Dyslexia and why I couldn’t be a writer without it.

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I‘M DYSLEXIC. No secret. No big deal. I saw a T-shirt the other day that said Dyslexics Untie! Took me about five minutes to work it out. I love that joke about the dyslexic devil worshipper who sold his soul to Santa. But I would. Because I can.

Two of my sons are dyslexic and so, too, is one of my siblings. Dyslexia has a huge genetic component. It’s estimated that 10% of people are dyslexic yet very few are assessed and given support despite dyslexia being the most common learning disability in children and adults.

After my eldest son was assessed I was appalled at how dyslexia was not dealt with in our schools. The condition is misunderstood and badly managed. Teachers are not trained to pick it up and even if they do, assessment can take up to a year. By that time the child is often crushed by lack of confidence and low self-esteem.

And there’s no tailored program in our schools to address it. Reading Recovery does not work for dyslexics. Weekly private tuition for years is a luxury of the wealthy.

How do I explain dyslexia? Our brains work differently. Basically we see things from an aerial perspective, not in a linear fashion. We process everything at once and our strength is not in details. We can’t just rote learn things, we need to understand them. Dyslexics are very good at being able to retrieve a swag of information from many different domains, which makes us great creative thinkers and problem solvers. But messy cooks. When we learn it’s as if we are looking at a tree and instead of learning from the roots up we learn from the limbs down. Which makes navigating our way through learning to read and spell a nightmare of differing proportions. Some just give up.

Dyslexics see things in pictures. We tend to memorise the shapes of words, guess and take clues from other words around it. Yet if you tell a dyslexic a story their comprehension is excellent. One of our biggest weaknesses is reading aloud; we often sound stilted because our brain is so overloaded.

Dyslexics have difficulty decoding and encoding words, basically sounding them out and spelling them. Dyslexic children often appear quite bright so teachers assume they will just catch up. Dyslexics tend to make it through primary school OK, but as soon as they hit high school they are bombarded with so many unfamiliar words with similar shapes that it all gets too much. Some stop wanting to go to school, complaining that it’s too hard. They are then branded as lazy and from there it can all go horribly wrong.

Our son was captivated by books but struggled to read. Like many dyslexics he was labelled a late bloomer. He just wasn’t getting bang for buck out of the amount of effort he was putting into reading. When we told the school he was dyslexic they were on board straight away.

They gave him a Reading Recovery test and were stunned that he would not have qualified for extra help. The words on the test were all words that he had memorised the shape of. If they had used nonsense words, like turning the word laugh into raugh or tiger into siger, he would have been stumped.

For dyslexic children it’s not a case of working harder but learning differently. Dyslexics need early assessment and multi-sensory, systematic explicit teaching with a focus on phonemic awareness. This needs to be addressed by early intervention and intensive support. It’s the long way round but the short way home. In this world of increased written communication, dyslexic children need a tailored, well-resourced program in our schools more than ever before.

Famous dyslexics: Sir Winston Churchill, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, John F. Kennedy, Richard Branson and Jorn Utzon, who designed the Opera House. Sure the Opera House was meant to be square but who’s complaining? Also in the D Squad are people like Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Muhammad Ali and Cher. Others include Hans Christian Andersen, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert — all writers, all dyslexics. Writers are not necessarily spellers. Buggered if I’ll ever be able to spell entrepreneur without a dictionary.

Early warning signs are poor spelling, having difficulty rote learning, memorising or following instructions. Instead of following instructions, dyslexics often look at the required outcome and work backwards to find their own way there.

Dyslexia, often called a gift in America, also has some amazing strengths. Not compensating strengths, but built-in ones, particularly in the areas of design, creativity, athletic ability and social skills. We’ll get there, we just take a different route. There is a map, we just need it shown to us. As early as possible.

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