The future of thinking differently
The individuals with dyslexia who were interviewed for this book share many common traits and experiences, no matter their age or particular interests. These fall into four categories. First, they each experienced significant, and at times traumatising, difficulty in school. Second, they consciously or unconsciously developed ‘work-arounds’ that allowed them to navigate academia and the larger world. Third, they have gifts of creativity and insight that directly correspond with their brain differences. And fourth, they display tremendous drive and determination to put these gifts to use.
CHALLENGES OF LIVING WITH LEARNING DIFFERENCES
Beryl Benacerraf, a clinical professor at Harvard University, is a world-renowned expert in radiology who discovered an important foetal indicator for Down syndrome. She then developed a genetic sonogram that revolutionised the way pregnant women are screened. She’s the recipient of numerous awards for her work, and, not coincidentally, she’s also highly dyslexic.
She recalls her experience in school as being ‘very shameful’ and remembers struggling for a long time. Part of her shame stemmed from having such highly intellectual and accomplished parents – her father was a Nobel laureate in medicine, Baruj Benacerraf. Her parents and teachers originally thought that Beryl’s difficulty with reading was due to being multilingual; she was thrust into an English-speaking classroom as an eight-year-old, when her parents moved to the United States from Venezuela. However, when her reading skills didn’t improve, her parents came to believe that she was simply being lazy and careless. She continued to receive this message all the way through her admission to medical school. She felt blamed for her deficit. This was terribly wounding to Beryl’s self-esteem. Hopeless at standardised tests, she attended a medical school that didn’t require the MCAT. And thanks to her father making a few phone calls on her behalf, she was accepted to Harvard Medical School as a second-year transfer – a feat almost unheard of. This pulling of strings left Beryl feeling even more ashamed. She was in medical school, but she felt like a failure – as if she had slid in through the back door and didn’t really deserve to be there.
Carol Greider, professor of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University and winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine, diagnosed herself as dyslexic when she was in her late teens. Like Beryl Benacerraf, she never did well on standardised tests, so although she worked hard to get good grades in school, she did poorly on the SAT and GRE US college admissions tests. She recalls feeling embarrassed to be taken out of class by the special education teacher in grammar school. Looking back on her old schoolwork now, it’s obvious to her how severely dyslexic she was, but she suffered through school feeling like, in her words, ‘a stupid kid’. She recalls, ‘I had this remedial help, and all of my friends were in advanced classes. I just figured they were smarter than I was. So I worked harder to get the grades.’ Despite her tremendous gifts, which are now quite obvious, she did so poorly in early maths that in seventh grade her maths teacher wouldn’t recommend her to advance to algebra. Her father insisted that they put her in the higher-level class anyway.
This sense of not measuring up, of feeling stupid – and the accompanying loss of self-esteem – is extremely common among adults with dyslexia, largely due to misdiagnosis or ignorance of what dyslexia means. Among younger generations, now that evaluations and individual educational plans are far more common, the blow to self-esteem can be lessened. However, this very much depends on how informed educators and parents are about what dyslexia does and does not mean, and how successfully they support the child with dyslexia. And of course, adolescence can be challenging and stressful whether or not a child has a learning difference. For that reason, it can be difficult to separate the effects of a brain difference from other environmental and developmental influences.
Sidney is a sensitive and artistic sixteen-year-old who has moved nine times in her life. At this point she finds it ‘reassuring when I know that something will be the same when I return to it.’ Her father is dyslexic as well, so when her mother noticed that Sidney was memorising books as a child rather than reading them, she immediately intervened and had Sidney evaluated. In third grade, despite her remarkable brightness, Sidney was reading at below a second-grade level. Her mother moved her to a school for children with learning differences, and by the time she left in eighth grade to enter a highly competitive mainstream high school, she was reading at a twelfth-grade level. Still, despite her success in school, she suffered considerable anxiety over the years – not an uncommon experience among children with learning differences. The strain of having to work so much harder than everyone around you just in order to keep up can be overwhelming. ‘I see words mix up as I’m reading. My eyes will be five words behind my brain. One word becomes another or they slur together.’ While she hasn’t been diagnosed with attentional problems, she does find it difficult to stay organised. ‘I just move my mess from place to place. If I ever had a break I would spend a week organising myself.’ She also struggles with time management, mostly due to how much longer it takes her to read, which is an added stressor at a school where an hours-long homework load is common. When Sidney gets too frustrated and overwhelmed while working on an assignment, her mother encourages her to walk away and come back to it later.
