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Making a Difference
Houston student overcomes a series of learning difficulties to graduate from high school and earn acceptance into college.
Generally, the Dan L. Duncan Children's Neurodevelopmental Clinic at the Children's Learning Institute is a fairly reserved place. However, on this sunny afternoon, Kristin Morley rushes in waving one of the college acceptance letters she has received.
“Dr. Mike, look at this!” she says to Duncan clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Assel, Ph.D. “I am going to college!”
As Assel proudly reads her letter, Kristin sheds a few happy tears, thrilled about the opportunity that awaits her just a few months from now. Waiting a few months shouldn't be difficult for Kristin, considering the years of intense work and dedication she has endured to get to this moment.
Early on in her life, Kristin was a bright and happy child. When she reached first grade, as other children were learning to read and write, Kristin struggled and became increasingly frustrated. Fortunately for Kristin, her parents took note of her struggles and began tutoring and working with her extensively. Their efforts, though, were not enough.
“No matter how hard I tried, it was the hardest thing for me to read. I was so slow at it,” Kristin said. “I knew the vowels and the sounds the letters made, but I just could not put the words together.”
As her frustrations continued, Kristin's family decided to seek help from the Children's Learning Institute. There they began a relationship with Assel, who listened to Kristin and her parents tell her story. After a series of evaluations, he diagnosed her with dyslexia and dysgraphia.
“Kids at school made fun of me and called me stupid, and I was beginning to believe that they were right,” Kristin recalls. “Then, Dr. Mike diagnosed me as having dyslexia and dysgraphia with short-term memory processing difficulties. He told me I wasn’t stupid, but that I had challenges that would make me work harder to achieve my goals. He made it as comfortable for me as possible, especially for a young kid.”
Over time, Assel realized that Kristin was dealing with serious self-esteem issues. She often took so long to complete her work that at one school she was not allowed to go to recess until it was complete.
“When a second grader tells you she has not gone to recess between September and November, something needs to change,” Assel recalls.
Also, while her friends were out having fun after school, Kristin would have to stay home and study. Affecting her both socially and academically, it was a situation that was hard for her to understand and, as a result, she became depressed.
To combat these and other issues, Assel provided the family with recommendations for tutors and physicians to address her learning issues. In addition to tutors and medication, they found a local afterschool program tailored for children with learning difficulties. After just twelve weeks in the program, her cognitive skills improved five grade levels. At the same time, Kristin's family found the right school for her, one with a program for children with learning disabilities.
“Dr. Assel gave us hope and direction,” said Anne Morley, Kristin’s mother. “He has fine-tuned diagnoses with Kristin and other children and has helped these kids find success in different ways. We feel so fortunate to have him in our lives.”
Assel says that Kristin has benefitted from receiving help at an early age and her great support system.
“Her family supports her unconditionally and her school has been very understanding,” he said. “My role has been to diagnose and to guide her and her family. They are the ones that make this a real success story.”
In addition to her studies, the Morley family found other ways for Kristin to achieve and flourish. Kristin discovered that she was an excellent athlete and played lacrosse, field hockey and soccer until knee injuries forced her to forgo those pursuits.
With school athletics no longer a good option for her, she developed a keen interest in photography and writing. She recently had one of her stories accepted by a magazine and she has won numerous photography awards.
“I got into art and photography because there is no right or wrong about it. It’s just whatever you want it to be, so it was a way I could express myself where people can’t tell me I’m wrong,” Kristin recalls. “It made me feel better about myself because people would tell me ‘you’re a good artist,’ instead of, ‘you’re a stupid student.’”
Now a senior at Episcopal High School in Houston, Kristin gives back by helping young children through their academic struggles. She volunteers at KIPP SHARP College Prep Lower School, inspiring young children who have learning differences by telling her story. This energetic 17-year-old also has a part- time job as an afterschool nanny for two young children and helps them get their homework done before their parents get home.
When working with children, she especially likes sharing some of the tips she has learned from Assel.
“I have so much fun. It is really cool to help them,” she says. “I know what worked for me, and I hope Dr. Mike’s tips help some of these little kids.”
“Kristin works incredibly hard, and the process has taught her to advocate for and take care of herself,” Assel said.
After she graduates in May, Kristin will do mission work over the summer. She had several options as to which college she would attend. She proudly told Dr. Assel that she will be going to the University of Mississippi this August. She plans to major in photojournalism and hopes to continue her work with young children.
In spite of her accomplishments, Kristin says she sometimes still feels insecure, yet her overall outlook has changed for the better.
“I realize that I have some learning differences, but they don’t define me,” she says. “I have learned to handle myself and just use the behaviors and tools I’ve learned. Instead of something or someone else controlling me, I am now controlling myself.”