Dyslexic brains are good brains too

Hi, I’m Simone and I’m dyslexic. When I typed the word ‘dyslexic’ just now, it came out ‘dysexlic’. But writing things backwards is not what makes me dyslexic. In fact, that was just a typo which may or may not have anything to do with my dyslexia. Being dyslexic is very different to what most people think it is. Most people’s understanding of dyslexia is typified by this joke that I thought was really funny when I first heard it (before I knew I was dyslexic) –

Hey did you hear the one about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac?
He stayed up all night wondering if Dog really exists.

Yeah. Ha. Most people (including teachers) think that dyslexia is a difficulty with reading, writing and spelling. Full stop. Unfortunately for people who are dyslexic, that definition only touches on a fraction of the issue. In fact, it misses the point altogether. Most of the information teachers have to work with is based on the experts’ reading of the symptoms of dyslexia – which typically is difficulty reading and writing and spelling, but not always.

Dyslexia is actually a whole different way of thinking. Dyslexic brains process information differently from regular brains – we think in pictures, not words. This has its advantages in many ways – we can see a picture of something and our clever pictorial brains will figure out how to dissect it and recreate it. Our thoughts play out like movies in our heads. We can visualise things that haven’t been created yet, we are imaginative, creative and innovative. But we have a problem with ‘sequencing’. We often don’t know where to begin or how to put things in order. We can be the kings and queens of procrastination. We run late, and forget appointments because we forget to check our diary (heck, we forget to write things down in the diary in the first place).

When I talk about dyslexia I am meaning the full range – dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia. The difficulties manifest themselves in different ways, but it is all the same picture-brain at work. Around 15 percent of the population is dyslexic – but many people go undiagnosed. I only discovered that I am dyslexic (and gifted) when I was 43. That’s an awfully long time getting through life feeling like you’re ‘different’ but not knowing why.

My counsellor, Jane, suggested I get tested after we’d been working together on my depression and anxiety for two years and I kept hitting up against the same brick walls. She wondered if there was a ‘learning difference’ which would mean we’d need to take a different approach. When the surprising diagnosis came back, it all began to make perfect sense. It made sense of the feeling that I’m constantly treading water, working hard beneath the surface to do things that others find easy and how I feel I deserve a medal at the end of each day, just for getting through it. It made sense of my baffling forgetfulness and my losing battle with organisation and timelines. And of the way I don’t know how to get the words out to start a conversation (often mistaken for shyness). And constantly feeling anxious and uncertain.

But then the confusion set in. Dyslexia, really? I’m a writer! I’m an avid reader! I was reading before I even went to school. Writing is how I express myself when speech fails – so how does that stack up with dyslexia? All these questions I threw at Jane, who pulled out my test and talked me through it. I have a giftedness in the area of vocabulary and comprehension, she explained. This has masked the dyslexia and enabled me to learn ways of compensating. I learned how to take the long way round so successfully that my dyslexia was not even hinted at for 43 years, because I did okay in school, and although I have no formal qualifications, I’ve managed to be quite successful in my working life as well. When I was growing up, I had no idea my parents thought I was a bit lazy and unmotivated. They knew I was bright but thought I could do better and wondered why I wouldn’t apply myself. Little did they know how hard I was working beneath the surface.

Dyslexia is genetically inherited, and all my kids seem to have inherited a picture-brain from me. We’ve had all three of the kids tested and they all have dyslexia in some form, plus the extra complication of ADHD for a couple of them. ADHD and dyslexia often go together – according to my son’s psychologist, many children with ADHD are also dyslexic, but the dyslexia is often missed because the behavioural issues muddy the waters. When there’s more than one ‘learning difference’ going on it can be hard to figure out what’s actually happening. The struggle can manifest itself in behavioural problems, emotional outbursts, anxiety and low self-esteem. Parenting children with both of these difficulties can be like trying to navigate your way through a minefield.

