For more than two decades Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was trapped in a confused fog. Until, as a young adult, she hit upon a mental technique that would alter the course of her life – and the lives of countless others with severe and little-understood learning disabilities. Arrowsmith-Young’s account of her transformation, and the stories of those who attended the schools she developed, is extraordinary. It’s equal parts moving, empowering, and filled with fascinating insights into that most bafflingly complex organ: the human brain.
Neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain is not ‘hard-wired’ but made up of flexible connections reinforced by use – is now a widely accepted trope of popular neuroscience literature. Books like Dr Norman Doidge’s bestselling The Brain that Changes Itself (first published in 2007) offered an insight into these changing attitudes. Science was moving from the idea of ‘fixed’ neural maps, to a wide acceptance that it was possible – although hard work – to change the brain’s pathways. Whether that was learning to speak after a stroke, or change bad habits to better ones.
But when Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was at school in the 1950s things were very different. As she struggled to make sense out of the disconnected string of words and numbers before her (succeeding only though her prodigious memory, rather than any real understanding), there was no one to help. After struggling on her own – and through sheer determination and hours of study – making it to university, Arrowsmith-Young stumbles across the story of a brain-injured soldier whose experience uncomfortably echoes her own. ‘I too could make no sense of the relationship between the big and little hands of an analogue clock.’
But soon, the clock would become an important device in Arrowsmith-Young’s transformation. As she taught herself to read the time – slowly and painfully at first, then with increasing speed and accuracy – other seemingly unrelated areas of understanding started to open up to her. ‘Points of logic became clear to me,’ she writes, ‘and elements of grammar now made sense, as did math.’
From this personal breakthrough, Arrowsmith-Young goes on to found a series of schools, helping people with disabilities ranging from the inability to form speech to those who struggled to recognise objects – or even the faces of people they knew well.
Neuroscience buffs will have a field day reading through the brain’s many manifestations. But most of all, this book (first published in 2012, but just reissued with a fantastic introduction by Doidge himself) confirms that whatever our natural abilities – and disabilities – and no matter how old we are, life-altering transformation is still possible.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the director of Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program. She holds both a BASc in Child Studies from the University of Guelph and an MA in School Psychology from the University of Toronto (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education).