Journal of Leisurability
Journal of
Volume 22 Number 3 
Summer 1995 
Learning Disabilities
Learning Disabilities: The Impact on Social Competencies of Adults
Janet Johnson *

When the term "disability" is used, most automatically think of physical or developmental disabilities. These are the disabilities that tend to be more visible to others. Learning disabilities, on the other hand, are not as apparent to the outside observer, and are frequently overlooked when initiatives are undertaken for people with disabilities. The lack of clearly visible and consistent characteristics among those considered learning disabled has been the root of much controversy in this field. Nonetheless, those who live with a learning disability experience its impact on a daily basis: an impact that often has ramifications, not only in academic settings, but also in other facets of life, including vocational as well as social and recreational aspects.

Most policies and programs that are designed for the "disabled" outside academic contexts, are created with visible disabilities in mind. Yet people with learning disabilities represent a large proportion of the "disabled" population. In 1988-89 in the United States, for example, it was calculated that 47.7% of the total number of students who received special education services were learning disabled (Dowdy, Smith & Nowell, 1992). Similarly in Canada, Special Needs Offices at post secondary institutions that are mandated to provide the necessary supports to their students with disabilities informally report that approximately 50% or more of their clients are those with learning disabilities. Indeed, the number of individuals who are being identified as learning disabled has risen substantially over the past decade. Hallahan (1992) attributes the increased identification of these individuals to the fact that learning disabilities is a relatively new field of study, and as professionals become more attuned to the identifying characteristics, more people would naturally be expected to be appropriately identified. He further comments that the current social and cultural changes in today's society suggest that there are likely to be even more people with learning disabilities in the future.

Learning Disabilities can Affect Social Competence
The relative "newness" of the field is apparent when one considers the fact that the term "learning disability" was not formally introduced until 1963. The next two decades of research were focussed almost exclusively on children with learning disabilities and the difficulties that they experienced with academic skills (Smith, 1989). In the 1980's, there was a greater awareness of the fact that social skills were also an area of difficulty for many of these children. Given the fact that a learning disability influences how a person might take in (perceive), process or interpret, and/or express information, it seems only logical that such difficulties would extend to information (both verbal and nonverbal) in other areas of a person's life, not just in school. Lower self esteem (Wright & Stimmel, 1984), fewer friends, and difficulties relating to others were all identified as existing with much greater frequency among children with learning disabilities as compared to those without (La Greca, 1987). This understanding was further reflected with a recommendation to extend the definition of learning disabilities to include possible difficulties with social competence and social skill attainment (I.C.L.D., 1987).

It is important to note, however, that not all people with learning disabilities have difficulty with social skills. As with most constructs studied in the field, conflicting results abound. Many of these discrepant findings can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that the learning disabled population represents a very heterogeneous group. As a result, the specific difficulties experienced by those with learning disabilities vary greatly from one individual to another. Data summarizing group findings may often mask the reality experienced by some.

Perhaps somewhat oversimplified, a practical way to comprehend learning disabilities is to view it as very large differences that exist between a person's underlying learning strengths and weaknesses, so that the weaknesses may seem to constantly get in the way, and prevent the individual from demonstrating his/her strengths. Given the multitude of underlying learning traits or cognitive functions that exist, a large range of individual differences are possible among this population in terms of different strength/weakness patterns. What specific difficulties are evident in either academic or social skills would depend on what their individual strengths and weaknesses were-the specific nature of their learning disability.

Although everyone has strengths and weaknesses, it is the large differences between them that, I have found, to characterize those with learning disabilities. Such an uneven ability profile has been described by several who experience it as if their brain seems to race ahead in some respects and lag behind in others. The manner in which such underlying learning strengths and weaknesses are manifested for people with learning disabilities, compared to those without is discussed by Malcolm, Polatajko and Simons (1990):

...adults suspected of having learning disabilities display a variety of characteristics and needs that, when examined in isolation, may not seem so unlike those experienced by the non-learning disabled population. The distinguishing factors appear to lie in the persistence of the difficulties and their complex, encompassing nature. (p. 520)

A recent study, attempting to address some of the research practices which may have contributed to conflicting findings, examined the social competencies of individual learning disabled and non-learning disabled children over time. The authors found that a group within the larger sample with learning disabilities displayed consistent difficulties with social competencies while others did not (Vaughn & Hogan, 1994). Such results would seem to support the contention that the development of appropriate social skills and competencies is an area of real concern for many (but not all) with learning disabilities.

