Cognitive impairment; Low IQ; Self teaching and academic accommodations
January 10, 2014 2:51 PM   Subscribe

I had severe hyperthyroidism and hypoglycemia from malnutrition which lead to brain damage and dementia symptoms. I love learning but all this time, I couldn't learn. I'm much better now, but still can't learn. I'm looking for suggestions on how I can learn, and guidance on what academic accommodations would be available for a person like me, if any. I've done a lot of research on this over a 10 year span.

It's been 10 years of struggling. l had severe hyperthyroidism and hypoglycemia from malnutrition which lead to brain damage and dementia symptoms. I love learning, but all this time, I couldn't learn. I'm way better since I changed my diet years ago, but still can't learn. I can make change now (in non-stressful environments), and I can do basic arithmetic, when I couldn't before. That means a lot to me.

I'm looking for suggestions on how I can learn, and guidance on what academic accommodations would be available for a person like me, if any. I can't think of any academic accommodations that would help me besides just straight out giving me the answer!

I had no choice but to drop out of college 9 years ago, but it kills me that I can't learn what I love and scratch that itch. For the past decade I've been trying to learn (actually, re-learn) on my own, but I couldn't.

I've looked at a lot of information on learning disabilities online, but nothing really applied to me. I guess I don't really have a learning disability, just low IQ, though I scored very high before I got sick (professional testing). I've even looked at information on how to learn to learn, but nothing helped. Last month, I noticed it helped, if:

* I see the answer before I try the exercise, try to understand the answer, then attempt it on my own
* I read the entire material even if I don't understand it, then start over. For example, read a whole book, then go to the beginning and tackle it as if it were the first time.

Anyone have any ideas how to go from there?

Most of the problem, I think, is that I have really bad working memory (keeping data in your head while you're working with it), and even if I get an exercise right, the learning isn't permanent. I do N-Back exercises (to improve working memory) and it gives me an awful headache the rest of the day :) But it does help a bit, I just have to take a week off after I practice it, haha!

Anyway, I thought I'd reach out and ask for help since it's obvious I can't do this alone.
posted by midnightmoonlight to Education (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You need to talk to a professional rehab specialist, probably a licensed clinical psychologist. Get a referral from your doctor.

One thing they'll probably do is give you an IQ test. Despite the mythology, the real purpose of a good IQ test is to check various aspects of cognition to see what's strong and what isn't. Then a psychologist can use that information to help you formulate strategies for using what works to compensate for what doesn't.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2014

Could you tell us what your academic or learning goals are? It will help us give more insightful answers.
posted by Brent Parker at 3:08 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

This book "Keeping Ahead in School" by Dr Mel Levine night help you narrow down what aspect of learning is hard for you, plus give you ideas on strategies and accommodations.
posted by SyraCarol at 3:22 PM on January 10, 2014

I really like computer programming and web development too (I used to be good at it before I got sick) and I always found math really fun, though I understand I won't ever be as good as I used to be.

But I'd be ok with learning anything at all, basic school math, eng 101, and such.

That would be great, but it will never happen, I can't find those services where I live.
posted by midnightmoonlight at 3:26 PM on January 10, 2014

Sleep is critical to memory consolidation and plasticity--how is your sleep?
posted by blue suede stockings at 3:39 PM on January 10, 2014

AnkiSRS is a piece of software that works serial recall -- if you know it, it waits a day then asks again, then waits 2 days, then 4, etc. Free for PC, nominal fee for mobile.

Knowing where you are could help with suggesting available services.

Does the Khan academy stuff work for you?
posted by bfranklin at 3:45 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nueropsychologist would be a good bet here. There are tons of different cognative tests that can explain exactly where your strengths and weaknesses are regardless of the underlying cause. My wifes nueropsychologist is awesome. She helps with learning techiniques and adaptations that focus on what she does well.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:46 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't find those services where I live.

Then you need to move. This isn't something you can adequately treat on your own. You need expert help.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:21 PM on January 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

One of the main benefits of a high IQ is being able to learn things quicker with less repetition. If you're correct about your IQ having decreased, you probably need to increase the amount of repetitions to get something to stick.