Similarly, Schuyler points to the anxiety-provoking impact of the status-focused college application process. ‘When kids were talking about Harvard, the idea was that the better-known the school is that you attend, the better a person you are. The school is correlated with you. I try to refrain from that idea, but sometimes the society pressure does get to me. Colleges see statistics, not who you are as a human being. They don’t know how much you engage in class. An essay can be created or tutored for any kid, but there’s no one pushing your hand and pencil during a test.’ Schuyler finds it deeply unfair that non-dyslexic children who find memorisation easy (and who will forget that material within days of acing the test) can do better than she does, while they actually have less of a grasp on the material.
Even though Schuyler attends a prestigious private school in Manhattan, she has also encountered ignorance among teachers. ‘My biology teacher said, “She speaks so well in class, I was shocked by her first test grade”.’ The teacher told Schuyler that she needed to work harder at the class since it didn’t come as easily to her. ‘I wanted to explain to her that it’s not that I don’t get the concepts, it’s the way her tests are constructed. But you can’t say that to a superior – that, “no, it’s you and not me” – because that’s insulting.’ Children with dyslexia can feel like abstract-thinking aliens in a foreign, concrete landscape.
Many, many children with dyslexia do go on to very successful adult lives – as the examples of brilliant and high-functioning adults such as Beryl Benacerraf and Carol Greider illustrate. One of the primary keys to success for people with any brain difference is to develop work-arounds – ways of not cheating the system, but trying to fit their abstract selves into a regimented environment. Because reading continued to be tremendously difficult for Benacerraf, in college she attended a school that required only one English class. She made sure she took poetry, because of the low word count. Once in medical school, she found that she didn’t need to read every word of textbooks; in fact, she had a much easier time studying graphic (rather than textual) representations of information and found she could glean everything she needed to know from the images, graphs, charts and associated captions in her course material.
Now that she has her own ultrasound practice, Benacerraf still takes advantage of strategies that help her skate around her reading and writing deficits. She dictates most of what she writes and has staff to proof and vet anything that goes out under her signature. While some dyslexics, like Carol Greider, find spell-check programmes to be very helpful, Benacerraf is so severely dyslexic that she often can’t get close enough to the correct word spelling for the programme to recognise what she’s trying to say. She has to try retyping the word from scratch, over and over. She has a tendency to mix up words, and certain word counterparts are perpetually problematic for her, so she avoids them – exacerbate and exasperate; circumscribe and circumcise. ‘When I start saying a word, I sometimes don’t know what’s going to come out. Each person with dyslexia has their tough words they can’t use in speech.’
Because Sidney is so highly visual, she has developed a fascinating work-around that she calls a ‘mind map’. It began as doodling, which her mother had read can help some people focus. Now the doodles are more complex and are inextricably linked to her thought process. ‘As I’m thinking of something, I feel like I’m drawing out an idea. I stretch my brain until I can think of a word or idea. It really helps on tests if I can’t think of a word or spelling. I start drawing and building off each letter if I don’t remember a word. It helps with maths, too.’ Listening to music also helps her. In class, she finds it easier to focus on what the teacher is saying when she has classical music playing in an earbud in one ear. Her mother lobbied for the school to allow it.