Learning Disabilities in Adults
As the field continued to develop, so did the recognition that a learning disability is a persistent condition that extends beyond the childhood years into adulthood (Leiberman, 1987; Mellard & Hazel, 1992; White, 1992). As reported by Patton and Polloway (1992), this acknowledgement stemmed largely from the fact that the initial groups of children with learning disabilities studied in the '60's and '70's had now grown up. This is not to suggest that adults with learning disabilities did not exist until recently, but rather, they had never been identified before.

Currently, I believe and have found in my own work with this population, that the vast majority of adults with learning disabilities (including young adults) have never been identified. Consequently, although they experience all the frustrations of living life with a learning disability, they often have little understanding as to why. They are more likely to attribute their difficulties to their own perceived inadequacies, such as lack of intellect or effort. Such inaccurate self perceptions of many who have never been diagnosed have, no doubt, further impeded their development of a positive self esteem. Lower self esteem most likely also interferes with their positive adjustment as an adult in the community.

Social Competence Issues Continue into Adulthood
As one enters the adult world, societal expectations and life circumstances change, and therefore how a learning disability is manifested also changes (Patton & Polloway, 1992). While the school system emphasizes academic skills, adjustment as an adult tends to emphasize three things (White, 1992):

  1. Employment- Is the person self supporting?

  2. Integration in the community - Can the person function in the community without supervision?

  3. Social competence - Does the person behave in ways that are either threatening nor unacceptable to others?

Patton and Polloway (1992) identified, from their previous investigations, a framework for the major life demands of adulthood from which adult adjustment might be studied. This includes six domains: employment/education, home and family, leisure pursuits, community involvement, emotional/physical health, and personal responsibility/relationships. These six categories focus on the development of positive relationships with self, significant others, and the larger community. This suggests that difficulties with social and interpersonal skills that might exist as the result of a learning disability would profoundly affect one's successful adjustment in adulthood. Even within the workplace, social skills are considered extremely important (Carnevale, Gainer & Meltzer, 1988; Mellard & Hazel, 1992; Smith, 1987).

In their review of studies that followed students with learning disabilities into adulthood, Patton and Polloway (1992) report:

The scenario for many young adults is characterized by unemployment and/or underemployment, low pay, part-time work, frequent job changes, non-engagement with the community, limitations in independent functioning, and limited social lives. (p. 413)

Lack of social skills and difficulties in social interaction with others has been identified as a commonly found characteristic of many adults with learning disabilities (Hazel & Schumaker, 1988; Mellard & Hazel, 1992; Smith, 1987).

Given that one's general life satisfaction and adjustment as an adult are seen as being largely dependent on one's social competence, this data suggests that adults whose learning disability affects skills pertaining to the social realm are highly likely to be dissatisfied and maladjusted as adults. Indeed, White's (1992) review of the literature found that most adults with learning disabilities were single, living with parents or relatives, and they participated in much fewer recreational, social and community activities than those without. They were also found to have fewer friends and were much less satisfied with their family relationships. Similarly, Posthill and Roffman (1991) surveyed young adults with learning disabilities who graduated from a two year transitional program, and found them to identify "incompatibility with roommates" as being one of the areas causing them the greatest amount of difficulty.

Based on these findings, it seems reasonable to conclude that many adults with learning disabilities experience problems with various aspects of social competence and that this, in turn, affects their successful life adjustment. However, because learning disabilities are hidden, it is useful to identify exactly what types of behaviours these individuals display within social contexts that might lead to such noted difficulties. Doing so may assist in the identification of those adults who have not been identified previously, and sensitize those who encounter them to their needs.

Social Skill Characteristics of Adults with Learning Disabilities
The following partial list of presenting symptoms of learning disabilities described by Smith (1987) are particularly relevant for those who lack social skills:

  • Difficulty taking turns in conversation (tendency to frequently interrupt).
  • Lack of emotional/facial expression.
  • Poor eye contact.
  • Violation of territorial space (sitting or standing too close).
  • Failure to follow a conversation.
  • Responding impulsively.
  • Sharing information that is inappropriately intimate.
  • Difficulty taking another's perspective.
  • Responding defensively.
  • Disorganized.
  • Tendency to blame others for mistakes or failures.
  • Rambling or straying off-topic frequently during conversation.