I suggest you test this possibility by working through the Khan Academy math programs as they require you to get a certain number of problems right in a row before you can advance to the next topic, so the amount of repetition is customized to each user.

If that seems to work for you, then the answer may be that you just need to reread more, work more problems, run through more flashcards, etc. (whatever study activity that's applicable to the subject you're studying) than you had to be before. So, for example, if you were in a class and only a subset of questions were assigned for homework, you would want to work through *all* the questions and maybe get a second text on the same subject and work through that book too.

Also, have you ever tried modafinil or low doses of amphetamines (Adderall)? Being able to concentrate and focus really well would help you get the most out of whatever brainpower you have. In the US, pharmaceutical grade amphetamines are somewhat difficult to get without a prescription (you definitely don't want the street drug versions) but modafinil can be ordered online from Indian pharmacies fairly easily.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:57 PM on January 10, 2014

I was sixteen when I started having problems, I slept about 9:30pm to 7am and slept well before that. When my hyperthyroidism became severe I had really bad insomnia and went without sleep a lot of nights. But now I sleep well again, generally 10pm to 7:30am.

I'd heard of Anki, but it's more about memorizing facts I think (words, history, geography, etc). I could be wrong, though. I can memorize facts that don't require thinking/logic/problem solving), I just can't do things that you have to use your brain for, like writing a ENG101 paper, writing an answer to a open-ended question in an exam, or solving a math problem, or writing anything beyond "Hello World" computer program (I could already write decent programs before I got sick).

Regarding online classes: I've improved quite a bit so I've been able to do some Udacity, but I can only pass the quizzes immediately after I learn. After I do the quiz, I don't remember anymore. It doesn't matter how many times I do the exercises. I also eventually get stuck in Udacity (can't get past lesson 1, for example).

Khan academy (from what I tried) was mostly lectures so it was worse for me than Udacity. I'm definitely willing to try again, I want to keep trying on Udacity though. It's probably better for me to stick with one thing (I think?)

Hey, actually, Anki might be good for memorizing computer programming snippets/phrases, worth a try!
I'll see if Anki can help me remember math (I was trying to re-learn grade school math in Udacity)

I can't find those services here (too far away), but I doubt I'd qualify for disability now that I'm healthier (technically I could make myself sick again to qualify for disability by eating a bad diet but I'd rather not go through that hell again and definitely don't want my husband to have to look after a demented woman! It was so rough!). Regardless, my husband makes too much for me to qualify for disability anyway (34k/yr). My state also isn't doing medicaid expansion for ACA, he also makes too much money for medical providers who offer sliding scale services.

The only place I found said it would take 8-12 hours for a neuro cognitive test at $150 / hour.

My weaknesses are working memory (keeping data in my head while I work on it, example, 27 - 13 = ? I can do that if I write down all the steps and have everything in front of me, but I can't do it in my head), and long term memory (I can learn something but I forget it immediately.)

"Then you need to move. This isn't something you can adequately treat on your own. You need expert help."
Easier said than done. Professional help would be great, but I can't move unfortunately, I don't make a living wage and I can't drive, I'm dependent on my husband (else it would be family). I also don't have insurance. I'm ok with not getting professional help (that probably means I wouldn't be able to have a career or go to college), if I can atleast do some hobbies. Even if I went to college I'd want to make sure I can learn on my own first.

BTW, I didn't post this for medical advice ;) Though I understand the concern (I share the same concerns). I've just been struggling on my own and thought I'd get some fresh ideas. Keep it coming!
posted by midnightmoonlight at 4:59 PM on January 10, 2014

You ask about academic accommodations. I don't know whether re-enrolling in college is the right choice for you right now, but if you decide it is, there are some common accommodations that would probably help you.

Some of my students, for example, are given extra time for everything (untimed exams, for example, or much later deadlines for essays and other assignments). That would give you the time you need to read books through twice, or read instructions multiple times until you understand them.

Other students require "study guide" type resources, which include answers and questions so they can read the answers and practice getting there on their own. This is not for actual graded work, of course, but for studying in their own time. While it is arduous for an instructor to compile this sort of thing from scratch, (a) it is worthwhile because it is also of benefit to students who don't qualify for disability accommodations, and (b) often there are existing study guides of this type available in the university library, so all the instructor has to do is seek them out (or order them for the library if they don't already have them) and make them available to the students.

