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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About Author

Simone Graham

Simone is prolific writer who has written many an article for Parenting magazine over the years and who blogs at greatfun4kidsblog.com. She covers a broad range of topics from dyslexia to DIYs, recipes to motherhood, and adventures to quirky kids. She is mum to three and uses all that spare time she has (now that the kids can make their own lunches) to read books and plan parties.

7 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Teresa Matheson on

    Hi Simone,
    Thanks so much for sharing. I have a son whom everyone says is “different”
    I have found ADD symptoms seem to fit him best, and could totally relate to this paragraph: “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.”
    To that end we visited Dr Hanne, but unfortunately did not get the answer I was hoping for. Dr Hanne said he was smart and bored but this doesn’t describe him at all.
    What do I do next?

    • Avatar

      Hi Teresa, I’m really glad you commented here. It is soooo frustrating sometimes trying to get a diagnosis, especially when you as the mum have that “knowing” that something is off, but sometimes the experts don’t agree.
      We were once told that our son was simply “manipulating” us with his sad demeanor and trying to avoid work, that there was nothing really wrong with him at all! (It took another three years before we finally got to the bottom of what was affecting him, and it was ADD – not hyperactive, so not easily picked up on, and probable dyslexia).
      Firstly, don’t give up. Listen to your gut intuition, you’re the mum, you live with this child, you know him. You are your son’s champion advocate, and don’t take no for an answer.

      Unfortunately diagnosing ADHD is not an exact science. Some medical practitioners have very set ideas about what ADHD presents like, and are quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t fit their prescribed box – sad but true.
      I highly recommend joining the ADHD (NZ) parents support group on Facebook – people on there are amazing at encouraging each other and sharing what works and who to see. It’s great to know you’re not alone and get advice from others who know what you’re dealing with and who have walked the same road.

      Also the ADHD (NZ) page on Facebook has a wealth of resources and can be contacted in person for advice of best practitioners in your area.

      Did the doctor give you the “Connors” forms to fill out (for you and the teacher)? That is the key diagnostic tool most pediatricians will use, but there are others, e.g. the audio concentration test that my son underwent was conclusive and hard to deny and backed up the results of the Connors forms.

      In the meantime, have a read of my blog post about ADHD as well: https://www.greatfun4kidsblog.com/2016/05/in-defense-of-ritalin-and-adhd-kids.html

      All the best Teresa xxx
      from Simone

      • Avatar
        Teresa Matheson on

        Thank you so much Simone,
        I didn’t know about the facebook page. The doctor sent the wrong forms, we ended up with the adult ones. The two determining factors seemed to be that he got a plus six on clicking the dots (ADD children typically get minus 6), and Dr Hanne concluded that the symptoms were recent. Which is not the case. We are doing really well at managing, but it’s the self-loathing that I want to combat. I was hoping a diagnosis would assure my son that it’s not his fault.

        • Avatar

          Teresa, I know all about this, sadly (the self-loathing). That is the absolute worst thing about all this, how it destroys their view of themselves; it’s heartbreaking. I would go back to the doctor and request the proper forms – I don’t know about clicking dots – none of my kids did a test like that. the main determining factor was the Connors forms, and adult forms would definitely give the wrong result.
          Keep pushing until you get answers, you know your son better than anyone, and it really does help the child massively having an explanation for why things are so difficult for them, in my experience. It doesn’t remove the pain of it, but it makes it less of a personal failure somehow. Also, the medication REALLY helps with them coping academically, which in turn helps build that sense of “I can do it”, which counters the self loathing. Sigh. It’s so hard to watch your precious kid struggling like this isn’t it? If you want to “talk” further privately I’m happy for you to email me via my blog. Hang in there Teresa xxx

  2. Avatar

    Hey Daniel – I’m so glad you took the time to comment on this! I have discovered a little bit more about kinetic/multi-sensory learning after writing this article (I think I wrote it originally about 18 months -2 years ago?). My youngest son is the most “obviously” dyslexic out of my children, and is now attending a school one day a week where they do multi sensory learning. next year he will be able to go there full time – I wish there were more schools like that, or that -even better – all schools taught kids that way!
    I know what you mean about learning/remembering by doing. If I sit down at the computer to show someone how to do something, I have to be the one pointing the mouse, I can’t think of the words to describe “how” to do things, but once I can show them it all comes to me. It sounds like you are in the perfect for career for someone with your visual/spatial abilities! I hope my kids can find their special “niche” for jobs when they get older too. best wishes from Simone 🙂

    • Avatar

      Hi Simone, thank you for your reply I did not mean to sound like someone saying things to you about what you you do or do not know. It was quite late and wrote my reply little bit on a whim of the moment. In fact in I think the main reason was that admire the research you have done and are doing.

      I’m pretty sure your kids will find their “Niche” when there older, and most definitely with Mom like you by their side. 😉

      Kind Regards,

      Daniel

  3. Avatar

    Dear Simone Graham,

    My name is Daniel(32) I am a dyslexic and thought your article was very interesting and a nice read. Naturally for having dyslexia myself I researched a lot about this. But I could not help but notice that there was not a lot in your article about kinetic learning, which i feel is important to understand. This is something we all do in our daily lives dyslexics and non-dyslexic alike.

    But as you have mentioned we dyslexics are visual thinkers we can turn flip things around in mind. This way of thinking combined with kinetic leaning can make many dyslectics quick learners. Although we might not always be able to explain clearly in how we do things. This to me is useful, as I am a graphic designer by trade. But have noticed because of the kinetic learning part, by working for example with my design program’s I remember what/how intuitively by doing. Like many program’s drop down menus have a endless list of words and to be fair some words I don’t always understand but I do know what they do.

    Like you said in your article we can be shy / hard on our self’s and in many cases suffer from a depression and more. Schools do not always understand, and sometimes parents don’t either they push their kids to all kinds help classes. Even me right now, I am worrying if should actually leave this comment it might come across as gibberish. It might send the wrong message than the one I intended. So to make those thoughts go away, the real message is:

    I hope some of the things I have written can be useful, and to all parents who have kids with dyslexia be patient with them listen to them(try to understand), and above all see their “Magic”

    Kind Regards,

    D