This week is dyslexia awareness week. It has been edifying reading other people’s stories about their dyslexic journey.
I hope that my personal story will also support others, different accounts help us to accept who we are by seeing that many people have similar issues.
I couldn’t read fluently until I was ten. Without being able to read, pretty much everything at school is inaccessible. Fortunately, I was incredibly lucky that my sister who was ten years older than me was training to be a primary school teacher, she realised that I couldn’t read. Being the youngest of five and quite gregarious, I’d just been muddling along, my issues having gone unnoticed until then.
Every day that summer, she sat with me and showed me how to sound out words, splitting larger ones into syllables. I remember us reading alternate lines, then, after a while I could read a page at a time without it sounding stilted. By the end of the summer I could read fluently and I had read the whole Enid Blyton Secret Seven series. I remember going back to school and thinking OMG I can do this. It was like walking into sunshine. When we had the first set of exams, my results had improved so much, I was accused of cheating. I remember standing in front of a teacher feeling very confused as she questioned me, it was only years later that I understood the reason why.
I still had a lot of catching up to do but continued to improve. Even though I had no idea I was dyslexic or even what dyslexia was, I learnt to use certain coping strategies. I loved history, but knew not to take it to exam level, there were just too many facts to learn. I did well at science, because it was mostly working out, but art was my first love. ‘A’ level art was a bit of a disaster though because we had to write an art history essay.
I finally discovered I’m dyslexic (in my thirties) having been a qualified Design and Technology teacher for a few years. Learning about dyslexia on a teacher training day created a huge lightbulb moment, it explained so much. Not long after, I wrote and published a children’s book. I visited primary schools to read the story and to talk about how the book was created. I loved seeing the looks on the children’s faces when I explained I was dyslexic, how much I had struggled at school and that I couldn’t read until I was ten. I also loved any follow up conversations with teachers saying how much it had positively influenced their class.
However, it wasn’t until I was forty-seven that I realised that all the skills I am proud of are also because of being dyslexic. A headline in the Times grabbed my attention, “If you have a dyslexic child, you really are lucky.” It outlined all the skills dyslexics have and showed a variety of famous successful dyslexics. My outlook was changed, and I began sharing my dyslexia even more. If I could help just one person, it was worth it.
Being able to understand ourselves definitely makes life easier, I often used to chastise myself for being rubbish at certain simple task which others do with ease. Whereas, now I have more understanding and acceptance, I put mechanisms in place to ensure I don’t get caught out, because I hate feeling stupid.
Dyslexics are known to have a poor working memory. Absolutely, I have a terrible short-term memory. In fact, I once listened to the dementia test my aunt was having and thought there and then, I would have failed it! Acceptance of this is important, I now know not to say to myself “I’ll remember that, there’s not much information,” because it’s just not true. If there’s repetition of a task, I do get much better, but I hate change, because I then must learn the process all over again and it does take me longer than ‘normal’.
Technology has been such a boon, not just with writing, although I remember as a teacher having to write school reports by hand and found it so difficult to complete a full paragraph without swapping letters or even words around. I used to end up with a pile of screwed up paper on the floor next to me, it was so frustrating.
Being able to carry a calendar, an alarm reminder, the ability to write lists or even take a photograph of something as an aide-memoire is awesome. Mobile phones are an essential tool for dyslexics. It is an amazing de-stressor too, if I know I need to do something at 2pm, I set an alarm, so I don’t worry I’ll forget. If I need to go out at 3pm, again I set an alarm for 15 minutes before, then if I get distracted, the alarm reminds me to get ready to go out.
As a child it was drummed into me that spelling and grammar were important, this has stayed with me and I proof-read everything and if someone else is available, I ask them to look at it too.
Spell checkers are essential, however, other dyslexics will sympathise here, I often confuse a spell checker! If the second or third letter isn’t correct, it can’t cope. I have two solutions for this, I either Google words, for some reason Google understands me better or I spend a few minutes substituting letters until the squiggly line disappears. At this point I can be heard muttering under my breath, stupid way to spell it, hate the English language.
I also love a Thesaurus, it’s not that I have a limited vocabulary, I know a wide variety of words, it’s just that I can’t remember them when I’m writing. Often it can take me quite a while to find the word I want, but my determination won’t let me settle for second best. Due to my struggles at school, I think I am trying to continually to prove to everyone (including myself) that I can do something well.
Another issue I have is that I’m very easily distracted (another dyslexic trait). My husband often says, “you’ve been shinied again.” I currently work as an artist and designer, some of my work takes a long time and I need to remain focussed for hours at a time. It took me a while to realise that I work much better with a good TV series playing while I’m painting or drawing to distract the part of my brain which gets distracted! Bizarre, I know. This doesn’t quite work if I’m writing, when music works better or a home improvement or design show which I can dip in and out of. I can’t work in silence, it’s too deafening.
So far I have focused on how to deal with the negatives, to make life easier. But what are the skills dyslexics have? Creativity is at my core, I couldn’t live without drawing and designing. If I see a problem with the design of something my brain automatically goes into solve-it mode, I can’t help it. I run through the issue again and again creating systems or an idea of a product which I develop into a solution. Sometimes I’ll make a prototype, other times it will remain just an idea. Dyslexics can also foresee problems with an idea or product before it comes into use. It feels natural to be able to work through a series of scenarios visualising possible problems before they even occur. There are other skills, but these are the ones which mean a lot to me.
We need to keep the conversation going about dyslexia so that future generations don’t struggle the same way we have. I remember listening to people saying that dyslexia didn’t exist and that it was just an excuse, an excuse for what I’m not sure. At least we have progressed from there, but there is still a way to go.
We need to establish that there are a myriad of different brain wirings which make somethings easy for particular people to learn, but are hugely problematic for others.
We also need to encourage dyslexics to focus on their strengths and teach them to implement procedures to lessen the impact of the disheartening disadvantages. Our education curriculum needs overhauling, not just for dyslexics, but for so many other reasons. Any changes would benefit all children, thankfully there are lots of wonderful people who are campaigning to transform things for the better.
NB It has taken me quite a while to write this, with the help of a spell checker, Google and a Thesaurus, if you haven’t gathered, I do love words. There have been times I have felt very frustrated with certain aspects of being dyslexic, however, the positives totally out-weigh the negatives. I am proud of what I have achieved, especially recently getting articles published as writing has been my bete noire. I do see dyslexia as a superpower because of the problem solving and design skills which are uncommon and extremely useful.