The preceding list of behaviours is not intended to be all-inclusive, and certainly no one individual would display all such characteristics. Again, what behaviours would be present and observable would depend on the nature of the person's learning disability - his or her specific underlying strengths and weaknesses. Also, most people without learning disabilities would display some of these behaviours occasionally. But as previously mentioned, it is the frequency with which several of these characteristics are noted that would alert one to the possibility of a learning disability. Bear in mind as well, that within the adult population in particular, the individual is most likely not aware of this possibility him/herself. They may only be aware of the fact that they probably experienced difficulties with some aspects of learning while going to school, and that they may have never had many friends, feeling (in many cases) ostracized by their peers, avoided by their coworkers, and disliked by their teachers and/or supervisors.

Research Identifying Subtypes
Weller, Watteyne, Herbert and Crelly (1994) attempted to categorize the general patterns of adaptive or maladaptive behaviour into specific adult subtypes of learning disabilities. A subtype might be best defined as shared underlying weaknesses that manifest in similar observable behaviours. By examining the types of behaviours observed in this population, they attempted to relate specific underlying weakness patterns to specific behavioural groupings.

Based on Weller's earlier work, the authors used four hypothesized domains of "adaptivity". These included: 1) Social coping - how well individuals deal with environmental situations and demands; 2) Relationships - how well individuals relate to others; 3) Pragmatic language - how individuals use language in social situations; and 4) Production - how individuals produced work. They tried to identify which domain(s) of adaptivity were most problematic for several proposed subtypes of learning disabilities. A brief review of their findings (see Table 1) may shed more light on some of the possible reasons why some adults with learning disabilities exhibit these kinds of socially inappropriate characteristics (Weller, Watteyne, Herbert & Crelly, 1994).

Table 1
Subtype Results from Weller, Watteyne, Herbert & Crelly (1994)

Subtype Domain
Main Underlying

  1. Production Deficts
  • Social Coping
  • Production
  • Attention

  1. Verbal Organizational Disorder
  • Pragmatic Language

(-could generally use and comprehend nonverbal communication patterns)

  • Language Skills (receptive and expressive)

  1. Nonverbal Organization Disorder
  • Pragmatic Language
  • Relationships

(-tended to be easily distracted, and had difficulty interpreting nonverbal social cues.
- little awareness of how they were perceived by others

  • Visual perceptual skills
  • Spatial Relations

  1. Global Functional Disorder
  • Show varied strengths and weaknesses across all four domains.

(-tended to expend a great deal of concentration and effort on tasks)

  • Information processing
  • Understanding cause and effect
  • Memory

  1. Non Learning Disabled
  • No real social deficits

(-slower to develop social skills generally)

  • Lower intellectual functioning

The construct of adaptivity as proposed by Weller et al. (1994) clearly extends beyond social skills and competencies. Nonetheless, it certainly includes these components and may act as a framework from which socially maladaptive behaviours can be better understood. With increased understanding, more effective and individualized methods of assisting those who display such behaviours might be developed. I am compelled to report, however, that in practice, I have seldom found individuals to fit neatly into any subtyping categories. There is simply so much individual variation that is possible in terms of the underlying strengths and weaknesses that might exist for a person with learning disabilities. In addition, the magnitude of those strengths and weaknesses, not to mention the interaction of other emotionally based factors, can all contribute to difficulties when attempting to slot individuals into predefined categories or subtypes. This tends to make the differences between individual adults with learning disabilities more striking than the similarities. Regardless, the subtypes proposed by Weller et al. (1992) may lend greater structure in the determination of how various underlying weaknesses might impact the different aspects of social adaptivity.

Self Determination and Empowerment is Key to Successful Intervention
With the recognition that many of those with identified disabilities in childhood or adolescence were not adjusting well as adults, the U.S. government introduced legislation which required youths with disabilities to be given what is known as "transitional programming". The aim of such programs was to better prepare youths with all types of disabilities (including learning disabilities) for adult life. Currently no such legislation exists in Canada and only a handful of these kind of programs exist in this country.

Generally speaking, the development of effective intervention techniques and strategies is still in the beginning stages, and doing so has been identified as a future research need (Gajar, 1992; Mellard & Hazel, 1992). However, since the passage of legislation in the US, various transition programs that target adolescents with varying disabilities have been developed in that country. While differences exist among such programs described, the underlying theme of many of the most recent ones is "self-determination"-gaining greater personal control over their lives.