Another sort of accommodation that might be helpful to you is access to full notes, lecture slides, maybe recordings of the lectures, etc from the instructor. This would allow you to go over material more often on your own time. Most instructors at my university are quite resistant to providing this sort of thing (often because we are worried about the usefulness of our notes to students, or we worry that our slides and recordings aren't perfect enough to stand up to high levels of repeated scrutiny). But we will do it when requested to by the disabilities office.

If you are considering enrolling in college classes, you could probably get an appointment with the disability services there before you actually enrol, just to find out how plausible they think it is to get you the accommodations you would need.

But it might still be that college-level study isn't realistic for you anymore at the moment. I'm sorry if that is the case, but if so, perhaps you can think about what you appreciated about the college experience in the past and find other ways to incorporate those things into your life now. E.g. maybe there are book clubs you could join (if discussion of abstract ideas was something you loved). Or perhaps just going out and doing new things of all varieties would trigger the part of your brain that benefited from learning new things. Maybe what you loved about learning was actually about extending your horizons and having new mental experiences.
posted by lollusc at 5:01 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and also think seriously about the differences in learning different types of subject. Some courses will be much more memory-based, and others will be more about critical thinking. Some subjects will require the instructor to grade errors in accuracy harshly, and others will be more lenient if they see that you were using the right methods to solve a problem. This will often be a matter of whether the subject is one that leads to an obvious professional qualification or not. E.g. engineering, medicine, law etc are subjects where we really don't want students graduating if they are prone to careless errors, because those students could kill or seriously harm people in the real world. In more traditional humanities subjects, this isn't such a big consideration.
posted by lollusc at 5:05 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

You write really well, which led me to three ideas... 1) if writing helps you process information, might you benefit from incorporating it into your study habits, e.g., taking copious notes, writing summaries of the materials, designing flash cards, etc.; 2) is it possible that your post-recovery abilities have shifted? Maybe programming, web development and numbers stuff is no longer all that viable, but what about something related, like technical or manual writing, where you don't have to hold on to the intermediate facts for very long and there's less math involved, and; 3) have you considered using career assessment instruments to open windows into other professions you might excel in and enjoy. In short, I understand that programming and web development was the plan pre- medical issues, but have you really looked at whether it's still right for you? The answer to this question might lead to other forms of learning.
posted by carmicha at 5:19 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

[Heya, midnightmoonlight, moderator here. Just to let you know, it's not really customary here for an asker to respond to each comment. You just read people's answers and choose the ones that seem most useful to you. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 5:19 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks Lobster (and I'm replying again ;)) just figured it would be better to get more specific answers (such as avoid things I'm already doing, or things that don't apply) since the original post can't be edited
posted by midnightmoonlight at 5:27 PM on January 10, 2014

I would talk to your local Community College. They may have ideas on how to proceed.
posted by spinifex23 at 6:16 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

What medications are you taking? There are some drugs, Ambien for example, that have a definite negative impact on memory and other cognitive abilities. Your writing exhibits no evidence of a learning problem or any sort of problem expressing yourself comprehensively, though I'm certainly no expert, but to me that indicates that you may not need such an overwhelming amount of help as you may think. As spinifex23 suggested, your community college may be able to help - they have counseling and other assistance for students with different types of learning disabilities. Also, if you have a university nearby, you might check into the resources there - the problem you have is the result of a medical issue, which would lead me to a Neurology Dept or a neurologist.

Good luck to you - and do a review of your medications.
posted by aryma at 9:10 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would talk to your local community college even before you think you might be ready for more college, because most of them have a number of remedial (as in pre-college) level classes, exactly for catching up. They may well have a class that you could tackle (as well as a disability office that you could talk to).
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:31 PM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

How did you learn best before? You are an excellent writer, extra note taking may help. Or...listen to a recording of the book, or read it out loud to engage more of your body. While I asked how you learned best before, it sounds like what you are doing, which may have worked before, is not now.

How basic math? My youngest, diagnosed as dyslexic and short term memory issues, finally got his math facts by doing the home school math program Right Start Math. It uses an abacus which allowed him to visualize the numbers, first on the abacus, later in his head. We also play a lot of games like go fish with pairs made of numbers that add to ten, and later, math war by each player laying down two cards (or two pairs) to add together. We did the same with multiplication and division with my older kids.