Schuyler has also developed visual methods of retaining what she needs to know. When studying for a biology test, for example, she will see the information in the form of a diagram. Instead of recalling the words for the parts of a cell, she will see the cell in her mind, along with the labels. The labels are not words – they are images of words, like drawings. The one downside of this visual thinking is that sometimes the thoughts and images can ‘overlap and collide in my head’. And this process can become even more abstract, involving turning ideas themselves into shapes. ‘I close my eyes and make the shapes form a roller coaster, or a pleated sheet that I can control.’ For her English class, she might transform a character into a physical object as a way of better understanding it. A particular personality type might strike her as ‘a house in a mask form to suggest his self-loathing’. Or ‘a block with a bunch of bookshelves. The block is stern and the bookshelves are the house itself.’ This process isn’t conscious or intentional for Schuyler. ‘That’s just how they [ideas and words] appear to me.’
Sidney is highly self-aware – of both her strengths and weaknesses, which is also important in developing coping strategies. ‘I always feel like no matter when I start something I never have enough time to finish. That’s why I like to start projects ahead of time. I can’t do anything quickly, but I put a lot of effort into them.’ Recently, she’s learned that a very good way of staying organised is to restrict herself to only a small bag – the less space she has for mess, the better.
Sidney and Schuyler are lucky to have involved parents who have actively sought out the best schools and programmes for their children, and who don’t hesitate to speak up when they feel that accommodations need to be made. As children get older, however, it’s also important for them to learn to advocate for themselves. While Schuyler has experienced the frustration of not being able to overtly criticise a teacher’s testing methods, she has learned how to make herself understood with faculty. Since her intelligence doesn’t always come across in written work, ‘I talk to my English teacher after class, or in physics I will talk to my teacher about a concept we haven’t discussed yet. In class I raise my hand a lot and don’t feel self-conscious. It’s a method of communicating to them that I do understand.’
Julie Logan, professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass Business School in London, calls these coping strategies (including organisational systems, visualizations, self-advocacy, temperamental qualities such as tenacity, and myriad other highly individual techniques) ‘compensatory skills’. Logan surveyed 139 business owners in the United States and found that more than 35 per cent self-identified as dyslexic. In a New York Times article about her findings, she remarked, ‘We found that dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives. . . . If you tell your friends and acquaintances that you plan to start a business, you’ll hear over and over, “It won’t work. It can’t be done.” But dyslexics are extraordinarily creative about manoeuvring their way around problems.’
These strategies and methods are essential for success in a world that doesn’t cater to the dyslexic mind. And when they are implemented, the results can be astounding.
GIFTS OF THE BRAIN WITH DYSLEXIA
Beryl Benacerraf, who felt like a failure because she needed her father’s help to get into Harvard Medical School, eventually discovered her remarkable gifts only because she had managed to struggle her way past all the hurdles of academia. Benacerraf had already learned that she was more successful at retaining information when she studied the charts and graphs in her textbooks, rather than the written text. But when she was a medical resident at the end of her radiology rotation, her professor said to her, ‘I’ve never seen a gift in imaging and pattern recognition like you have. It’s uncanny. You should really think about going into radiology.’ Discovering that she had a true genius for something particular changed Benacerraf’s life. Still, it took time for her to accept that she was gifted. ‘When I looked at images the abnormality just jumped out at me, like a neon sign. It was a new world. It was amazing. I never realised I was special that way. I kept thinking that the other students would catch up with me. It took a decade for me to realise it wasn’t luck.’
It wasn’t luck at all – it was Benacerraf’s exceptionally acute peripheral vision, a gift she has almost certainly because she is dyslexic. ‘When I look at an image I’m not looking at little parts of the image. I take in the whole thing all at once as a pattern.’ In other words, the same neurological process that makes it difficult for her to read text enables her to almost effortlessly find abnormalities on a scan. She also believes that ideas and conclusions come to her more quickly because she thinks visually. ‘Images are faster than speaking to yourself in words. Sometimes images come so fast I lose my train of thought.’ Benacerraf’s highly visual brain works in business as well. She finds that she’s quite good at running her private imaging practice, a large, multipart enterprise. ‘I don’t get mired; I take in the big picture and delegate details to others. Putting together ideas that others wouldn’t think of plays out entrepreneurially in this area.’
