At 52, he is burly, with thinning gray hair, a Vandyke beard and a fondness for Chinese beer and small cigars. She looks 10 years younger than her 43 years, has a PhD in education, despises cigar smoke and rarely imbibes.

Avish and Nancy Dworkin are an Odd Couple with a mission, two nationally known educators who have turned a cramped Rockville office suite into a center for children and adults who are handicapped, troubled or learning-impaired.

In the five years since they opened their Center for Unique Learners in the shadow of Montgomery County's executive office building, the Dworkins have carved themselves a niche in the area's growing market of learning specialists. Like those at other learning centers--such as Tri-Services Inc. in Chevy Chase and Endeavor Inc. and Traveling Tutors, both in Silver Spring--the Dworkins are in the business of teaching people how to learn.

At best, say the Dworkins and others in the field, learning theory is an inexact science, one in which success or failure often depends on pinpointing a person's own "blockage" to absorbing and retaining information. After a series of initial interviews to gauge a client's problem-solving ability, the Dworkins schedule several hours a week of tutoring, computer programs, psychiatric counseling or a mixture of the three for their clients, whose ages range from the early teens to middle age. They use the teacher's standard bag of tools--repetitive drills, games, lessons and workshops--but run the program in an unusally informal "open classroom" atmosphere.

Among those they have helped, they said, are a corporate executive who could not decipher a simple accounting ledger; a 44-year-old real estate whiz from New Mexico who devised elaborate ruses to hide the fact that he was illiterate; the bright but troubled children of admirals and members of Congress; and children who bounced from school to school once too often.

There also have been youngsters with cerebral palsy and adults barely able to function on their own but who wanted independence from the families that sheltered them all their lives.

All ended up at the nonprofit center, where cables for six computer terminals snake beneath goofy animal posters and over cookie crumbs. Clients dart from room to room, from the psychiatrist's office to an academic session and back again to a computerized word game.

"There's a lot of energy in this place," Avish Dworkin observed.

If the center, which serves between 150 and 200 people annually, appears chaotic and slightly rumpled at times, that atmosphere masks a an intellectual rigor fostered largely by Nancy Dworkin, trained at City College of New York and a lecturer in her field for many years. Avish may be the center's piratical cheerleader, but the two say that Nancy is the brains of the operation, the professional theoretician who makes the final diagnoses.

The staff also includes a psychiatric social worker, another educator who handles the scheduling and a clutch of office volunteers.

One current client is a 23-year-old man who lived in an institution for 15 years because he was wrongly diagnosed as mentally retarded. In fact, said Avish Dworkin, the man has cerebral palsy. "We get him, and find out that the kid knows seven languages. Is that retarded?"

Aided by a computer writing program, the man now composes prose at the keyboard, Dworkin said. "He sits at the terminal with his fingers curled just like this," said Dworkin, balling his left hand and moving it slowly up and down, "and he'll write beautiful stuff. A lot of it's sexually oriented, but then, so was Byron's."

Usually, a client first meets the Dworkins with one parent or both, and the Dworkins interview them together.

First, the revealing ice-breaker: The client is asked by what name he or she wants to be called.

"Sometimes, a fellow named William will have been called 'Bill' or 'Billy' all his life," Nancy Dworkin said. "And when we ask what name he prefers, he may say 'William.' And the parents will be shocked. But that name is crucial to his identity as a man. We respect that."

After the family discusses the client's best qualities, Avish takes over, administering an hour-long test that includes linear progression problems similar to those found in most IQ tests.

"There is no one correct answer," Dworkin recently cautioned one prospective client, the 30-year-old son of a Washington journalist. The son is seeking independence from his family, but, because of learning difficulties, was having trouble coping with the outside world. "Whatever you fill in the blanks with," Dworkin told him, "we want to know why that was your answer."

Alphabet puzzles, word combinations and addition problems are designed to reveal how the client solves problems. When the testing is completed, the Dworkins analyze the test results and suggest a course of action for parent and child. In the case of the journalist's son, whom the Dworkins tentatively diagnosed as having a neurological disorder, the Dworkins scheduled some career counseling and academic training that will enhance his skills.

"The Dworkins are representative of several groups, the smaller organizations now moving into an area where others in government or parts of large organizations have been for a number of years," said Harvey McConnell, who directed Montgomery's Office of Family Resources for more than 10 years until his resignation last week.

McConnell said the region has spawned several centers such as the Dworkins' because insurance companies now reimburse families for the cost of therapy, which had been prohibitively high. The Rockville center's $140,000 annual budget, modest by industry standards, also includes scholarships for youngsters whose families cannot afford academic counseling, the Dworkins said.

"They the Dworkins are the new kid on the block," said McConnell. "They're relatively new to this area, and because of that, they're having a time figuring out where they fit in with the scheme of things. They really don't know the workings of the government. They're kind of isolated. But they are certainly meeting a real need."

Ruth L. Feldman, of Silver Spring, understands the value of the Dworkins' service because her son, 25, has been active at the center for the past six months. "The Dworkins care enough to try and help people, and it doesn't matter whether you can pay for it or not," she said. (Clients pay fees based on income.)

"In years past, no one was ever sure what was wrong with her son ," said Feldman. Through a twice-weekly diet of large-print books and vocabulary programs on a computer, Feldman's son, whose visual perception is impaired, can now read at a third-grade level. "He did not have those skills before going to the center," she said.

Additionally, her son's tutors have drilled him in such "survival skills" as making change and using a calculator when grocery shopping, she said.

"The philosophy is, 'We're convinced you can improve,' " Feldman said. "Nobody knows what he can do, but let's face it, any improvement will be terrific."

Some of the Dworkins' fellow learning specialists in the county remain skeptical of their emphasis on computers as teaching tools, while others are uncertain about the effectiveness of their "holistic" approach to teaching--their attitude that learning is an integrated process.

At the same time, however, the couple gets high marks for being unorthodox.

"They have a good reputation," said Susan Gurland, the president of WISER, the recently formed Washington Independent Services for Education Resources, an association of learning experts. "The key is to find out how a child learns, and they've made a specialty of that."

Matthew Kamins, who heads Endeavor Inc., a large diagnostic and remedial center in Silver Spring, also gives the Dworkins high marks: "They're rather unique because they're not formalized testers, but rather a collaborative system. They're successful--and they're professional."