Learners and Parents

Understanding the Issues

Each of us has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning. Girls with Turner Syndrome often have strong verbal skills (an academic strength!) but may be challenged by visual-spatial tasks and mastery of mathematics. Not unique to girls with TS, the disparity between verbal skills and non-verbal skills is often referred to as a  nonverbal learning disability (NLD or NVLD). While many girls with TS excel at verbal tasks and are challenged by visual-spatial and mathematical tasks, there is an infinite number of variations of how these differences may affect academic performance.  

Visual spatial ability is frequently assessed in tasks that require the mental rotation of objects in space.

Example problem based on Shepard & Metzlar’s “Mental Rotation Task” (1971):

Are these two three-dimensional shapes identical when rotated in space?

Challenges in Visual-Spatial Processing and Math Abilities for Girls With TS

Work on people’s mental rotation abilities has a 50-plus year history and has shown that, in general, males outperform females. So, while the challenge in the ability to rotate objects in space may impact performance in academic areas such as geometry and mathematics, it is by no means unique to girls with TS! However, girls with TS may have more difficulty with tasks involving mental rotation and similar tasks than girls who do not have TS.

Other visual-spatial tasks that may be challenging to girls with TS include copying information (copying a diagram), differentiating key visual information from background stimulation (noting the written directions to an assignment, spotting a road sign), navigating with maps (finding a classroom in a new school building or a store in the mall using the directory), using a diagram to assemble an object (completing a LEGO kit), or solving other puzzle-like problems. 

In addition to visual-spatial processing, another classroom challenge that is frequently faced by girls with Turner Syndrome is math ability. It is easy to imagine why problems with geometry would be related to deficits in visual-spatial processing abilities, but girls with TS also have been shown to score lower in mathematical ability than matched peers (that is, girls of similar age but without TS). However, this same study found that girls with TS were no different than their peers in mathematical achievement. According to the authors of this study, girls with TS may use their verbal skills to bolster their ability to do well in math, supporting other studies that indicate that girls with TS have a unique profile regarding numerical processing skills.

The Impact of Executive Function in Girls with TS

Weaknesses in executive function have also been observed in some girls with TS. Executive functioning involves a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. Effective executive functioning is essential to learning. These skills include:  

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Starting tasks and staying focused to completion
  • Understanding different points of view
  • Self-monitoring (keeping track of what you’re doing)

Not surprisingly, girls with TS who have weaknesses in executive functioning and visual spatial processing often struggle with subtle social cues. Academic settings present a myriad of social situations – in class, in the cafeteria, on the playground, during after-school activities! Social situations require that we pay attention to visual information that others convey with facial expressions, gestures, and body language so that we may respond appropriately. Girls with TS may overlook these social cues, making social interactions awkward and cultivating friendships difficult. 

Alone or in combination, weaknesses in cognitive areas can negatively affect learning and academic performance. Here’s the good news: these abilities can be improved!

Learners and Parents

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