to dwell on it. Make a commitment to yourself to stop worrying about it before you go to bed. Try to begin each day with a fresh start.

Because your brain is programmed to get you out of trouble when you are under stress, this miraculous organ turns on its “survival centers” and actually shuts down the “thinking brain” when you are feeling out of control, or less than competent (at work, in relationships, in sports or hobbies). The best way to get back that confidence that helps you be more confident is to “take a walk.” Literally! Put on your headset, turn on some happy, fun music (which a brain absolutely loves) and take a vigorous 15-minute walk. While you’re at it, practice what’s called “positive self-talk.” Believe it or not, when you say positive things and when you smile, your brain believes you are happy and it will work much more efficiently. Then you can get back to the job!

Q: I often misread people’s words or actions. This can cause embarrassment or rejection. What can I do avoid or manage these awkward situations?

A: Most adults tell me that there are one or two people in their lives or at work that they can understand better than others. This is usually because these associates or friends “say what they mean and mean what they say.” I would advise you to identify people like this, and hang out with them as much as you can! If you are not sure what other people mean, or you are confused by their expression or body language, learn to have the courage to say, “I’m really interested in what you think about this, but I’m really not sure what you mean.” You can also say, “I need to think about that a bit. Can you say that again?” or “I’m not quite sure that I heard you right; is this what you mean?”

Q: There are times when I just “lose it,” and flip out on people. It’s like I store all this stress and it kind of spills out. I’ve often heard (and been told) that once you’d said something you can’t take it back. What can I do to redeem myself after I’ve impulsively blurted something out? I have this massive “oops” feeling, but I think it’s too late to fix the damage.

A: It’s always okay to say “I’m sorry, I didn’t meant that.” It’s also okay to explain, “Sometimes I get worked up and when I do, it’s hard to control what comes out of my mouth.” Think about it: when you step on someone’s toes, it’s okay to say, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Likewise, when you blurt something out impulsively, it’s always okay to say, “SorryThat’s not what I meant. Let me say that another way.”

Q: People have told met that I need a “coach” to help me improve my social interaction skills. Can’t I teach myself how to do this?

A: Think about life with LD as a golf game: Some people need a coach to give them feedback and guidance about how to improve their swing. The same is true for LD. Some people can work on this by themselves, and other people need more guidance and advice to learn how to navigate the social landscape. What kind of person are you?

The bottom line: Being an adult with LD doesn’t mean that you will not be able to have a happier, more satisfying work experience or social life. The key to success is understanding what you might be doing that pushes people away, and practicing responses that pull people toward you. Doing role plays or watching popular TV shows that depict social interactions and discussing these with friends with LD may be very helpful. Finding that special thing that you do extremely well will also help reinforce the image of you as someone who does something well–someone who takes responsibility for his or her own life.

Q: What resources should adults know about if they have concerns about their social/emotional well-being?

A: The links or books below can provide valuable guidance for adults who are working on improving their social-emotional lives.

American Psychological Association (APA). “Right hemisphere dysfunction in nonverbal learning disabilities: Social, academic, and adaptive functioning in adults and children.” Semrud-Clikeman, Margaret; Hynd, George W. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 107(2), Mar 1990.
*Article may be purchased by non-APA members for $11.95.

Arlyn J. Roffman (2011) Meeting the Challenge of Learning Disabilities in Adulthood, Princeton Review. LD Online, “Social Skills and Adults with Learning Disabilities,”

Author: Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., Clinical Neuropsychologist, Harvard Medical School
Member, LDA Professional Advisory Board