Another thought, if visualized learning works better for you, check out Diane Craft. She has techniques for visualizing concepts that may be helpful. She does sell her product, but email her with how you think you learn best now, and she may be able to direct you to the things that will work best for you.

Do you have an adult education department in your school district? They may have some special education people who may be able to help you as well.
posted by 101cats at 10:56 PM on January 10, 2014

Just to reiterate- you have English '101' covered if you are writing these posts. You are forming sentences that are grammatical and paragraphs that are logical and clear. You are ahead of most of my high school seniors.

If you are thinking more along the lines of writing essays- this is not a skill that has to be learnt intuitively or as a problem solving skill (the argument might require this but the form does not). You can google for essay structure. However, this is not a terribly useful skill for everyday life on its own- more a formal convention for the logical presentation of an argument. The sort of soft skills associated with it, you already demonstrate.

In terms of developing your logic and argumentation skills- I would suggest finding an area of interest and practicing writing about it- in persuasive or informative forms (again, the conventions of these forms are very googleable).

Th study of 'English' beyond this level tends to get more narrow and is definitely not '101'. It might be oriented towards literature or linguistics, for example.

Perhaps you would like to know more about grammar and the rules if grammar? Again, from your post your grasp of functional grammar is fine so I'd pursue this more out of interest's sake rather than because you are 'behind'.

If someone else wrote/edited the post for you, this is redundant of course!
posted by jojobobo at 12:45 AM on January 11, 2014

Also- on the subject of 'how to improve your learning skills'- as others are suggesting there is no generic answer to this. For 99% of my students the answer is- make more of a consistent effort and do more practice-- and do the things I tell you in class on each particular task. The only sweeping and general issue most of them have is with motivation and the only generic advice I would offer is- practise. If you are willing to do this then you are streets ahead!

Other issues are specific to each student and often to each task, as they will be for you.

Good luck!
posted by jojobobo at 12:51 AM on January 11, 2014

Look into the Arrowsmith Program. Barbara Arrowsmith Young is a woman who had severe learning disabilities and overcame them with self-designed cognitive exercises. She's developed a program to help people who have a variety of learning/cognitive disabilities.
posted by phoenix_rising at 8:52 AM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just want to reiterate again that I'm not really looking for medical advice (the medical issues are taken care of now); mostly I wondered if anyone could help me brainstorm learning ideas I could try, since what I've researched about learning disabilities doesn't seem to apply in my situation.

For example, I recently found out it helps if I:
* see the answer first, go back to the material that explains it, look at the exercise and material together until I do understand it, then try to do it on my own.
* read the whole book; go back and read the entire first chapter again; go back to the first chapter again and start working on the exercises as if it were the first time I'm reading it. (Repeat this whole process when starting a new chapter).

Seems I have a big issue with applying more than one concept at a time, that's where I get stuck. For example, fractions. I understand how to add fractions. And I understand how to make a mixed fraction. But I can't add mixed fractions because I have to apply the two concepts at once.

Metafilter has lots of creative people so I knew I'd get some ideas on how to go from there :)

Re: medications
I'm not on any medications right now, though I was on anti-thyroid drugs in the past for the hyperthyroidism.

Re: ENG101
I failed my ENG101 class because while my grammar and vocabulary is good, and I knew the essay structure/formatting/guidelines, I couldn't write the actual paper: the main points, the arguments, and such. I begged and begged for the professor to just accept my work regardless of what grade I'd get, because I had been trying so much to improve it and he would always refuse it.

Right now I'm trying to do remedial math (grade school math at Udacity). Having a hard time trying to find an English composition class so I can practice essays and get feedback/grades on it.
The adult education (brochure) in my area doesn't seem to have a class on this, they seem to focus on grammar and vocabulary.

Re: asking a college / adult special needs:
They don't seem to care unless I provide proof/documentation of disability. I've never been evaluated for neuro/cognitive issues. I didn't/don't have health insurance. The health problems happened around the time of my life I should have been becoming an adult, so I didn't have any savings and was just trying to survive.

