Visual minds adapt to achieve academic success

by Amy Kingsley

Robert Lawton sits on the edge of a stone fireplace, wired for a TV interview with his hands clasped calmly in front of him.

Robert is, by most accounts, a normal 12 year old. He loves the sound of the snow under his board when he gets going really fast, admires Danny Kass and says lunch is his favorite subject.

But the brain housed under Robert’s neatly trimmed hair works a little differently than most, says Dr. Cheri Florance. His is a Maverick Mind, one with highly developed visual abilities and underdeveloped verbal ones. Although that brain endows him with certain talents in analyzing images, it hasn’t always served him well in the classroom, where lecturing, note taking and writing all rely on verbal capabilities.

Robert and his family’s frustration peaked almost two months ago when they realized that hours of studying weren’t translating into improved grades. A family friend referred them to Florance, a brain scientist who specializes in reengineering Maverick Minds for success in a heavily verbal society.

Robert can convincingly describe the tools he has learned from Florance’s training in several takes for both news and production company cameras. In addition to two news interviews, today Robert is the focus of a couple of promotional B-rolls.

‘“It gives me a zoom lens so I can focus on what the teacher is saying,’” he says.

Before his interview, Robert and his sister Elizabeth demonstrated some of the tools that Florance has developed to reengineer a visual mind toward verbal communication. In one exercise, the siblings filled in song lyrics to the Diana Krall tune ‘“Peel Me a Grape.’” After that, they found hidden pictures in an illustration and worked on a memory exercise.

For that activity the two took a standard sheet of printer paper, divided it into four squares and filled each with what they could remember from activities they conducted weeks ago.

‘“It’s just incredible to watch ’em,’” says their mother. ‘“See how quickly they can whip through and find those hidden pictures.’”

Mom has been thrilled with Robert’s progress in the seven weeks since he started Florance’s program. She saw progress within the first hour that the family started running through the exercises.

The same cannot be said of Florance’s own son, Whitney, who is the inspiration for Florance’s research on brain disorders. Florance noticed problems with her third son as early as infancy, and doctors eventually labeled the uncommunicative and tantrum-prone child as autistic.

Although Whitney seemed to fit the description of an autistic, his mother refused to accept the prognosis such a diagnosis entailed. A PhD in speech-language pathology and psycholinguistics who had pioneered research for children and adults, she chose to focus her research on her son.

‘“I decided that if I could help stroke patients, then I could help my own son,’” Florance said.

‘“I kept steering my clinical practice in that direction as more people kept coming.’”

What she learned in her research was that some people diagnosed as ADHD or autistic actually possesses Maverick Minds.

‘“It’s an entirely different group of people,’” she says. ‘“They are often hidden within these larger groups because the symptoms can be exactly the same.’”

Autism is a spectrum disorder that affects communication, social interaction and behavior, according to the website of the Autism Society of North Carolina. Although the diagnosis has existed for 50 years, little is known about what causes the condition, which often has a range of manifestations.

Several treatment options exist for those diagnosed as autistic, from rigorous behavior modification to the ‘do nothing’ acceptance of autism as a different way of thinking proposed by some autism advocates. Almost all autism treatment methods are controversial to some degree.

Judy Smith-Meyers, a parent advocate for the North Carolina Autism Society, says it is more likely that autistics get misdiagnosed as something else. Nonetheless she acknowledged that incorrect diagnoses of autism occasionally occur.

What separates a Maverick Mind from the psychiatric condition of autism is the way it is diagnosed, Florance says. Autistics must be labeled as such by psychiatrists who observe them over time. In comparison, Florance administers standard tests to benchmark levels of visual and verbal intelligence. Those who score very high on visual intelligence and low on verbal intelligence qualify for her therapy.

That therapy trains the mind to do well in school, like warm-up exercises for a runner. The singing exercises focus verbal abilities and memorization. In addition to the Krall song, the Lawton children repeated rhymes from more complicated tunes.

By finding the hidden pictures, the kids worked on focusing their visual abilities to hone in on specifics. The four boxes ‘— that’s a memory exercise.

Lawton’s thesis about Maverick Minds struck Robert’s mom like a thunderbolt, not only because of her son, but also because she noticed some of the same tendencies in her own life. The former engineer and current executive seemed to navigate the corporate world well, but once she got home and took off her watch, time started slipping away from her. She would lose hours running errands and keep her husband and family waiting.

Several of Florance’s first patients were similarly high-achieving medical and law school dropouts who came to her for help focusing their intelligence. She learned from the less impaired patients how to help her son.

‘“Whitney’s brain was so damaged that it took years for him to recover,’” she says.

But recover he did. Whitney and his older brother Will are accompanying their mom on this business trip to Winston-Salem. They both study chemical engineering at Manhattan College; Whitney’s a sophomore and Will is a senior.

Those without access to the press releases would have a hard time determining which of the brothers was ever diagnosed with a communication disorder. Whitney is more affable than his serious brother, and more eager to put the circumstances of this visit behind him.

‘“It was like watching a TV, but it was on mute,’” Whitney says about his early years. He still struggles sometimes, but works hard to maintain good grades.

‘“It made me really humble because I had to just sit there and do so much more work than other kids to get the same result,’” he says.

He spent some of his elementary years in special education classes but went mainstream in the sixth grade. By ninth grade no one remembered that Whitney had ever studied in special classes.

‘“I like to do all the usual college things,’” Whitney says. ‘“I hang out with friends, walk in Central Park and I like meeting new people, if you know what I mean.’”

Florance said that Will, the Manhattan College senior, proved instrumental in helping his younger brother get better. Will has worked in the family therapy business in some capacity since he was about six and plans to continue after he graduates.

‘“I feel like I’ve been very privileged, because not only was my mother this amazing doctor, but also my brother was very sick for a while,’” he says. ‘“Growing up it was sort of all encompassing.’”

Despite that, he never resented working with his brother.

‘“I mean, it was like, ‘I love the kid, so we’re going to get through this’,’” he says.

For kids, family involvement is key to the success of the program. The Lawtons are exemplars of such an approach.

‘“We help structure the program around the family,’” Will says. ‘“It usually ends up strengthening the family’s bonds and they start restructuring themselves. Once you start the program, you start to see the world in a whole new way.’”

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