Benacerraf has also found that discovering her gift has gone a long way toward healing some of the injuries her self-esteem suffered over so many years of feeling stupid. At the beginning, ‘I was this crazy lady who could diagnose Down syndrome in a foetus. I knew I was right, it was just a question of proving it.’ Now, she has ‘supreme confidence’. When a family member needs an important scan, she does it herself, and it brings her great pleasure to feel competent.
Carol Greider knew that she wanted to major in biology when she was a senior in high school. Whereas some dyslexics might find biology challenging because of all the naming and labelling and the extensive vocabulary, Greider turned her reading deficit into a strength in a way that is very common among dyslexics. As a child, Greider ‘couldn’t spell at all even if they sounded out the words, so I learned to memorise the whole word.’ Because of this learned compensation, ‘senior year doing anatomy in biology it was super easy for me to remember vocabulary.’
Later, in graduate school and beyond, Greider noticed that she had another heightened ability that was far more central to becoming the scientist she is today. ‘I am able to read ten complex research papers and then distil from them all the pertinent points, homing in on the key issues. That is very important for moving ahead in science. I think maybe more so than others, I can quickly see what the most interesting next question is.’ In the competitive scientific environment, many researchers are simultaneously racing toward the same discoveries, and in that race Greider sees herself as having an advantage in being able to identify the most interesting line of investigation among myriad possibilities, and then following that. Sidney and Schuyler both exhibit analytical gifts comparable to what Benacerraf and Greider depict. Even more fascinating, both girls use very similar terms to describe their love of abstract concepts. Schuyler says, ‘The more abstract the idea, the easier it comes to me.’ Unlike Greider, Schuyler finds the naming involved in biology difficult since to her it requires arbitrary word labelling and recall. However, the concepts behind those labels are highly comprehensible to her. She understands on a fundamental level what the parts of the cell are, what they do, and how they work, whether or not she can immediately retrieve the name for each part of the cell. She also finds that abstract work is easier because she’s more engaged with it. ‘If you ask me what a thing is called, I won’t know because I just don’t care enough.’ Ironically, considering the difficulty most dyslexics have with reading, English is now Schuyler’s favourite subject. ‘I might not be able to read as fast as everyone, and I may not structure my essays the way others do, but I love reading something and finding an idea through dialogue, or a theme throughout the book. There is no concrete answer to a person, no one side to a story, and that’s why I find it the most interesting.’ She acknowledges that she can’t truly know if she possesses greater than average analytical skills, but she notices in class other students – the type of students who read faster and do much better on tests – will go back repeatedly to the same idea in class. ‘But I take the idea and elaborate and create a new argument and a new idea.’ This is part of why she is so exceptionally gifted at debate (she attended a Cambridge University summer debate programme and won all the major awards). She says that she immediately sees all the pros and cons of opposing arguments. Whereas others might get stuck – or inaccurately predict the other team’s plan of attack – because they are only able to see their one side of the argument, Schuyler can see all sides. Similarly, Sidney says, ‘I do better with abstract concepts and ideas as opposed to solid things that require huge amounts of knowledge stored.’ Like Schuyler, Sidney very much enjoys debate. Sidney says, ‘Words are ways to build new ideas or thoughts. I like building off of other people’s ideas.’
Sidney shows tremendous artistic promise as well as manual dexterity. She’s gifted at drawing and painting, and once made a dress freehand out of a large bolt of cloth, with no instruction or pattern. She also loves to invent solutions for household problems – a latch or a fastener for a picture frame, for example. Schuyler, on the other hand, exhibits the kind of bird’s-eye organisational ability that Benacerraf describes. She has shown great facility for stage management, and has an exceptional ability for grasping the entirety of what a production requires, from practical elements such as sets and props, to what actors fit into which roles.
