As a parent, if you were told your child would be a creative, intelligent, big-picture thinker with a strong sense of grit and resilience, you’d be happy, wouldn’t you? That sounds like a great set of skills for life success, doesn’t it?
Now, what if you were also told that your child would have trouble learning to read and write for the rest of his or her life? Like two sides of a coin, dyslexia is a gift and a struggle. I know this because I’m dyslexic. So is my youngest child. It’s genetic and extremely common. It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people have dyslexia.
Dyslexia is, put simply, a different wiring of the brain. It is not a measure of intelligence. Dyslexic brains find it difficult to recognize how sounds, words and letters match up phonetically. It’s an alternative way of thinking. While dyslexic minds process information differently, in lateral way, it also means we are singing a different tune when it comes to literacy, memory and concentration. Then there’s the speling (spelling). In fact, just having to spell “dyslexic” is a constant frustruation (frustration). As I’ve been writing this I’ve spelt it “dylesic” “dyslexic” and “dsyleix.”
During our coverage of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation, I don’t think I ever wrote soepena (subpoena) correctly. Because of our trouble with spelling, if there was a shrine or diety (deity) for autocorrect and spell check, dyslexics like me would worship at it. Obvioulsy (obviously), spelling tests, rote learning, reading aloud in class and standardized tests all work against dyslexics in the classroom. Outside of the traditional classroom though, many dyslexics thrive.
More struggle, and more perseverance
My late father was never diagnosed with dyslexia, but probably had it. After all, he misspelled “Granddad” inside his last gift to my eldest daughter, a hardbound copy of “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
I also only realized I was dyslexic two years ago, after my youngest daughter was diagnosed. She was lucky her school had picked up red flags in her early learning. Instead of writing “dog” she’d write “bog.” She wrote “b” and “d” in inverse directions and got tripped up between “m,” “n” and “w.”
Reading homework was a nightmare for her, and me. I watched as she learned a word like “C-A-T” and then forget it the next day. Words, letters and sounds became elusive to her, like grasping at bubbles blowing in the wind. During my child’s path to literacy, I relived my own. Her school had a series of parent lectures that explained dyslexia and it all slowly fell into place. The more I educated myself about her “problem” the more I realized I had been surviving, and thriving, with the same one.
My early school days were also a struggle, but unlike my daughter, my issue wasn’t identified and remediated because my teachers just did not understand I had a common learning disorder. They just thought I was not very clever. I was so bad at writing that my second grade teacher created an extra level of failure in one particularly brutal report card. She felt that “Very Poor” just didn’t seem to capture my lack of aptitude. So, in neat handwriting inserted into the report, she created an additional “Extremely Weak”category, just for me. The same teacher got so frustrated with my lack of progress with math word problems she threw the textbook at me during class. My struggles were also blamed on being “too young” for the class. So I repeated second grade. By the time I was 10 years old I’d been to four schools as my parents tried to find a learning environment that suited me.
You never forget that early humiliation of being the last to finish in class or having a teacher throw a book at you. To make it through school, many dyslexics wrangle and hustle. At some stage you learn, haphazardly, or with the help of a patient and dedicated techer (teacher) or parent to “decode” language. My mother doggedly helped me to learn and, perhaps just as importantly, she constantly boosted my self-esteem. We also cobble together coping strategies, classroom tricks and alternative ways of thinking to get to the same destination as everyone else. Many dyslexics learn to play to our individual strengths.
When I got accepted into Cambridge University for a Master’s degree in international relations, I remember wishing I could find that book-throwing teacher. I had shown her, and myself, that I was not “Extremely Weak.”
It turns out “thinking outside of the box” comes more naturally to the dyslexic brain than the propensity to spell accurately. It was a relief when I realized as an adult that I am dyslexic. What was even more liberating was realizing that many things I was good at was also because of dyslexia.
Each dyslexic has a different set of skills, and weaknesses, but there’s a pattern of commonality that links people like Galileo, Pablo Picasso and Julia Child. Dyslexics often think in pictures and can see multi-dimensionally which is why architect, gardener, chef and astronomer are careers that dyslexics gravitate toward.
Paradoxically, dyslexics struggle to write, but are often excellent authors, such as Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. They have “vivid imaginations and are highly creative,” according to Made by Dyslexia, which acknowledges, “9 in 10 dyslexics have poor spelling, punctuation and grammar but many are great writers.”
Adept problem solving
Entrepreneur, billionaire and dyslexic Richard Branson is so passionate about championing the positive aspects of the dyslexic brain that he launched and supports a charity called Made by Dyslexia.
