In the Fall of 2000, I found out that not everybody can multitask. I determined this as I was working on computer code in my basement office while broiling lamb chops upstairs in the kitchen. About an hour into my total coding immersion, the smoke detectors made their hellish but necessary high decibel blasts, yanking me from my narrow band of awareness. I ran upstairs to a smoky kitchen. I opened the oven and witnessed a wicked oven fire. Luckily the fire extinguisher worked. But of course, the lamb chops were not just well done but incinerated. My wife came home to the smell of the fire extinguisher, smoke, and no dinner. She looked at me with both anger and concern, “Something’s really wrong with you, Bill. I want you to go for testing. Your spaciness is getting dangerous.”
I had to agree with her. My absent-mindedness had been a point of contention ever since I came home from the laundromat with a full laundry basket on top of my car in our pre-martial days. That was at least funny. This was not. Without trying to obfuscate the point by claiming that I just got too engrossed at work, I said “Okay I will talk to Dr. G about getting some testing next time I see him.”
Dr G., my shrink, was affiliated with McLean Hospital so he recommended a neurologist there. A couple of weeks later I was in Dr. P’s office in McLean. His office was furnished in expensive dark wood with rugs not yet threadbare. It was more an academic dean’s workplace than a clinical setting, just too ornate for the cold facts of medicine. Dr. P, fiftyish, tall and tennis-fit, started the testing very low key, not even using a reflex hammer. He asked me to name a few items in his vicinity. I got unglued when he pointed to the end of his shirt-sleeve. Finally, He said, “Cuff Right?” I was gobsmacked by my lapse in memory. Was this incontrovertible evidence of my lack of mental acuity?
At any rate Dr, P didn’t commit me, but he did recommend a full neuro-psych evaluation. It turned out that this testing connected all the quirky, disparate dots of my behavior into a revealing portrait of my cognitive style which would lead me to reevaluate my personal history.
A week or so later back in his office, Dr P. matter of factly announced that I had “right hemisphere Dysfunction.” Dr. P then described a main symptom of this disorder (today it is referred to as Non-Verbal Learning Disorder or NLD) which was that people with right hemisphere dysfunction have a lot of difficulty picking up non-verbal communication.
“So it’s sort of like autism?” I said.
“Yes” he said, “it is.”
In that moment I was both hurt and grateful. I was upset that I had a diagnosed defect that in fact my quirky, sometimes clueless behavior, especially as a kid and adolescent was due to faulty wiring, yet at the same time the diagnosis allowed me to make sense of my baffling inability to participate in the normal guy/gal choreography of romance. Later I wrote a piece on my puzzling and frustrating romantic failures entitled “50 Bad First Dates” where I recounted persisting and learning through dating problems in my 20’s. I concluded that it was worth experiencing these bad dates to eventually become adept enough to establish an intimate relationship with my eventual wife in spite of NLD. The fact that at age 49 I had a wife, two kids, and a decent IT career, in spite of this NLD handicap was an achievement that I could chalk up to my persistency, recognition of my cognitive strengths, and limited use of self-help books.
Dr. P. then posited that the other main problem that NLD imposed on life was poor spatial relationships. Once I heard this, I was able to integrate many deeply bothersome difficulties that made me feel apart from my peers as a kid. These items included difficulty tying my shoes, inability to ride a bike until I was about 9, and, most importantly, difficulty with driving a car, starting with taking double the amount of driver’s ed lesson as a 16-year-old, till the present day where I don’t inspire confidence when behind the wheel. Academically this explained my failure to understand geometry. Pythagoras was not my favorite math sage.
On my own, I recognized other marks of NLD that applied to me including poor handwriting (I was actually in remedial handwriting classes in elementary school). Then there was my clumsiness and body control. At age 9 at summer camp, I was singled out in front of the entire summer camp for not doing correct jumping jacks. I also learned that the NLD syndrome compromised executive functioning, hence my elementary school nickname of the “disorganized genius.” I realized that my difficulty with non-verbal clues also made me the tween-age detention magnet. NLD mimics ADHD which seemed to explain my general inattentiveness.
It was now clear to me that my dance with Jean was doomed from step one, but maybe if she knew back then that I had NLD, she wouldn’t have scratched me quite so hard.
Hi, I am a 69 year old retired IT professional who grew up when there was no such thing as NLD and thus in school I was sometimes annoyingly quirky and with peers occasionally out to lunch. The enclosed memoir slice tries to capture my predicament.Share your own story