There is something else that many individuals with dyslexia share, although some of their strengths and weaknesses may differ: empathy. It’s impossible to pinpoint how much of the sensitivity evident in many people with dyslexia is rooted in having suffered with a learning disability, versus being a product of divergent thinking. But in either case, both Sidney and Schuyler exhibit great wells of empathy for others who have dealt with similar challenges. Based upon her vast clinical work with individuals, Sally Shaywitz considers ‘exceptional empathy and warmth, and feeling for others’ to be among hallmarks of people with dyslexia. Sidney is considering a career in museum exhibit design for children, and speaks in glowing terms of the rewards of working with young children and instilling in them a joy of learning. She says, ‘My goal in life is to become a better person, and part of growing up is improvement and change.’ Schuyler says that she rarely thinks of a villainous character in literature as a villain. ‘I can see what would have happened, if some traumatic event hadn’t happened. When I place them on the other path, I can see how that different set of choices might have changed the path they were on.’ She also has the ability to summon the emotions that the text elicited, which speaks directly to the issue of working versus long-term memory in people with dyslexia. She feels that her recall of the text, and her ability to put herself back into the text, is more acute than that of her nondyslexic peers. In addition, she says, ‘I have always been a good friend. I think that’s because I’m able to put myself in other people’s positions. I used to get embarrassed a lot as a kid; I think all kids probably have that. I would be mortified that I sat down weirdly or shook with the wrong hand. So I made sure that nobody felt weird around me, everyone felt as if nothing they were doing was wrong.’
While people with dyslexia might sometimes have difficulty identifying the individual trees in a forest, they are arguably better able to grasp the pattern of and interrelationships within such a complex landscape. In the case of someone like Beryl Benacerraf, her ability to detect minute changes and flaws in a big picture allows her to read what others can’t in ultrasounds. Dyslexic scientists, engineers, and astrophysicists find this ability allows them to pick out or notice deviations from patterns, giving them an advantage in their fields. This concept is also in operation more metaphorically among dyslexic entrepreneurs who report being able to see the big picture, both creatively and organisationally, thus giving them a business edge.
As much as we hate to see our children suffer, there is something to be said for the strength of character one can derive from being tested and from having to adapt to a challenging environment. Similar to the dyslexic entrepreneurs studied by Julie Logan who refused to accept failure, critically acclaimed and bestselling author John Irving insists that the roadblocks he’s faced have helped him enormously. ‘I’m more persistent. Persistent and stubborn. I have to apply myself to get anything done at all. I have to put in twice as much effort and I can’t be lazy. Problem-solving, yes. Because when I am organising my thoughts or coming up with alternative solutions, I may have to think of ten billion before I get to a good one. Like taking a photo: you might take a thousand but only ten will be good. That’s how I feel – if I think of enough different ways something will work then one eventually does. It’s become an advantage. In writing a novel, it doesn’t hurt to go slowly. It doesn’t hurt anyone as a writer to have to go over something again and again. I have the stamina to go over something again and again no matter how difficult it is – whether it is for the fourth or fifth or eighth time. This is something I would ascribe to the difficulties I had to overcome at an early age.’
Evan, a seventeen-year-old senior in a highly competitive public school in Manhattan, is confident, good-looking, athletic and immediately comes across as being self-possessed. His first memory of being behind his peers in reading occurred in second grade. The books that the children could choose to read were classified by difficulty from A to Z. Sitting next to two classmates, he noticed that the child to his right was reading letter O and the child to his left was reading X. Evan was on F. When he finished his book, the teacher sent him down to a first-grade classroom to find one that matched his reading level. The belief that he was not as smart or as fast as his classmates struck Evan very deeply in that moment. Although he wasn’t told that he was dyslexic, this difference between him and his classmates was not at all lost on him.
Evan wasn’t able to read with any degree of fluency even as recently as eighth grade. Despite that, he is now in AP (Advanced Placement) English, which is ‘tough and rigorous’. He has dysgraphia (an impairment in the ability to translate thoughts to the written word, often associated with handwriting that is difficult or impossible to decipher), so while he thinks he would do better in class if he took notes, it’s pointless – he can’t read his own handwriting. Instead he listens, and he has a remarkable capacity for taking in and remembering disparate facts and then analysing them down to their essence. He takes German, which he doesn’t enjoy, and the requirement for which he could have waived, but instead of quitting, he persists. ‘The colleges want to see a challenge.’ He speaks about his classes with no particular passion. Certainly some he likes more than others, but he doesn’t experience the joy of learning for its own sake that Schuyler and Sidney exude. For him, school is a chore to be got through, and a necessary means to the end of playing soccer for a division 1 college team, and eventually to playing professionally.