Self determination involves assuming greater independence and personal responsibility by setting goals for oneself, making choices, understanding one's rights and responsibilities under the law, and developing self-advocacy (Carter, Ludi, & Martin; Hoffman & Field, 1995; Wehmeyer, 1995). Some, but not all of these transition programs, emphasize self esteem, self awareness, problem solving skills, and several aspects related more specifically to interpersonal skills and social competence. Some of the components that relate more specifically to social competence include:

  • Effective communication skills, negotiation, and conflict resolution. (Hoffman & Reid. 1995).

  • How to accept and give praise and criticism, and describing others' perception of self (Wehmeyer, 1995).

  • Identifying and adjusting communication styles to reflect strength and respect, as well as building relationships to effect support (Carter, Ludi, & Martin, 1995).

  • Assertive communication and interpersonal problem solving (Abery, Rudrud., Arndt, Schauben & Eggebeen, 1995).

The general principles associated with these self-determination curricula are consistent with research identifying the characteristics of adults with learning disabilities who were highly successful (Gerber, Ginsberg & Reiff, 1992). After conducting in-depth interviews with highly and moderately successful adults with learning disabilities, these authors concluded that deciding to take control of one's own life marked a cornerstone among those who achieved success. Specifically, doing this involved: having a desire to succeed, setting explicit goals, recognizing, accepting and understanding one's learning disability, and taking action. The action that the successful adults took reflected persistence, "goodness of fit" (matching environments and career choices to their strengths), "learned creativity" (developing alternate ways of accomplishing tasks), and surrounding themselves with supportive people. As reported by Bender and Wall (1994), no research exists on intervention programs for social competence with adults with learning disabilities.

My Personal Perspective
My own work with this population incorporates many of the key factors identified by Gerber et al. (1992). Coming to terms with and dealing effectively with one's learning disability in academic, vocational and/or social settings is a process which, I believe, must emphasize personal empowerment in order to be effective. Since most of the people I see have never been identified as having a learning disability, they nonetheless see themselves as being different from most others and experience the loneliness of never having quite "fit in". Certainly, this was the case for most during their earlier school years. Introducing these individuals to the idea that they have a learning disability marks the first step in their process towards assuming greater control over their lives. By recognizing that they are not stupid or unworthy, as many had always believed, but that they have a learning disability, comes as a relief to most and enables them to finally begin to understand why, as well as to understand that they are not alone.

Coupled with recognition is a need to better understand about learning disabilities generally. Part of this is an awareness that they will need to consciously apply strategies or ways of doing some things in order to get the results they want. For example, while others may naturally be able to attend to the relevant cues and "read" social situations accurately to know how to respond appropriately, people with learning disabilities may need to be explicitly taught what those cues are. They must then, consciously think about them as well as possible alternatives to determine the best response. Also, with the realization that a learning disability means having both strengths and weaknesses, comes a greater openness and desire to discover, for themselves, where their own strengths and weaknesses lie. This then leads to their becoming more alert to the specific situations or tasks that are most difficult or frustrating for them.

Most frequently, adults at this stage in the process begin to see how their specific weaknesses get in the way of different aspects of their daily life. Such difficulties can then be addressed, one at a time, blending problem solving steps with their increased self knowledge. Once a specific problem or undesired result has been identified by the person, they are encouraged to delineate what current strategy they are using. In other words, they consider what it is that they normally do when faced with that particular task or situation. Because they have identified that situation as being problematic, it is reasonable to conclude that their current strategy is not effective for them. With assistance, their specific strengths and weaknesses in relation to that task are reviewed and through this process, it is easier to identify why their current strategy is not working. In conjunction with this, it is often necessary to outline the specific expectations or goals of that particular task in an explicit fashion. In within social contexts, it is this kind of information that is learned implicitly by others, and overlooked by those with learning disabilities who experience this type of difficulty.

The question of how the individual might approach the same situation or task in a different way that fits better with his/her strengths and weaknesses is then asked, and alternatives generated. The person tries the new approach or strategy when faced with that situation or task, and evaluates whether or not it worked-whether or not it lead to the desired results. It may be determined that it worked somewhat better, but further practice or modifications to the strategy might be needed. If they determine that it did not work, other alternative methods need to be generated and tried.

