The Reality of Learning and Thinking Differently

5 min readApr 29, 2020


By Karin Bilich

Picture this: You’re supposed to give a presentation at work. The room is full of people waiting for you to start. You look down at your crib notes and just can’t make them out. The letters on the page don’t make sense…

You can hear people in the hallway and it’s completely distracting. The flickering light overhead is almost unbearable. Your heart starts to speed up and you wonder if today’s the day they’re going to “figure you out” and you’ll lose your job.

Sound stressful? It is. But that’s what a day at work can be like for people with learning and thinking differences.

Chances are that someone you know — a colleague or family member — has had similar experiences. That’s because 1 in 5 people have learning differences like dyslexia or ADHD.

People who learn and think differently may need added support in the workplace or at school. But when they are allowed to do more than “just survive,” and actually thrive, we all do.

Here’s what you need to know to make things work better for everyone — and to shape the world for difference.

What is a learning and thinking difference?

Everyone thinks differently. Some people think in a more linear way; others in a more creative way. Some people think in words; others in pictures. Our brains all work in their own unique way. And the world is better for it.

But that’s not what we at Understood mean when we talk about “learning and thinking differences.” We mean differences in how the brain processes information; differences that affect skills like reading, writing, math, and focus.

We all take in information through our senses — our eyes, our ears. Then our brain processes this information and we take the appropriate action in response.

People who learn and think differently process this information in a different way. And it can create many challenges.

Some people might have trouble matching letters to sounds and misread words. Others may struggle with understanding numbers and have a hard time making change. And some people might constantly lose things they were just holding a minute ago.

In other words, it’s a difference that can make it hard for people to do their best — at home, at school, at work, and in everyday life.

What are some examples of a learning and thinking difference?

You’ve probably heard of dyslexia and ADHD. These are the two most recognizable (and frequently identified) types of learning and thinking differences.

There are other ones as well — which you may not have heard of. Two examples are dyscalculia (which impacts math) and written expression disorder (which impacts writing).

However, more than half of the people who have learning and thinking differences won’t ever be formally diagnosed with a learning disability. This could be for a number of reasons — from never wanting to get tested to just being dismissed as “bad at math” or a “slow reader.”

Understood aims to help people who learn and think differently, and we mean everyone who struggles with learning. Remember… research shows that 1 in 5 people learn and think differently. And due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, there will be more of us struggling with working and learning from home in this new normal.

What’s it like to have a learning and thinking difference?

If you don’t have dyslexia, it may be hard to understand exactly what it’s like to struggle with reading. That’s why Understood created the “Through Your Child’s Eyes” tool, which allows you to experience simulations related to difficulties with reading, writing, math, attention, and organization. It’s really powerful.

It’s hard to wrap your head around some of these challenges unless you’ve experienced them. For example, you may be surprised to learn that someone who struggles with math might not be able to tell you if a barrel of five big apples is “more or fewer” than one with 10 smaller apples. Or you might be confused to learn that a person with dyslexia might misspell a word today, and then misspell it a different way tomorrow.

Also the world isn’t made for people who learn and think differently. Not only do 1 in 5 people have to navigate these challenges, but they have to do it in a world where they are so often misunderstood. Speaking of which…

Differences… and more differences

Here’s another interesting fact about people who learn and think differently. Many of them have more than one challenge. In other words, it’s common for someone to have dyslexia and ADHD. One in 3 individuals with a learning disability also has ADHD. In short, co-occurring challenges are the rule, not the exception.

But it goes beyond that. People who learn and think differently are also more prone to other challenges, like anxiety, depression, autism, sensory processing issues, social skills challenges, to name a few.

The story I told at the beginning of this piece — about giving a presentation at work — is a good example. The person you were picturing has dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety. Just imagine dealing with all three of those challenges at once. Exhausting, right?

So what can I do to help?

Understood is working to shape the world for difference and ensure that everyone with a learning difference or disability gets the support and accommodations that will help them thrive.

Our four focus areas reach those individuals, as well as the people who support them, throughout their lives. That includes families, teachers, young adults, and the workplace.

Think about the people in your life that may face these challenges. This can also be you. When you hear people perpetuating myths about learning and thinking differences, bust those myths. Make sure your workplace is inclusive of these types of differences.

And share some of the resources we offer on Understood with the people in your life. All of this will help us move towards shaping the world for difference.

Okay, what do I really need to know?

I’ve bombarded you with a lot of information here. But I promised to tell you what you need to know about learning and thinking differences. So here it goes…if you can only remember three things from this piece, here’s what they are:

  1. One in 5 people learn and think differently. Whether you know it or not, you interact with many of them on a daily basis.
  2. People who learn and think differently are just as smart as their peers and can thrive in life. These differences are in no way related to intelligence. And with the right accommodations and support, people with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning and thinking differences can become thriving adults.
  3. You can take action today to help shape the world for difference. Tell your story. Share resources. The world will be a better place when we are able to look at learning and thinking differences as valued types of diversity that make it a richer place.

Karin Bilich, vice president of editorial content at Understood, leads a team of writers, editors, and experts who focus on people who learn and think differently at home, at school, at work, and in life.