Despite his ambivalence toward school, he does very well and works tremendously hard. There doesn’t seem to be anything that Evan does that he doesn’t commit himself to fully. He’s hesitant to say for sure whether he differs from his classmates in terms of comprehension, but he has noticed that he seems to be able to absorb more than average. He also tends to go above and beyond instructions. When the other students were asked to build a robot for engineering that accomplished A, B and C, that is exactly what they did. Evan’s robot did all of those things, but then his robot ‘might do D along the way also. The others maybe took the path of just what the teacher wanted them to do.’ Evan doesn’t express strong preferences among his classes, but he does particularly warm to physics, which enables him to study seemingly abstract universal laws. ‘I feel like I’ve often thought about stuff, like the way something falls, that others haven’t thought about. And I realise now that forces apply.’ He quickly adds, ‘My grade in that class is not where I want it, but it will be.’
Evan doesn’t shy away from pursuing a singular mission. ‘I’m ambitious and competitive. I’ve always been that way. I want to show that I’m dyslexic and doing well.’ This persistence to the point of defiance is characteristic of Evan. He went to a school for students with learning differences, but found it too easy. When considering high schools, he was advised to choose a less competitive one, but instead he chose one of the top specialised high schools in Manhattan – which required excellent test scores, something that isn’t easy for any student, much less one with dyslexia. He says he chose the more academically rigorous school because he ‘didn’t want anybody telling me that I couldn’t do what everyone else could. I just set my mind to it; I’m going to do this.’
Originally, he thought of becoming a doctor – not because he loved science, but because the prestige appealed to him. It’s as if he chose the most difficult possible field in order to prove himself. Now he thinks he may go into business, because the idea of fourteen more years of school in order to become a doctor does not appeal to him. In any case, he says, much like John Irving, ‘I wouldn’t change my dyslexia because I’ve seen how I’ve been able to do well.’ And succeeding is of enormous importance to Evan. ‘If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it well.’
HOW PEOPLE WITH DYSLEXIA CAN FLOURISH
Robert Cunningham, current head of school at the Robert Louis Stevenson School in Manhattan and advisor on learning and attention issues for understood .org, feels strongly that what differentiates the high-achieving person with a learning difference from the one who does not succeed can be laid at the feet of educators. ‘Whatever clarity or caring that [successful] person was exposed to made that change. If that were available to more kids, then you would see more extraordinary success.’ He also cautions against ‘wanting every kid to be able to do everything’.
Insisting that children perform well across the board is setting up children with brain differences to fail. In addition, the demand that children progress through remedial levels prior to being able to engage with abstract concepts is dulling and discouraging to the lively dyslexic mind. Cunningham notes, ‘We get bogged down a lot in skill development and progression, and there is an intractable belief that if you don’t master X you can’t proceed to Y. In most cases that isn’t accurate. Kids whose minds would function incredibly well with more complex concepts never get to reach them. It’s possible to grasp calculus without being proficient at addition. You have to understand the concept, but performing the calculation is not necessary.’ Similarly, ‘your lack of proficiency in reading skills can stagnate language comprehension, but it doesn’t have to. If you are limited in skill development in reading, you spend all your time at the building block levels and you never get to character analysis, to complex plot points, to foreshadowing. How many of us think that a lifelong love of learning is instilled by focusing on stuff that kids hate? At some point an educator and parent have to be courageous enough to say, that [remedial skill] is no longer so important.’
