The Gift, Challenge, and Classic Symptoms of Dyslexia

Q: This week HBO aired a special on dyslexia that noted that more than one third of entrepreneurs in the U.S. may be dyslexic. What is it about dyslexia that would cause this to be true?

A: This statistic doesn’t surprise me a bit. Having worked with dyslexic children and adults for the past 27 years, I know that people with a dyslexic thinking style are generally very bright and creative and often very talented.

The entrepreneurs on featured on the HBO special are successful and even grateful for their dyslexia, but it wasn’t always that way for them. Each of them also shared a story a story of deep pain.

Q: What is a dyslexic thinking style?

A: Every person with dyslexia is different, but we do see some very common characteristics among dyslexic learners. Typically, they are bright and creative – often talented in art, mechanics, acting, or sports.

They have difficulty with the auditory processing skill that allows them to make sense out of phonics for reading and spelling, and they experience confusion associated with certain letters, sounds, and small common sight words. (the, of, if)

They may be extremely good communicators, or may have difficulty getting the words out in the order and way they want to say them.

They tend to have good comprehension abilities and a strong ability to see things from different angles or points of view.

Q: It seems like people are being more open now about their dyslexia. How has the view of dyslexia changed?

A: The public is getting slightly more educated about dyslexia – we’ve pretty much gotten away from thinking that dyslexia is that same as mental retardation – but here’s what it still looks like everyday for kids and families who are dealing with it:

Kids are sitting in class in feeling stupid and embarrassed because they are smart enough to know that everyone can do the work and they can’t. They feel like they’re always wrong, even when they’ve tried hard, and nobody really gets it.

They’re told that they’re lazy or unmotivated. They work five time harder than their peers, but they get poor grades or have to miss recess anyway to finish class work when all they want to do is bolt out of the room to get away from print.

Parents are dying with guilt and worry frustration. They feel like their child is smart, but homework takes hours, often with tears and battles.

Q: How is the education system dealing with dyslexia?

A: The common belief in education and otherwise is that if you have dyslexia, or any other learning disability, you have to learn to cope with it, so kids struggling through school with accommodations.

Accommodating a learning problem is like trying to ride a bike with a flat tire. You can do it, but it takes so much effort and so much more time.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Brain studies have shown that dyslexic readers are using less efficient nueropathways, or thinking processes in the brain than typical readers. Brain research in the last 20 years has shown that the brain can be retrained to make more efficient pathways for reading and spelling.

Children and adults with dyslexia do not have to continue to suffer the pain and frustration of not being able to read or read well.

Q: Many successful dyslexic entrepreneurs, artists, and athletes say that having to learn to get around their dyslexia has helped them to be successful – that they wouldn’t change being dyslexic because it gave them an edge by teaching them how to handle hardship and failure? Can the brain be repatterned for reading without losing the giftedness of dyslexia?

A: There are two really important ideas here. First, it wasn’t the reading disability and failure that gave these successful individuals their edge. It was their innate, out-of-the-box thinking style that allowed then to see things differently; to problem solve and come up with new ideas. This is not exclusive to dyslexic thinkers.

Retraining the brain to process information for reading and spelling is not going to take away that marvelous thinking style. It’s simply going to remove the barrier to reading easily.

The other really critical thing is to realize that the famous dyslexic inventors, artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs are the exception. And they all have painful memories of frustration and failure in school.

Just because dyslexic individuals have successfully worked around their challenges, doesn’t mean that all will.

The famous basketball player, Mugsy Bogues, was only 5’3” but what are the odds that players who are 5’3’ will make it to the NBA?

Statistics tell us that the prison population has 50% more individuals with dyslexia than the general population.

And the worst thing is that children and families are suffering everyday because of reading struggles in school. The research and the techniques are available now to change this.

Q: You’re indicating that dyslexia can really be corrected. How is that done?

A: If you think about learning as a continuum, reading and other academic skills are up at the top. They are supported by many underlying learning or thinking skills that need to be in place to learn efficiently.

We have to identify what underlying skills are inefficient or not supporting the learner well enough and strengthen or retrain those thinking processes. Then the brain is ready to learn to read.

I recently ran into the mom of a former client of ours who had been severely dyslexic as a 9 year old. He was a completely shutdown learner, unable to recognize letters or words at all. By retraining the reading pathways in the brain and then teaching him to read, he was able to move out of special education by middle school and into honors classes in high school. His mom shared that he was now going back to school for his second masters degree because he can’t get enough of reading and education.

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