Author: Raskind, M.H., Goldberg, R.J.; Higgins, E.L.; & Herman, K.L.
Source: Reprinted with permission from the Frostig Center.

What is Success?

Success is not easy to define. It means different things to different people. In addition, it may mean something different at different times in a person’s life. However, although views of success may differ, there appear to be a number of things that most people include when they think of success. These include good friends, positive family relations, being loved, self-approval, job satisfaction, physical and mental health, financial comfort, spiritual contentment, and an overall sense of meaning in one’s life. Of course, different individuals may place lesser or greater emphasis on these various components of success.

How Do Children With Learning Disabilities Become Successful Adults?

Children with learning disabilities grow up to be adults with learning disabilities. That is, many of the difficulties experienced in childhood continue into and through adulthood. Nevertheless, some individuals with learning disabilities follow a life path that leads them to success, becoming productive members of society and living satisfying and rewarding lives. Others find little more than continued “failure,” and are barely able to “keep their heads above water” emotionally, socially, or financially. Why, despite similar backgrounds and learning problems, does one individual end up with a rewarding career, long-term friendships, and financial stability, yet another, a life of loneliness, isolation, and financial stress? Learning disabilities research has provided some answers to this question.

Our research at the Frostig Center, (1) as well as several major studies by others,(2) has focused on identifying which factors contribute to success for individuals with learning disabilities. Results from these projects point to the importance of a set of personal characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors that can help lead persons with learning disabilities to successful life outcomes. By tracing the lives of individuals with learning disabilities throughout the lifespan, these studies have revealed a number of “success attributes” that guide an individual to either positive or negative adult outcomes.

What are the Success Attributes?

Our 20-year study, in particular, highlighted the importance of six success attributes for individuals with learning disabilities. These success attributes included: self-awareness, proactivity, perseverance, goal-setting, the presence and use of effective support systems, and emotional coping strategies. It is important to emphasize that not every successful individual possesses each of these attributes, and some attributes may be present to a greater or lesser degree. Similarly, persons who might be considered “unsuccessful” may nevertheless possess some of the success attributes, again, to a lesser or greater degree. What it does mean is that successful persons with learning disabilities are much more likely to have these characteristics than unsuccessful individuals. It is our hope that, by helping parents understand these success attributes, they will be better prepared to work with and guide their children toward satisfying and rewarding lives. It is also important to keep in mind that having these attributes does not guarantee success. Rather, it increases the chances of achieving a fulfilling and successful life. It is interesting to note that our research indicates that these characteristics may have a greater influence on success than even such factors as academic achievement, gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and even intelligence quotient (IQ).(3)

Each of the success attributes is discussed in the following pages. Quotes from successful adults with learning disabilities are used to help explain each attribute from the viewpoint of individuals who live with learning disabilities.


“As I said, I have dyslexia. I have never not had dyslexia, so it always has, and always will, affect my life. I don’t know what it’s like not to have dyslexia. I don’t know that I want to do life over again without it. It’s part of me. It will hinder me, as it has, and it will push me into places where I never would have gone.”
–Thirty-three-year-old male

Successful people with learning disabilities are aware of the types of problems they have, including academic problems like reading and math, academic-related problems such as attentional or organizational difficulties, and non-academic difficulties such as motor deficits or emotional/ behavioral problems. They are open and specific about their difficulties and understand how they affect their lives. Most important, these individuals have the ability to compartmentalize their disability. That is, they are able to see their learning difficulties as only one aspect of themselves. Although they are well aware of their learning limitations, they are not overly defined by them. As one successful individual states:

“You know, everybody comes with a package. And yeah, there are things that I am good at and things that I am not so good at. Some of my limitations are reading and writing. But boy, when it comes to putting things together, reading plans, and chasing down problems, those are some talents, some skills that I was born with . . . I carved a different path and my whole life has been that way.”

Successful individuals with learning disabilities recognize their talents along with accepting their limitations. This idea is expressed particularly well by one adult who stresses, “We all learn differently; we all have strengths and weaknesses.” Another adult with a learning disability shares, “It’s still there and I compensate . . . I think the problems that I had were no different than anybody else who is conscious of their weaknesses, and then some of their strengths. Some people are not conscious at all.”

In addition to recognizing their strengths, weaknesses, and special talents, successful adults with learning disabilities are also able to find jobs that provide the best fit or “match” with their abilities. For example, an individual with severe reading problems, but exceptional skills in woodworking might find a successful career in cabinet making rather than as a copy editor. A person with math deficits, but excellent writing abilities might shy away from a career in accounting, yet find success in journalism. And, the individual with poor reading and writing, but strong oral language skills might pursue sales and avoid jobs requiring substantial written language abilities.

Unsuccessful people with learning disabilities, on the other hand, often fail to recognize both their strengths and limitations, accept their difficulties, compartmentalize their learning disability, and find employment that provides the best fit for their abilities.


Successful adults with learning disabilities are generally actively engaged in the world around them — politically, economically, and socially. They participate in community activities and take an active role in their families, neighborhoods, and friendship groups. Additionally, they often step into leadership roles at work, in the community, and in social and family settings.

Not surprisingly, therefore, successful persons with learning disabilities also believe that they have the power to control their own destiny and affect the outcome of their lives. In talking about how he took charge of his college experience, one successful adult remarks:

“I actually didn’t take classes as much as I took professors. The way I got through college was I looked at the classes I was interested in and I was over at the professors’ office times telling them I’m going to need extra time; give me the ability to take the written exam orally. There are a bunch of exceptions and I just listed them out for these people.”

