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How the Theory of Multiple Intelligences Can Help People With Learning Disabilities

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I can remember the beginning of each school year and having to complete a test that would help us find our own unique learning style. I wanted to know how to learn best and do well at school. I never had one particular learning style that helped me to learn. I have a learning disability and often felt “dumb” around my peers, who had more of a set learning style and academics came easier for them. I was so boxed into one way of viewing learning that I did not realize intelligence is not measured by a narrow set of standards, but a wide array of ways of thinking.

Psychologist and professor Howard Gardner developed the theory of multiple intelligences, which says that people are smart in different ways, rather than taking a limited approach to thinking. Gardner proposed eight different types of intelligence. Each type of intelligence is unique and has value to learning. The eight types are linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, body kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

Linguistic intelligence involves being able to use words well. A person with linguistic intelligence is good at writing stories, poems and plays. People who identify with this type of learning understand how language works and may be better at taking a foreign language.

One of my biggest strengths has been linguistic intelligence. I remember learning to read came easily and I loved reading. I struggled with reading comprehension and was placed in learning support for language arts to make sure I could grasp those concepts. I did not take a foreign language, because I was discouraged to do so because of my disability.

Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to understand how numbers work. People with this type of intelligence are good at math. Individuals with good math sense are able to make sense of logical patterns and calculations.

I am not logical or mathematical. I have dyscalculia which is a math disability. My dad recalls at the meeting when I was first diagnosed, the school psychologist said I would never grasp math. My dad is logical and had trouble understanding that I would struggle with these concepts. But the school was right that I would never get math. Despite many years in learning support math and endless flashcards, I struggle to read an analog clock and a ruler. I have no concept of how much my total will be at the store. Using a calculator is little help because I can put the numbers in, but not the formula.

Spatial intelligence is the ability to understand how spatial concepts work. People who have this type of intelligence are visual thinkers. They can draw well, and can assemble things together. Visuals such as maps and graphs make sense to them.

I am not a spatial thinker. I struggle with putting things together and graphs, maps and directional concepts make little sense to me. I can remember groaning when we had to do maps in school and talked about longitude and latitude. I also struggle to assemble things. I can read the directions and try to put things together but they don’t turn out right. My husband is the official assembler of bookshelves, laundry sorters and other household items.

Body kinesthetic intelligence means a student learns best by doing and moving. People who are body kinesthetic learn best from hands-on courses such as shop, art and science lab. Dance and sports come easily and they often find it hard to sit still.

I struggle with my eye-hand coordination, but I love to do physical activities such as aerobics. I also find it easier to see how things work such as copiers, and computers by exploring on my own.

Musical intelligence is a person who learns through music. They can the differences between pitches, and can keep a beat. I do not have great musical intelligence. I can remember a teacher that wanted us to learn how to play a song on the piano. He had peers who were musical teach us. I bombed as I played in front of the class and had the teacher scream at me that I was doing it wrong.

Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to identify the emotions, moods and motivations for the actions of others. People who have interpersonal intelligence can read facial expressions and others’ body language. Individuals with interpersonal intelligence have good people skills and are good at motivation and leading others.

I am good at gauging how others are feeling based on facial expressions and body language. I remember when my grandparents were sick and had limited communication skills, I could tell what they wanted. Part of this was reading their facial expressions, and also being able to understand mumblings. I had fluid in my ear as a child and much of what I heard was muffled. I knew my grandma was thirsty when she puckered her lips together. She smiled gratefully and thanked me when I handed her a glass of water.

Intrapersonal intelligence is being able to know one’s self effectively. People who have this type of self-awareness have an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Individuals with strong intrapersonal intelligence are aware of their own feelings, intentions, and the motivations for what they do.

I am well aware of what my weaknesses are and I’m beginning to see what my strengths are as well. Confidence was something that came much later with my disability. For many years, all I could see was what I couldn’t do. Now I try to focus on what I am able to do. I can describe my disability and the supports I need. I am also aware of what my feelings are and have found positive outlets to express them. I never agreed with people who would tell me “you shouldn’t feel that way.” I can’t change how I feel, but I can choose to act on those feelings in a positive manner.

Naturalist intelligence is nature smart. People with this type of intelligence can recognize and classify things in nature. Naturalist intelligence is how the person identifies with the environment around them. A person who grew up in an urban setting can navigate that environment well and understand patterns of traffic, spot risky situations, and communicate with people from different cultures who live in their area. A person who grew up in a rural area can tell about things in nature such as cloud formations, change in seasons or mountains.

Despite growing up in the country, I prefer to live in a city. I do like to garden and take nature pictures, though. I can remember not testing well on problem-solving skills at my learning disability evaluations. They asked me what I would do if I got lost in the woods. If only they would have asked me what I would do if I got lost in the mall. I can find the elevators, bathrooms and sales rack with ease.

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences shows that everyone is smart. Intelligence is not confined to a narrow box of skills in an academic setting. Intelligence can be found in many different places. As a person with a learning disability, I need to find different ways to do things. I may not be good at math, music or spatial kinesthetics. I am much better at linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Instructors who use multiple modes of instruction have a better chance of reaching each person’s intelligence, not just the academically smart students.

The world has a need for all types of thinkers and abilities. People with disabilities have strengths and weaknesses just like people without disabilities. Oftentimes there is an emphasis on the difficulties, not the strengths. Individuals with learning disabilities have brains that work differently than others. Finding the unique gifts of a person with a disability can help to unlock the potential they have to do great things.

Getty image by Jolygon.

Originally published: November 14, 2020
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