When you think of dyslexia, what do you understand it to be? You might think of dyslexia as being all about problems with reading and writing. For sure those are challenging for most people with dyslexia, but that’s far from being all there is to it. Dyslexia is about how you decode and process any information including written words, spoken words and even the ideas in your own head. It is often framed as a disability, even the word itself tells us this, with dys meaning poor and lexis meaning language. But I’m dyslexic and I don’t think it’s a disadvantage. In fact sometimes it can be quite the opposite.
Dyslexia is an alternate wiring of the brain. It is a different way of thinking that comes with challenges but also certain strengths. Dyslexic people tend to excel at certain things. The experience of dyslexia varies greatly from person to person, but individual dyslexics each have a differing combination of some, or all of, the dyslexic strengths. But before we get into those I’ll share a little about my own experience of dyslexia.
I got off to a slow start with reading but that changed when I was given a Famous Five book. I still remember reading it, very slowly, it took me ages! But it captivated me, so much so I wanted to read more. I read the other 20 or so books in the series, and slowly but surely my reading skills blossomed. I was on track at school, I was a slow writer but what I wrote was good and my marks were OK. I was best at music, it was my favourite subject, it turns out dyslexic people tend to excel at creative subjects.
My dyslexia didn’t get picked up at school, I was coping well enough there. This isn’t uncommon. Just under 70 students were identified as being dyslexic only after starting at Plymouth Marjon University last year (and they subsequently got specialist support to develop their study skills). It was after my brother and all my cousins were confirmed as being dyslexic (it runs in families) that I realised I had some signs of dyslexia too. I got assessed and I’m so glad I did because learning to understand my dyslexia has helped me in so many ways. It took me a while to find my dyslexic strengths but now I believe that my dyslexia makes me, not breaks me.
Let’s get back to the idea of dyslexia as an alternate wiring of the brain. This is explained neatly in ‘Adult Dyslexia: Unleashing your Limitless Power’, a book by Cheryl Isaacs. She outlines four different cognitive abilities – verbal reasoning, perceptual reasoning, processing speed and working memory. She explains that most people are similarly skilled at all four cognitive abilities but that this isn’t the case in people who have dyslexia. Instead dyslexic folks are usually way stronger in verbal reasoning and perceptual reasoning than they are in processing speed and working memory, which “may mean significant weaknesses in some areas, but also defining strengths in others”.
We’ll get on to the strengths soon, yay, but before we do let’s pause briefly on the weaknesses. Slow processing speed means that it can be hard in the moment to process what you’re thinking, let alone to communicate it effectively to someone else. Add to that an unreliable short-term memory and it can look to others like you aren’t trying your best sometimes, even though you are. It feels frustrating.
On the upside, dyslexic individuals often develop good interpersonal skills to compensate for their weaknesses. They understand what it is like for things not to come easily, and develop empathy, patience and resilience. In this way dyslexia affects not only how you think, but who you are.
It generally takes the dyslexic mind a while longer to process new information. This applies to any type of information, it is as true for conversations as it is for textbooks. Sometimes this means you get underestimated. My sixth form told me to rethink my uni choices because I wouldn’t get the grades. In the end I more than got the grades, but that outcome had felt unlikely to my teachers. I had to trust myself that I’d get to grips with my subjects in time and I did. In uncertain times, like now, being used to not understanding everything straightway really helps. You can be flexible and not worry so much.
The best thing for me about being dyslexic is the eureka moments. Dyslexic minds are good at making interconnections. It might take my brain a while to get from A to B, but that’s fine. I know that for me learning isn’t linear, that there will be a eureka moment. I suddenly get from A to B. Only I don’t stop at B because I’m already at C and maybe I even see D on the horizon; D is an outlier but I see a connection. It is exhilarating to think like that, ideas popping into your head, it feels like everything lights up. And this interconnected thinking makes you good at problem-solving too because you can always find another angle from which to look at things.
Dyslexic individuals are good at making big picture connections. If I’m working on a big question then I’ll easily engage with it. I can relax into it because I know that I’ll get creative and connect some thoughts up, sooner or later. But sometimes my brain feels too jumpy. I get distracted by my own thoughts when I really want to listen to other people. Or I have an idea, but because of the high speed at which it formed I can’t articulately express it to someone else in the moment, and I leave lots of half sentences hanging because I can’t find the words to finish them.
Also this big picture thinking comes at the expense of the finer details, give me a form to fill in and I struggle to focus on it, I’ll get distracted and in a muddle. I’ll put it off and then put it off some more.
Now back to the good stuff because there is plenty more. Many dyslexic folks have strong spatial reasoning skills, they can think visually and in 3D. They are good at spotting patterns. These are the kids who are amazing at drawing or lego, who go on to become architects, designers, and engineers. And while most dyslexic people are not so hot on short-term memory, they are great at narrative memory, that is recalling stories and thinking in stories. These are the kids who love to create and imagine, who go on to become actors, authors, coaches, musicians and marketeers (like me!).
Made by Dyslexia is a brilliant charity, run by successful dyslexics. It aims to get dyslexia properly understood and is highlighting how much dyslexia thinking skills matter in the economy. For example, did you know that a lot of entrepreneurs including Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Johnathon Ive (Apple’s chief designer) are dyslexic? Or that Jamie Oliver, who has arguably done more than anyone for healthy eating in this country, is dyslexic and was in the remedial class at school? Or that GCHQ actively recruit dyslexics because of the value of their creative and problem-solving skills? Does this surprise you? To put it bluntly there is a notion that people with dyslexia are a bit thick, and that’s so wrong. As a dyslexic I have certain strengths because I am dyslexic, not despite me being dyslexic. I work in digital marketing which requires me to be creative, to anticipate how other people are going to engage with what I create, to keep up with rapid change, to solve problems and tell stories. My dyslexic thinking skills are key to my job.
If you’re a Marjon student and you think or know you’re dyslexic, then amazing support is on hand from the Student Support team. Dyslexic students have told me how much this has helped them. Go talk to them because understanding your own dyslexia will change many things for the better. It has for me. I’d like to help others to find their dyslexic strengths and so I’ll be mentoring dyslexic students though the upcoming Marjon Mentors Scheme.
I’ll leave you with ‘Dyslexia Sperm Bank’ from Made by Dyslexia which will tell you more about dyslexic strengths. I love this video for being so creative and for looking at dyslexia from a fresh angle; which happens to be exactly what you should expect from dyslexic thinkers. Thank you for reading.