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Abilities, Disabilities and Possibilities

Abilities, Disabilities and Possibilities

How do you support students with exceptional abilities and co-occurring learning disabilities?

By Laura Tan

The great thing about studying Psychology is that it really is incredibly diverse. It's difficult to think of many other courses where you can literally learn about the influence of dance on improving life for Parkinson's Disease sufferers, then walk straight into another lecture on theories of offending and end the day with a lab about how to conduct the Stroop Test and the automaticity of language processing. I had always been a bit of an all-rounder at school so deciding on one subject was quite difficult for me. However, studying such a multi-faceted discipline as Psychology meant that I was able to pursue many multiple interests at the same time.

One of my areas of interest was education and more specifically, gifted and talented education. I worked on Gifted and Talented master classes while I was a Student Ambassador at the University of Hertfordshire and felt that this was highly rewarding as it helped raise their aspirations. I was saddened to find that many had circumstances e.g. low income background, a learning disability, English as a second language, which made them doubt whether university could ever become a reality for them. I knew that I wanted to find out how these students could be better supported. For my placement, I opted to assist in one of the top performing schools in Cambridgeshire and during this time, was able to conduct interviews with students on the gifted and talented register about their academic and social experiences. These interviews were short but did shed light on the sorts of things that they felt were important to their success; good teachers, a strong and positive school ethos, supportive families and I enjoyed hearing their stories. Running in parallel to my interest in education was a strong interest in learning disabilities. I was able to study them during several different modules, some which looked at dyslexia and autism in terms of their biological causes (Brain Disorders), some which looked at them more developmentally (Developmental Psychology) considering interventions which may help to break the relationship between learning disabilities, bullying and mental health conditions.

Upon applying to study for a Masters in Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, I knew that if I was going to be serious about trying to get a place and more importantly, if I was going to do well during this degree, I was going to have to write the mother of all research proposals. It had to be something which I could be really passionate about and enjoy investigating for the best part of a year. That's when I decided to look at the 1-2.5% of the population who not only fall into the 'gifted and talented' category but who also exhibit a learning disability e.g. dyslexia, dyspraxia or Autism Spectrum Disorder. While these groups are typically thought of as disparate groups, students who belong to either/or category actually have a lot in common. For example, they are both more likely to be bullied and both are more likely to have heightened anxiety. So what about students who do belong to both categories?

From the literature, I was startled to find that only 5% of the literature in the area was actually empirical (Lovett & Sparks, 2011). While many recommendations had been written, this area was actually highly under-researched. For those that had researched this area, very few had used qualitative methods. This puzzled me as, in my opinion, interviewing people about their experiences (especially when you want to ask them questions of a sensitive nature e.g. about bullying and anxiety) is a brilliant way of finding out what is and what isn't working. There are things I found out that a.) I wouldn't have thought to ask on a questionnaire or b.) even if I had, that the people wouldn't have given away about themselves via a self-report questionnaire. There are some things so private, so part of ourselves that they can only really be revealed through establishing trust with a real life person rather than circles on a page. Another problem with research in this area was that sample sizes were rarely over 3 or 4 participants perhaps due to the amount of time that interviews take up as well as geographic regions making it difficult to find participants. I was very lucky to have good links with schools and to be researching in Cambridge, that's for sure!

I e-mailed various SENCOs in local secondary schools as well as the Disability Departments of local universities to try and recruit participants. I managed to talk to 18 lovely students in the end; 12 were at university and 6 were at secondary school (mean age = 21
years). All of the students were very able although their specific subjects of high ability really did vary. The most common areas of high ability were social sciences, languages, mathematics and drama. Eight of the students had dyslexia, three had dyspraxia, three had both dyslexia and dyspraxia and the remaining four had Autism Spectrum Disorder. I used a semi-structured interview schedule which I devised myself although it was loosely based on a number of questionnaires that I adapted for British students. I asked questions about extra-curricular activities, friendships and bullying experiences, social support (family, teachers, mentors, technology), future ambitions although other topics came up too. I spent a very long time transcribing each and every interview, some of which were over 1 ½ hours long and then began coding using a process known as Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. I actually really enjoyed coding as I love analysing language and it was great to see patterns emerge despite the students coming from different schools and different backgrounds. I've included some illustrative quotes below (page 38) which show the eight themes which were generated: everyday life, extra activities, family and friends, wider support such as teachers and technology, identification, underachievement, anxiety and depression and coping and awareness.

I always had in mind that my Masters research had to be meaningful. It's a pet hate of mine to attend seminars where I feel the speaker is more interested in boosting their own ego and getting out publications than advancing science. I think if you're going for applause rather than the cause then social science shouldn't be what you pursue. For me, I wanted to further our understanding of what can be done to address societal issues such as widening participation in universities and reducing the prevalence of mental health conditions.
From my research, I was able to see that schools mere miles apart provided very differently for this group of students. More consistency between schools and universities is needed in terms of the extra-curricular activities they provide to not only boost and challenge, but to improve the areas of relative 'weakness'. The interviews also highlighted that more awareness of learning disabilities is needed in schools and universities to prevent bullying. In particular, while most agreed that autism is now more widely understood, dyspraxia is still a bit of a mystery to many, with even teachers saying they were unsure how to deal with students who exhibited such symptoms. For those who had a dual diagnosis of dyslexia and dyspraxia, the students felt that dyslexia was much better identified and handled. Having said that, many still see it as 'poor reading' and fail to empathise with other impairing aspects of the disorder such as disorganisation of thought. Much of the Disabled Students Allowance can be used to fund technological support and my research really opened my eyes to the sorts of things that students are entitled to. However, while there was much offered, many of the students said they had not used things like speech-to-text software to help with typing assignments but would have instead have benefited from more human support such as a mentor or specialist tutor.

Another interesting point of discussion was about the future, about ambitions, hopes and concerns. Students with dyslexia were unsurprisingly nervous about the written part of the applications but felt that they were more at home during interviews when they could
articulate themselves verbally. Help for such students may come more in the form of assisting with personal organisation and meeting deadlines as they quite enjoyed the social aspects of applying. Gifted students with ASD found interviews and securing personal references difficult therefore help with these aspects may improve students' prospects as well as happiness.

For anybody that's considering a research project, bear in mind that you should be trying to study something which you are passionate about, that you know something about or have some experience of. I would advise anyone considering postgraduate study to get in touch with potential supervisors early, to run your ideas by them and get help on how to conduct the all-important literature review and to get advice on what methods will help you find the answers to the questions you can't wait to investigate. Many of the skills that I utilised to complete my Masters research were developed during my undergraduate degree; things like interpersonal skills, presentation skills, organisational skills so do always consider what skills you have and which ones you'd really like to develop. Lastly, whether it's dance, inside the mind of a murderer or the good old Stroop, bear in mind that Psychology is diverse and while there's so much we know about what it is to be human, there's still so much behaviour that is yet to be explained, and you could help do just that!

Laura Tan became an Associate Lecturer with the Open University in January and is thoroughly enjoying it! Her background is in Psychology and her interests include learning disabilities, mental health issues, bullying as well as educational technology.

This article originally appeared in News & Views August 2014.


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