From the Fall/Winter 2003 edition of SMU Magazine

Learning Disabled, Able to Learn

(Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in SMU Magazine prior to Adam Houston's graduation from SMU in 2003.)

Senior Adam Houston maintains several calendars in his daily planner. One calendar lists all projects and papers due during the term, as well as deadlines for the law school admission test (LSAT). The other breaks down the electrical engineering major's schedule for each day: class, test preparation, exercise time, intramural soccer games, fraternity meetings, and dates with his girlfriend of two years.

As one of 300 students on campus who've been diagnosed with a learning disability and/or an attention deficit disorder, Houston acknowledges that time management has been critical to his success. "Calendars help add structure to my day and give me a plan," he says.

Houston was diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disorder, at age six. Subsequent testing revealed he also has attention deficit disorder, receptive language difficulties, and auditory processing problems, among others. He spent much of his elementary education at a private school that offered one-on-one instruction and small classes. With the help of accommodations, parent support, and determination, he successfully navigated the public school system beginning in fifth grade. He graduated seventh in his class of 465 from Richardson High School just north of Dallas.

Today he is a President's Scholar recipient of SMU's highest academic scholarship offered to 20 top students in each entering class. As an engineering student, he is participating in one of SMU's most rigorous majors.

The Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education defines learning disability as a permanent disorder that affects the manner in which individuals with normal or above-average intelligence take in, retain, and express information. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 opened the doors of higher education to more students with learning disabilities.

"Our experience at SMU reflects the national trend that more individuals with disabilities are pursuing higher education than in the past," says Rebecca Marin, coordinator of services for students with disabilities. She helps students use campus resources and works with faculty to develop reasonable accommodations such as extended time for testing.

"Reasonable accommodations increasingly are being provided to students in K-12, thanks to the ADA and other legislation and programs paving the way for students with disabilities to know they can compete successfully with others who don't have disabilities," Marin says.

SMU offers support services, rather than a structured LD program like those at some other universities. "This seems to fit with many students who are used to excelling academically, but acknowledge the need for individualized additional support," says Alexa Shannon, learning disabilities specialist at the Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center.

Shannon meets weekly with Houston and 20 to 30 other students with learning disabilities to help them develop strategies to succeed in the University environment. They become more efficient by using planners, filing systems, and digital reminders of deadlines on their computers, Shannon says.

In addition, students learn to work with their professors to plan appropriate accommodations such as reducing distractions by taking tests in a separate room from their classmates.

"It's very important that students learn to advocate for themselves," Shannon says.

"I don't take over what their parents may have been doing - my goal is to help them take control of their learning disability and learn to adapt to different environments. This is a lifelong issue, but one that most definitely students can learn to manage."

Houston will graduate in December and plans to attend law school next fall to study intellectual property law. Throughout his education, Houston never considered giving up his academic goals, he says. "I've always set fairly high standards for myself."

— Story by Nancy Lowell George ('79)

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