The only place I saw around here where I could get a neuro/cognitive assessment bills $150/hr and says it takes about 8-12 hrs to do. Even if I could afford it the doctors would just say "uh, why are you here?!" since I'm pretty much "normal" now that I'm healthier. They would have to take me at my word that I used to have severe problems, like that Barbara Arrowsmith-Young person someone mentioned. (Thanks BTW! I'm going to read her articles and books. Sad to hear another person say she was a danger to herself, like I used to be).

Schools seem to be able to deal with things like dyslexia, emotional outbursts, anxiety, attention issues, deafness, for example, but my situation isn't anything like that at all. Exemption from oral exams would probably be good because I can't speak as well as I write. When I'm writing I'm seeing the words I type so I don't struggle with what I want to say as much, and I can edit my post to make it easy for others to understand what I'm trying to say. (I've been editing this post for 4 hours.) But thinking/talking on the spot is a lot more difficult. It's also difficult for me to talk as clearly as others because of my enlarged thyroid (it's so big it constricts my throat and vocal chords). But I'd feel like it's cheating if I asked for an accommodation based on this. (Am I just being a dummy?)

It's ok if I have to give up college/career dreams (I already did years ago, I guess...) but I'd still like to enjoy learning on my own, as a hobby. So keep those ideas comin', Metafilter, and know that I'll be working on the advice I got so far :)

I'm really, really happy to be talking about this with other people and getting some advice. Thanks again!
(If mods are wondering why I'm replying yet again, it's because bellow the comment box it says "Ask MetaFilter is as useful as you make it")
posted by midnightmoonlight at 2:05 PM on January 11, 2014

Uh... also... I guess I should mention that I'm an immigrant. School where I'm from was way more rigorous. In 9th and 10th grade everyone learned trig and calc, and I always got 5s/A+. When I came to america I was in 11th grade and was put in an algebra class. I'd already learned that in 5th/6th grade back home. Is that normal for american kids or was that just a fluke?

College here in america was like my 9th/10th grade back home, so it should have been easy. (No, it wasn't a language barrier either because I was fluent in English since I was 10, and I was already noticing brain fog and trouble learning back home, around age 15, when I moved to the city and started living on city food instead of rural food.)

And hey, I thought it might be a cool idea to get a GED diploma when/if I'm capable of learning well enough to take classes again, even though I already graduated high school and did some college. I feel like I since "I'm a new person" after I got sick, this new person should prove she graduated high-school.

GO! GO! POWER-... uh, rangers?
posted by midnightmoonlight at 2:22 PM on January 11, 2014

From reading your question and updates I get the impression that you are focused on academic type learning. Have you considered more applied, skills based, learning? Would you struggle in the same way learning to knit or do woodwork or make xxx?

I realise your heart is set on learning like you remember it but what you describe sounds very frustrating. I am not suggesting you give up trying to learn. I'm suggesting you consider all kinds of learning, not just academic.

It may be that making things with your hands is easier for you right now. Your brain still works but it gets help from muscle memory and from a wealth if visual and sensory information. So be open to non academic learning.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:37 PM on January 11, 2014

"Would you struggle in the same way learning to knit or do woodwork or make xxx?"
Yes. It affects pretty much everything in general. Card games, board games, piano, driving, following baking recipes, even counting change. Knitting became very difficult, I have a lot of trouble counting the stitches and following a pattern (even keeping track of something simple like "2k 2p" repetitions).
I have a nervous breakdown once in a while because of this stuff. It's really tough. Just hope I don't have to give up farming too. I want to have some chickens and goats, grow vegetables, just need to make a lot of money first and buy a little house somewhere :)

Aaah, to go from a computer geek to a farmer... such is life!
posted by midnightmoonlight at 8:23 PM on January 11, 2014

If I were you, I would go in and talk to the adult ed people. They might have ideas for your needs, and might be willing to tutor you for the writing.

I have heard that some universities will do the testing you need for low cost. Even if your husband needs to take a couple days off from work or flex his schedule, and the two of you stay in a dive of a motel, it may come out cheaper.

And yes, you should be able to get accommodation for the speaking. Get a note from your regular doctor saying how difficult talking is for you.
posted by 101cats at 1:04 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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