For the child who is struggling with these rigid expectations, there is hope. Although work and reading loads increase, in high school and college there is more opportunity to specialise. This is what angular thinkers need – the chance to go all out into what excites them. In the meantime, parents can help by advocating for their children, creating a dialogue with teachers, and enlisting their help in figuring out ways for the child with a learning difference to shine. The problem, Cunningham points out, is that most schools teach to the middle, with a focus on the group over the individual. The child with a learning difference needs a more individual focus, if only to enable them to find the things they are good at. Cunningham often says to teachers, ‘When you use a term like “dyslexia”, what you are really talking about is a pattern in the way a kid’s brain is working, and that pattern is within a much larger context. If you step back and look at that pattern along with all the others, you tend to get a better impression of what that kid is going to latch onto and excel at. The same characteristic can be either a strength or a challenge depending on the context.’
Sally Shaywitz says, ‘I worry when schools don’t differentiate creativity and imagination from spelling and grammar. In dyslexia, higher thinking and reasoning are intact even though spelling and grammar may not be. It’s not higher-level maths, it’s memorising the times tables. What happens in dyslexia is that the numbers are stored as words, so kids with dyslexia have huge problems with multiplication or division memorisation. I don’t usually diagnose [the deceased], but I believe that Einstein was dyslexic. He did have the kinds of problems that we would think of as dyslexia.’ And of course, he was also monumentally creative. It’s helpful to have someone like Einstein – or Benacerraf, Irving and Greider – for Shaywitz to point to when she makes an initial diagnosis of dyslexia in a child. ‘One of the most important things you can do when you make a diagnosis is to sit down with the parents and the child and draw a bell-shaped curve.’ While the areas negatively impacted by dyslexia are often ‘average or perhaps slightly below average’, very often in other conceptual areas, the child is at the ninetieth percentile or more. ‘I think it’s very important for an objective outsider to say this.’
The question of accommodations and special schools for people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities is controversial. Shaywitz points out that it can be isolating and damaging to self-esteem for students to be in an environment where their intelligence is misunderstood. On the other hand, life outside of school doesn’t cater to our brain differences, and we need to learn to adapt.
There are ways that schools can do better, though, and there is no education-based reason for them not to. William DeHaven, head of school at Winston Preparatory in Manhattan, notes that at his school it’s not necessary to give children with dyslexia time and a half on tests, because the tests are structured with the students in mind. Robert Cunningham also questions the more-is-more approach to testing. He argues that schools offer extra time on tests to students with learning differences because ‘it’s easy. It’s much trickier to reduce the number of expressions. How many times does a kid need to do the same thing before I am ready to say that I am convinced? Am I more convinced by forty-six problems than four? No, I’m not. Either you can do it or you can’t.’ He adds, ‘There is still a large percentage of the population that believes that “learning disability” is a fancy way of saying lazy or stupid.’ This impacts how teachers speak to students. ‘With language processing, most teachers just talk more at the student,’ which is analogous to ‘speaking more loudly at someone who speaks another language.’ Instead, particularly with younger and newly diagnosed students, it’s important to communicate information in ‘smaller chunks. Pause longer. Add visuals’.
Most people with dyslexia do take much longer to read, and therefore offering children with learning disabilities more time on tests that require reading is an important accommodation. However, it’s not a blanket cure for what ails the testing system. Schuyler says that extra time on tests is not necessarily a help to her. Compared to classmates with attention issues, ‘I’m very different from them. It’s not about my attention. I have difficulty focusing on small, minute details, because I think about the big picture. The bigger the idea, the more it devours in our world, the more intrigued I am by it. If something is a small speck in a book, I’m not going to find that as interesting as a chain that goes throughout a book. No matter how small the idea, no idea is isolated. There is no such thing as something without associations. I want to understand the world and how everything connects to everything else. From city to country to continent to world.’
