BUBBE TALK: Author discovered learning disabilities have nothing to do with intelligence

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BUBBE TALK: Author discovered learning disabilities have nothing to do with intelligence

Nancy Lelewer Sonnabend, 88, of Boston recently published the second edition of her award-winning autobiography, “Something’s Not Right: One Family’s Struggle with Learning Disabilities.” I asked her how it felt to publish a book at this stage of her life.

“I didn’t think about my age when I was updating the book,” she said. “My goal has been to get the book into the hands of teachers, parents, and students.” She explained that she is focused on the impact of her book. Her age doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Nancy was raised in Highland Park, Ill., about 25 miles north of downtown Chicago. Her grandfather was a Jewish first-generation furrier and hatter who immigrated to America from Germany in 1861. Her father, Joe, ran Lelewer & Son, Chicago’s largest hatter, for 52 years.

After college, Nancy landed in Boston. She raised three daughters and a son in Brookline.

In 1994 she published “Something’s Not Right,” to share her journey as an individual with dyslexia and as a mother with children who have learning disabilities. The second edition – which took three years to update – offers the newest resources for individuals with learning disabilities, dyslexia, and on the upper end of the autism spectrum.

Nancy struggled in school. “Somehow I taught myself to read,” she said. “It took years but I managed to master reading after I graduated from college.”

Her parents knew early on she was dyslexic but were advised not to tell her. “They thought that if I knew, there was a chance that I would give up,” she said. “This was not good advice.”

When she was in the second grade, her teacher called each student up to her desk to read out loud. “I just stood there and cried,” said Nancy. “I finally had to tell her that I could not read.”

The teacher handed her a picture book. “My classmates were given more age-appropriate books,” she recalled. “I was very embarrassed and this impacted my self-confidence. I became needy and constantly asked my teachers if I was doing okay. I never felt secure in my answers to homework questions.” The teachers were very nice, but no one taught her how to read.

Nancy was good at math and a strong athlete. “When I was about 6, I told myself that the reading part of my brain was broken,” she said. Despite struggling in school, she was accepted to Sarah Lawrence College. She read condensed versions of books, which is how she got through college.

When she observed her children struggling to learn, Nancy was determined to figure out what was going on. There is a Jewish proverb that applies to her: A mother understands what a child does not say.

Her book chronicles how she, as a single parent, figured out how to teach her children. In 1994, Nancy wrote and published the first edition of “Something’s Not Right.” The book won a Parents’ Choice Commendation in 1994.

Nancy stresses that the loss of self-esteem is the biggest hurdle when it comes to having a learning disability. She advocates for testing in preschool so that if there is an issue, intervention can begin early. Her oldest granddaughter initially struggled in elementary school because of dyslexia. She overcame the struggle with individualized instruction and went on to earn a doctorate in psychology. The main takeaway is that learning disabilities have nothing to do with intelligence.

Multi-sensory instruction is a tried-and-true way of teaching. “Using sight, hearing, and touch gives kids more than one way to connect with what they are learning,” she said. “It’s critical to figure out how your child learns. How does he or she acquire, store, and retrieve information? What are they good at?”

Nancy’s story began when there was little known about learning disabilities. Although there is much more expertise now, there are still too many individuals falling through the cracks. “Children need help immediately before they experience failure in school,” she said. “Once a student fails, it becomes more difficult to learn.”

Nancy believes anyone can learn to read, when taught appropriately. “It is disheartening to realize that many youngsters in our society can’t read above a fourth-grade level,” she said. “We need to reach out to our children early and figure out what helps them feel successful.

“There’s no need for anyone to feel alone because of a learning disability.” Θ

Carolyn Eggert writes from Newton. Previously she was a reporter for People magazine. Questions? Please email her at Carolyneggert@yahoo.com.

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