Book Review: The Woman Who Changed Her BrainThe Woman Who Changed Her Brain
By Barbara Arrowsmith-Young

It is a common belief that once a person is diagnosed with a learning disability, they are stuck with that challenge for life. Barbara Arrowsmith-Young had a profound set of deficits that labeled her with severe learning disabilities. She believed she was stuck for life. But in The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, she tells her story of healing her “learning disability” and going on to create the Arrowsmith Schools.

Her amazing journey began in her twenties when she began reading books on brain function written by Dr. Alexander Luria. As she slowly began to understand his explanations of how certain areas of the brain control certain functions, Arrowsmith-Young had the idea to create an exercise to ‘wake up’ a specific area of the brain. She created a clock-reading exercise to help with her symbols relations deficit. She went on to create exercises for each area of the brain where she was struggling, and eventually these exercises evolved into the core curriculum at the Arrowsmith Schools.

What I like best about her book is her format for presentation. She takes a specific area of difficulty in life and shares real stories of how it plays out in a person’s life. Then she talks about the area of the brain that causes that difficulty, and then she gives some idea of how to improve it.

For example, she talks about the symbolic thinking deficit. The area of the brain effected is the prefrontal cortex on the left side of the brain. This area helps us plan and stay organized. It is often thought to be the executive of the brain, making sure things get done.

A person with difficulty in this area is often seen as flakey, inconsistent, impulsive and irresponsible. They have difficulty pulling together ideas and implementing a process. They are often paralyzed when faced with a problem. They struggle to come up with solutions, which causes them to implement the first thought that comes to mind — without thinking through to the outcome. They also experience ADD-like issues where unrelated thoughts push in while trying to focus on something else. It’s as if the thinking mind is all a jumble and the individual struggles to pull out the pieces needed in the here and now.

The Arrowsmith exercise to improve this area of the brain is to read fables and then have the individual come up with the problem posed in the story, the solution implemented, and then the moral of the story. While to many this sounds like a simple task, for those with a symbolic thinking deficit it can be extremely difficult. They start with simple fables and work up to more complex stories.

The one drawback to this book is that she only alludes to solutions. She describes exercises at a very high level so you get a concept of what they might be, but you do not get practical application instructions (i.e. how often, for how long, etc). For that you would have to pay the fees to go to the Arrowsmith School, and if there is not one where you live, then you are out of luck. I would have liked to have seen a better way to implement healing for all, not just those who have the means and opportunity to access her schools.

All-in-all, I think this book is very worth reading. Not only by explaining the deficits very clearly in terms of brain function, but for bringing forward a lot of hope for healing. Having a learning disability does not have to be a life sentence. Neuroplasticity and unique therapies are showing the brain can change. Her book is proof that what was once thought impossible can now be a regular occurrence.

Bonnie Landau
Bonnie Landau
Bonnie Landau is a special education advocate and educational consultant in Ventura County, California. Her goal is to help parents find strategies and solutions to help their children succeed in school and in life. Bonnie is the author of Special Ed Mom Survival Guide: How to Prevail in the Special Education Process and Find Life-long Strategies for You and Your Child.