Aubrey Goodell was a walking contradiction.
She was a socially and emotionally mature toddler but prone to fits of anger. A bright child with strong reasoning skills, she labored to talk and by the third grade couldn't read or write.
Tests later confirmed a learning disability, although Aubrey, now 17, still lacks a clear diagnosis and encounters people who assume she's just lazy, stubborn or slow-witted.
But together with devoted parents and teachers, Aubrey mapped educational strategies which, she says, might benefit other so-called "paradoxical learners." She will share her story Thursday at an international conference sponsored by the Learning Disabilities Association of America at The Grand American Hotel in downtown Salt Lake.
The four-day event, which begins today, is expected to draw more than 1,000 teaching, medical and mental health professionals who will talk about advances in treatment of learning disabilities and debate links to environmental toxins.
There are 27,600 children on record at Utah schools who have learning disabilities. But that only includes those who qualify for special education services, said Deanne Shields, president of the association's Utah chapter. "There are probably thousands more, not to mention those who go undiagnosed."
Learning disabilities can be hard to recognize, because they often occur in kids with normal or above-average intelligence. Dyslexia and attention deficit disorder are among the more common.
A learning disabled child's brain perceives, processes or remembers things differently, explains Shields. "These are medically diagnosable conditions, but parents often assume kids aren't working hard enough. And there are teachers in Utah who don't believe these disorders exist."
Feeling helpless, parents either find themselves angry and at odds with the school or grow passive and assume teacher knows best, said Shields. "Neither scenario is good for the kids."
Aubrey agrees it's a "team effort." The Sandy teen has learned to triage her homework, order books on tape and work with teachers to restructure written assignments. She's no longer afraid to reach out to other students for help.
And though she still has trouble reading and writing and spends as much as six hours a night studying, Aubrey does well in most subjects. She teaches snowboarding, sits on the Utah Special Education Advisory Council and aspires to go to college.
"She's made remarkable progress," said her mother, Shelley Goodell, noting Aubrey wasn't diagnosed until the third grade. She has gone to 10 schools, only recently finding one that teaches to her strengths, instead of trying to fix her weaknesses, said Goodell.
But Goodell doesn't blame the nation's one-size-fits-all educational system, believing instead that the responsibility falls to parents to know their rights.
"We've had angels and demons, those who fought for Aubrey, even going into their personal time, and those who put up every brick wall," said Goodell. The hardest thing is "coming to grips with the fact that your child is different than you imagined, different from the people she will be rubbing against in life."
Tests show Aubrey has a short-circuited short-term memory and trouble processing information.
Goodell quit a "fulfilling" leadership post in the military, devoting herself to raising her three children and helping Aubrey, her oldest, succeed. She tried exercise, structured diets, vitamins, home schooling, private tutoring and counseling.
Nothing worked. Aubrey fell further behind in school and was placed in remedial classes which reinforced her self-loathing and behavioral problems.
"You don't know why you can't understand and why other kids don't like you," said Aubrey. "You just know you're angry, so you yell and throw things."
Now, she feels confident and optimistic, and has learned skills that would benefit any young woman, said her mother. "She expects to work hard, and expects life to come with conflict and compromise. She knows her destiny is in her hands."
You can still register in person for the Learning Disabilities Conference, today through Saturday at The Grand America Hotel, 555 S. Main St., Salt Lake City. Registration fees vary, depending on which sessions you'd like to attend. For more information, visit http://www.ldaamerica.org or http://www.ldau.org.