Our eldest son struggled at school for years until we finally got the right diagnosis. It affected his confidence, he was convinced he was ‘dumb’, he acted out in class to draw attention away from the fact he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, and he was getting left behind. His self-image was affected and he was terribly hard on himself, and suffered with anxiety and bouts of depression as a result. He was twice referred to the Child
Mental Health Unit for assessment but they came up blank. Once we knew what we were dealing with, it made life so much simpler. I know many people are against labels because they don’t like ‘boxing’ kids, but I think of a diagnosis (label) as an explanation. It helps you understand what you’re dealing with, so you can pick your battles and get help that will actually make a difference.

Being dyslexic is no picnic at school. It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, which can be stressful, overwhelming and exhausting. With my kids inheriting my ‘low working memory and slow processing speed’ (poor things), school has been a nightmare at times. Laughton King – a Kiwi dyslexic PhD author – likens dyslexic brains to diesel engines, whereas the learning offered through the traditional school education system is like petrol, designed to be put in petrol engines. It’s a good analogy. Anybody can tell you that a diesel engine will struggle to run on petrol.

Sadly, the school experience changes kids who think and learn in a different way. Over the first two years of his school life, I watched my happy-go-lucky ray-of-sunshine youngest son turn into a boy who would explode with frustration and get emotional over the smallest things. He was trying to fit his square-peg-self into that uncomfortable round hole. We help him as much as we can, advocating for him at school, and getting extra tutoring for him.We celebrate his strengths and tell him all the time that he’s smart and has a great brain (he does) but it’s tough for him. And it’s tough to watch. Boy oh boy, it’s hard to watch your kids struggle. One thing I take comfort in, is that at least my kids have a mum who understands what it’s like for them. They know I come up against the same brick walls they do – I get it.

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Recently my daughter, Abby, sat by me pouring her heart out about frustrations at school. She was worried that her teacher didn’t understand how her dyslexic brain works and why she’s slow at learning new concepts. It takes a lot of repetition to transfer new learning into long-term memory when your working memory capacity is small. “Half the content and double the teaching time” is what was recommended in her Ed Psych report. Abby’s Year Six speech argued that kids should be able to use laptops or ipads at school instead of writing by hand in books – a topic dear to many a parent of a dyslexic’s heart. Technology makes the playing field more level.

The ability to edit and spell check means that the dyslexic child’s thoughts and ideas can be judged on their merit, without being hobbled by the writing process. Abby’s speech (and a visit to the teacher from me) must have done the trick because she has recently been allowed to do her writing directly onto a laptop and it is making a huge difference to the quality of her work. Writing on a laptop gets her ideas out quicker, and then she can edit and put things in order.

We dyslexics rely heavily on our memory.Our memories work overtime, taking the long way round translating words into pictures and vice versa. Depending on how good our long-term memory is and how much help we have had to negotiate the world of words and letters will determine how successfully we picture-brain thinkers can get through a linear-brain education system. As you can imagine, it’s tiring taking the long way round all the time. Exhausting, in fact. Sometimes when I am tired or stressed, I hit a wall, a roadblock in my brain. I literally draw a blank. Then I find myself scrabbling around for the right word. I say “book” when I mean “kettle”. I try to describe what I’m thinking of and wave my hands around – “You know the thingy with the round thing and the who-ja-me-whatsit?”

Headaches are common to dyslexic people, our senses are often on overload and emotions can run high. We are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression and tend to be hard on ourselves. But we have these amazing creative picture-brains which can do things that linear-brains can’t. We can imagine, we can visualise, we can create things that linear brained people would never have thought of. There are so many brilliant dyslexic people who have contributed amazing things to the world. Entrepreneurs, artists, inventors, innovators, visionaries: you may have heard of some of them? Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs to name just a few. Dyslexic people have great brains – they just work a bit differently. This is what I keep telling my kids. Dyslexic brains are good brains too.

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