Neurodevelopmental Strengths & Weaknesses (aka “Cognitive Profile”)
Neurodevelopmental (ND) skills are abilities which human beings have “wired” into their brains from birth. These “develop naturally” over time, without any “teaching” necessary. Other names sometimes used for the same thing include “cognitive skills”, “intelligence”, “God-given talents”, “developmental milestones”, or just-plain “abilities”.
Regardless of what words you use for them, ND skills are things nobody teaches you in school, yet you need them to do school work! They include memory, attention, motor coordination, visual processing, receptive & expressive language, sequencing, organization, and logic. Other ND skills exist which are less important for academic success in American society, such as musical aptitude, sensory integration, empathy, intuition, and social cognition.
One of the great debates in modern psychology is whether or not “intelligence” is anything more than the simple sum of all these ND skills. If it is, modern IQ (cognitive) tests don’t measure it. Cognitive tests measure a number of ND skills, lumping the results together into a few numeric scores to generate an IQ profile. Other kinds of tests may look at one or another ND area in detail (e.g. Speech & Language for receptive and expressive language; Occupational Therapy for fine motor coordination & sensory integration, etc.). Neurodevelopmental examinations are tests measuring most educationally relevant ND abilities, but rather than lumping them together like an IQ test, an attempt is made to split them apart into individual categories.
Although most of us have near-average IQ’s, very few of us have near-average abilities in all ND areas across-the-board. Most of us have significant strengths & weaknesses. Our strengths balance out our weaknesses in a way that brings our overall IQ towards average. Moreover, most of us utilize our strengths to overcome our weaknesses quite “naturally”, without any assistance from parents, teachers, or the “outside world”. People who do this so that their weaknesses do not impede their learning or job performance are, quite simply, normal. LD is defined not merely by the existence of an ND weakness, but by an inability to overcome that weakness without help. Only when a weakness gets in your way or becomes an obstacle to your success does it become a “disability”. Similarly, while many of us have significant strengths in one or another area, very few of us utilize those strengths to do anything particularly unusual or special. “Giftedness” is not merely the existence of a strength, but the use of that strength to do something remarkable.
Many factors influence whether a weakness becomes a disability or not. (And, conversely, many of the same factors influence whether a strength becomes a “gift”.) These include not only what other particular strengths & weaknesses coexist, but also such things as social environment, family structure, financial resources, emotional health, and probably even just-plain-luck. School quality & the match between teacher and a particular child’s learning style/personality also play a role. Sometimes a particular child will appear to have an LD in one school and not in another, simply by virtue of the school’s differences in teaching style.
While a weakness may or may not represent an impediment to learning in different situations, because they are neurologically based ND weaknesses themselves cannot be “cured” or directly remediated. Altering the teaching environment in a way that de-emphasizes the impact of a child’s weakness while calling more consistently upon his or her strengths is therefore the foundation of Special Education (SPED) assistance for LD children. Specialized LD teachers can accomplish this. Regular teachers with good “instincts” can do it just as well. It can happen in either SPED or regular classrooms.
Finally, no discussion of LD’s or giftedness would be complete without reference to two other things – Mental Retardation & Genius. Most people have strengths that are somewhat above average, and weaknesses somewhat below average, so that the whole thing averages out, well, near average. Mental Retardation is when even someone’s strengths are below average for their age, and their weaknesses far below, such that the whole thing averages out to be far below average. Genius is the opposite – even a Genius’s weaknesses are above average for age, and his/her strengths are very far above average, so that the whole thing averages out far above normal.
In sum, most of us have strengths & weaknesses that neither get in our way nor enable us to excel. Someone whose weaknesses impede normal learning has a Learning Disability. When strengths lead to special accomplishment, that’s Giftedness. Someone with Mental Retardation has weaknesses in all areas, while a Genius has nothing but strengths.