Some parents, educators and even employers worry that the accommodations offered to students have become excessive, and that we are bringing up a generation of students who won’t be able to perform under time pressure – or who aren’t suited to fields that expect it – but Shaywitz dismisses that concern. ‘It’s not the thinking or knowing’ that’s a problem for dyslexics, ‘it’s the reading. When people say, “I would never want to be brought into an ER where there are dyslexic doctors,” my response is that if you have a heart attack and you’re brought in not breathing and your doctor has to go read about your symptoms, then you’re dead. If your doctor knows what to do and can react quickly, you’re going to be OK.’ She works with a dyslexic paediatrician who says, ‘I can’t read quickly, but I can think quickly.’ With dyslexia, it’s important to disassociate reading and thinking. At the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, Shaywitz and her colleagues did a study of Yale graduates five or more years after graduation, half of whom were dyslexic. ‘We asked the alums about their experiences at Yale and currently, in the workplace, and they were doing fantastically well. Many of those who were dyslexic said it made them look at things more carefully and gave them more perseverance.'
Shaywitz offers multiple examples of high-functioning people in jobs that require monumental amounts of reading who also have dyslexia. One high-powered attorney told her, ‘I read slowly but I get so much out of it, and I am ahead of others who read faster but understand less.’ Another attorney she spoke with, a partner in a law firm, doesn’t charge for the extra time it takes her to read. Both are, according to Shaywitz, ‘highly sought after because they are so brilliant in their thinking. I always say there are very few things people with dyslexia can’t do, but they wouldn’t make good file clerks.’
It’s not uncommon that the most distinguished physicians and scholars in their fields make appointments to visit Shaywitz in her office at Yale. ‘It’s always the same scenario. They will set up a time and my secretary will make sure there is a box of tissues.’ Within a few minutes of arriving, the visitor will say, ‘You probably never heard this before, but I can’t read well.’ Once Shaywitz received a call from a highly regarded business mogul and philanthropist, whom she assumed was contacting her about one of her grandchildren. In fact, her questions were about herself. She was about to receive an important appointment with enormous responsibility attached, and she feared that her dyslexia might be an impediment. She was genuinely fearful that she might embarrass herself. Shaywitz and her colleagues evaluated her using their standard measures and she turned out to be both highly intelligent and highly dyslexic. When they told her the news, which Shaywitz intended to be reassuring to her – that is, proof that she was certainly smart enough to handle the job – she was initially unwilling to be reassured. She said, ‘You gave me one of those dumbed-down tests. We give those tests to prospective employees to see who’s most able.’ Shaywitz told her it was ironic that she was unwittingly weeding out job applicants who had the same qualities of genius that she possessed.
Since self-doubt and some degree of self-loathing commonly occur in people who are diagnosed with a learning difference, it is all the more remarkable that so many people who experience those differences say they wouldn’t want to rid themselves of their dyslexia. Schuyler says, ‘I find that my inability to read will not hinder me in my future.’ Moreover, she believes the gifts that come with her dyslexia are far greater than the challenges. ‘Dyslexia is such a huge part of me, not just a factor of me. You can’t isolate it from the rest of me. All of my interactions are based on my mind, and if you take a part of me away you’ll take me away little by little.’
Beryl Benacerraf, who struggled so painfully with shame prior to discovering her gift, says that she wouldn’t trade her dyslexia. ‘I don’t know if I hadn’t had dyslexia if I’d have done something important in another area. I was dealt a deck of cards, and I did my best with it.’ And to others with dyslexia, parents, and educators, she has this advice: ‘I think they have to realise how the mind works. That you can’t just hit your head against a wall and try to make yourself do what you can’t do, and put a square peg into a round hole.’
For Benacerraf and Greider, as well as for Sidney, Schuyler and Evan, the answer to living and succeeding with dyslexia isn’t to read faster or to fit in better. It’s to find their own path, their own way of expressing their brilliance. Each of us can do the same – and can help make it possible for our children to see their own angular brains as endlessly fascinating terrain, full of potential to be explored.
- A Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at The New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, Dr Gail Saltz is a psychoanalyst, columnist, bestselling author, television commentator, and contributing editor for Health magazine. Her book 'The Power of Different' published by Little, Brown Book Group (on the Robinson imprint) is available now. This extract is reproduced with kind permission.
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