By involving the adult with learning disabilities in the identification of difficulties, the identification of both strengths and weaknesses, the development of alternate strategies, and the evaluation of their effectiveness, these adults assume a greater sense of control. Rather than letting aspects of their learning disability control their lives, they are able to assume greater responsibility for the actions they take, and in this way assume more personal control over their lives. Becoming aware that they do have control over many of the outcomes in their own lives, by working with instead of fighting against their learning disability, is often a new experience for many. The process is oversimplified for the purposes of this article and it is seldom as smooth as it may appear. Nonetheless, I have found these basic steps (not always followed in exactly this order) to lead to more successful ways of coping for the people with whom I have worked.

Implications for Leisure
Clearly the social competence difficulties experienced by many people with learning disabilities can have serious ramifications on their leisure activities. Difficulties making friends can lead to personal isolation. Without willing peers to do things with, the leisure activities from which one can choose are significantly reduced. Moreover, without being able to gain the necessary experience with peers to develop relationships, opportunities to improve their social competencies are, in all likelihood, greatly reduced as well. Thus, the vicious circle spins, continuing to spiral in a negative direction, because without the opportunity to learn social competencies, the difference between those with this kind of learning disability from those without widens. By the time adulthood is reached, their past experience may have laid a firm foundation for such a pattern to have developed. It is suspected that many tend to avoid participating in community leisure programs and services, and thus, present a major challenge to recreationists concerned with reaching these individuals.

Others with learning disabilities show little trouble initiating friendships, but may have difficulty maintaining them. For these adults, the personal acceptance that is felt with long-time friends does not exist. People pass through their lives as if in a revolving door. Difficulties stemming from their learning disability may include impulsive outbursts such as flaring tempers or speaking without thinking, and failing to assume the other's perspective. Consequently, friendships or more intimate personal relationships may have begun with intensity but end relatively quickly with equally intense confrontations. Exacerbated by their low self esteem, persons with learning disabilities may find it less threatening to consistently blame others for leaving their lives, rather than assume any responsibility themselves. Indeed, for the majority of adults who are not even aware that they have a learning disability, not to mention the fact that it impacts their social relationships, blaming others may be the only viable option at their disposal.

Difficulties with social competence are not restricted to individual relationships with friends, but often also impact one's ability to function effectively in a group. Therefore, those with learning disabilities can also become evident in team sports. More than athletic abilities, participation as a team member also entails appropriate social functioning with teammates before and after the game. A failure to accurately interpret social cues can result in inappropriate and seemingly obnoxious behaviour that is often soon indirectly shunned by teammates. Ostracized from the camaraderie shared by others, it requires sensitivity and insight on the part of coaches to effectively integrate such members with learning disabilities.

Recreation and leisure settings have the potential to act as positive, less threatening environments for adults with learning disabilities to establish social connections with others, outside of any formal evaluative context. With greater awareness of the needs of this population, they may assist in the development of appropriate social skills and group behaviour that might then also be applied to other settings. By enabling greater self understanding and self acceptance, the foundation for greater success and the realization of potential in school, work and interpersonal settings might be laid.

In Conclusion
As recreation and leisure professionals strive to make a positive difference in the quality of life for people with disabilities, the needs of those with learning disabilities cannot be overlooked. Although the disability may be "hidden", the ramifications to one's life happiness and successful adult adjustment are not. For many individuals with learning disabilities, their ability to participate effectively within social contexts presents problems that are far reaching. Recreationists and others who are looking beyond education must begin by understanding the link between learning disabilities and social competence.

The need for research and programming for adults with learning disabilities in environments outside of school and work is clear. Currently, there is a dearth of literature about this population in these settings (Gajar, 1992). Yet these social related skills clearly play a critical role in the adult's world. Furthermore, supportive assistance to improve these kinds of skills is also needed. Perhaps, combining the knowledge and experience from the recreation and leisure field with that from the learning disability field will begin to address this need. It is hoped that by increasing one's sensitivity to the identifying characteristics and intervention approaches that seem most promising with respect to adults with learning disabilities, the first step might be taken towards reaching this goal.

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* Janet Johnson received her M.Ed. from the University of Alberta, Edmonton and has worked with adults with learning disabilities for approximately ten years. In addition to direct client contact, she has developed and implemented programs for adults with learning disabilities at Alberta Vocational College, Edmonton Alta. and at Brock University, St. Catharines, ON. She continues to pursue her interests in assessment, intervention and advocacy with this population through her own consulting company, and has written a book: "I Always Hated School" (currently in press) for the adult with learning disabilities.

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