“Dyslexic people hold a unique set of skills that will be really important to business,” Branson tweeted.These include “the ability to think flexibly and creatively and solve really complex problems by thinking different.”
Global accounting giant and professional services firm Ernst & Young released a report in 2018 called the Value of Dyslexia which carefully lays out how “dyslexic strengths match closely to the pressing skill requirements of the changing world.”
The report says that dyslexic strengths include creativity, problem solving and communication skills, which are untapped talents within the workforce, “These varied cognitive profiles give dyslexic individuals natural abilities to form alternative views and solve problems creatively.” The report urges companies and firms to have a “neuro-diverse talent strategy” because dyslexic employees with “heightened cognitive abilities in certain areas, such as visualization and logical reasoning skills and natural entrepreneurial traits can bring a fresh, often intuitive perspective.”
Interestingly, Britain’s spy masters came to a similar conclusion. The UK intelligence agency GCHQ announced in 2014 it was actively recruiting and employing more than a hundred dyslexic spies because dyslexic analytical skills are exceptionally useful when analyzing intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, British code-breaker and mathematician Alan Turing, who cracked Nazi Germany’s secret encrypted Enigma code, was dyslexic.
Dyslexic, as a journalist
Luckily, I fell into a career that, I think, is a dyslexic dream job. In TV news, it’s our job to think in pictures, because television is a visual medium.
And as a TV reporter you write brief, short scripts to pictures. The audience only hears and sees the report so spelling and grammar are not as important as they are for, say, a newspaper article.
Also, television news is about simplifying a lot of facts, analyzing events quickly and interpreting complex information — live on air. If you read the Value of Dyslexia report, you will see how those skills are hardwired into the dyslexic brain.
My colleague Anderson Cooper told me that as a child he was sent to a “reading doctor” after school in New York and during the summer in Long Island to help him with, what he calls, mild dyslexia. “I still do have trouble confusing some letters and numbers,” he told me. I agree with him when he says it’s easier to “have stuff printed out to read instead of reading off a computer” as I also rely heavily on the paper copies of scripts and news wires. Anderson said part of his treatment at the time was to learn to type; “so I became a really good typer in 3rd grade.”
Like Anderson, sometimes my words and numbers get mixed up, so I make accommodations and create verbal safety nets for when I’m reading the autocue prompter. I edit long, convoluted sentences and remove complicated foreign names that are redundant and could trip me up. I avoid too many numbers. If I start to find words jumping and darting away like fireflies at night, I slow down and concentrate even harder. Or just move on to the next story.
I love it when there’s breaking news and we throw out the pre-written scripts and I’m required to ad lib.
What you can do
Actor Orlando Bloom says his dyslexia is like a superpower that’s a powerful message for any child struggling at school.
Viewing dyslexia as a unique set of abilities with varying patterns of strengths and challenges instead of a one-size-fits-all learning disability is gaining traction. Increasingly, allowances are being made for dyslexic children in the classroom. In the state of Georgia, where I live, a new law makes it mandatory for all children to be screened for dyslexia. Getting expert help early while children are still learning to read, and not reading to learn, is crucial.
Teachers or parents who think a child can “grow out” of dyslexia are wrong. If your child is constantly being told to try harder, write neater, or stop being lazy, then maybe you need to take them to be tested for the world’s most common learning disorder. Help is everywhere.
Many schools and universities give extra time on tests. Teachers don’t penalize students for bad spelling when they’re known to be dyslexic. Some schools even give dyslexic students a pass when it comes to having to learn a second language. Many allow pupils to listen to audiobooks instead of trying to plow through set reading books.
Even big companies such as Microsoft are helping too. Microsoft just released free online dyslexia awareness training for parents and teachers, in coordination with Made by Dyslexia. Using teaching experts from two of the oldest specialized dyslexic schools in the United States and the UK the Schenck school in Atlanta and Millfield School in Somerset, England these online videos aim to democratize dyslexic teaching. It’s a free hour of expert instruction, available now, and to everyone.
Winston Churchill, as many advocates believe, had dyslexia, pointing out that he dictated, and did not write, his speeches and books. He would have found many of today’s voice-to-text tools helpful. Microsoft’s learning tools also have incredible options for dyslexics, such as tools which read out text, break-up syllables and increase spaces between lines and letters.
Not every child struggling to read will be as well-known as some famous dyslexics John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford or Keira Knightley. However, they do not need to be left behind, or relegated to the dunce corner. More teachers need to recognize the familiar signs and be able to help, all the tools to do so are out there, if you just look.
Just don’t expect us to ever learn how to spell “dyslexic.” (Thanks, spellcheck.)