This quote demonstrates the kind of creative self-advocacy and initiative we frequently observed in successful adults. In contrast, unsuccessful individuals tend merely to respond to events and are passive.

Successful persons with learning disabilities also show the ability to make decisions and act upon those decisions. Additionally, they assume responsibility for their actions and resulting outcomes. In talking about how his shyness interfered with trying to meet a girl, one successful adult shares:

“I looked at that lesson and said, ‘OK, you blew it that time. What are you going to do? How are you going to overcome that situation?’ So I systematically started working on getting over my shyness . . . And last spring . . . ”

When things don’t work out, successful individuals generally take responsibility for the outcome and do not blame others. Commenting on his career, the same individual expresses commitment to action, “Anything I’m going to do, I’m going to give it my all. Otherwise I’m not going to touch it.”

A willingness to consult with others while making decisions is also characteristic of successful people with learning disabilities. In that connection, they also appear to be flexible in considering and weighing options. For instance, when faced with a career-ending knee surgery, one successful athlete was able to smoothly shift her career focus to a pottery business. Another individual whose learning disability prevented him from passing required college courses, researched and transferred to a university that did not require those courses for graduation.

In contrast, unsuccessful individuals often do not recognize that situations can be altered, or that multiple solutions may exist. Instead, they are either passive, making no decision, or conversely, stick rigidly to a simplistic, rule-based decision even if it ultimately fails. Successful individuals, on the other hand, take responsibility for both the positive and negative outcomes of their decisions and actions. For example, one former student commenting on his success stated:
“I think that I worked hard and I made choices instead of letting things happen. I mean stuff that I haven’t actively gone and taken care of are the only things that I’m not as satisfied with. The stuff that I’ve gone and taken care of, I’m very happy with.”


Many persons with learning disabilities show great perseverance and keep pursuing their chosen path despite difficulties. They often describe themselves in such terms as “I am not a quitter,” and “I never give up.” However, successful individuals demonstrate an additional important ability — knowing when to quit. Although they rarely give up on a general goal, depending on the situation, they may change the way they go about achieving it, thereby improving their chances for success. In other words, after repeated failure, these individuals are able to see and pursue alternative strategies for reaching their goal, or know when the goal itself might have to be modified. Often they try several strategies until they find one that works. One successful adult states, “Once I have a failure, I can’t just dwell on that failure and restrict myself for the rest of my life. I’ll do something else.” In contrast, unsuccessful individuals are typically not flexible and often appear to “beat their heads against the wall,” failing to recognize when it is time to reevaluate their strategies, or the goal itself.

Successful persons with learning disabilities appear to learn from their hardships making statements such as “I have failed many times, but I am not a failure. I have learned to succeed from my failures.” In addition, successful people seem to agree that difficult situations are necessary for learning. In comparison, unsuccessful individuals with learning disabilities are often overwhelmed by adversity, back away from challenges, and give up much more easily and quickly than successful peers.


Successful individuals set goals that are specific, yet flexible so that they can be changed to adjust to specific circumstances and situations. These goals cover a number of areas including education, employment, family, spiritual and personal development. In addition, the goals of successful persons with learning disabilities include a strategy to reach their goals. That is, they have an understanding of the step-by-step process for obtaining goals. One successful adult pursuing a career in the entertainment field states:

“I always look at every move, like this particular move doing the video, as a stepping stone for the next project. That’s how I’m looking at it. As I said, the area I really want to move into is, I want to direct.

Successful people also appear to have goals that are realistic and attainable.

“I’ll tell you something. I’m very realistic in terms of what I know I can do, what I possibly can do, and what I cannot do. That’s why I knew right off the bat that I was not going to be a doctor.”
— Thirty-one-year-old male

Many successful people with learning disabilities set at least tentative goals in adolescence, which provide direction and meaning to their lives. A successful adult trained as a social worker says:

“When I was in late high school, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was given the opportunity to babysit and in the twelfth grade I worked at a day camp. I just discovered that I was interested in children and that this may turn out to be a profession. So there was kind of a break and something to shoot for; some sort of self-direction.”

While successful individuals with learning disabilities have concrete, realistic, and attainable goals, unsuccessful individuals often have vague, unrealistic, or grandiose goals that are not in line with their strengths, weaknesses, or special abilities. For example, one individual having extreme problems with eye-hand coordination and spatial relations aspired to be an airline pilot, while another with severe reading, writing, and organization difficulties wanted to become an executive secretary. Not surprisingly, both were unsuccessful at their attempts to reach these goals and experienced frustration and stress as a result.


1. Marshall H. Raskind, Roberta J. Goldberg, Eleanor L. Higgins, and Kenneth L. Herman. Patterns of Change and Predictors of Success in Individuals with Learning Disabilities: Results from a TwentyYear Longitudinal Study, Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 1999; Roberta J. Goldberg, Eleanor L. Higgins, Marshall H. Raskind, and Kenneth L. Herman. Predictors of Success in Individuals with Learning Disabilities: A Qualitative Analysis of a 20-Year Longitudinal Study, Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, in press.

2. Henry B. Reiff, Paul J. Gerber, Rick Ginsberg. Exceeding Expectations: Successful Adults with Learning Disabilities. Pro-ed, 1997. Emmy E. Werner and Ruth S. Smith, Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Cornell University Press, 1992.

3. This is not to say that these factors do not have a substantial impact on the life outcomes of persons with learning disabilities, but rather that research has shown that the success attributes may play an even greater role. Of course, such factors as extreme poverty or severe psychiatric problems can have a profound affect on someone’s life and even negate the influence of the success attributes.

To view the whole document “Life Success for Children with Learning Disabilities: a Parent Guide” please visit