The Gift of Dyslexia

Think that dyslexia is all bad? Think again. Individuals with dyslexia use their brain differently and therefore have incredible gifts and abilities. Some of the world’s most successful and intelligent people are dyslexic–and their success is due to dyslexia not in spite of it!

Dr. Sally Shaywitz at Yale University concluded that dyslexia is completely unrelated to intelligence. In fact, she reports that many individuals with dyslexia have above average IQ’s. This may be due in part to the dyslexic individual needing to rely on alternate ways of interpreting and navigating the world and information as well as them utilizing their brain differently than typical readers.

Dr. Shaywitz  found that the brain’s inability to decode symbols connected to sound parcels–or phonemes–is not related to IQ. While some individuals may have dyslexia as well as another cognitive disorder that affects their reasoning and intellect, dyslexia in itself is completely unrelated to intellect.

It has been noted for some time that dyslexic children are right-brain dominant. This can happen for various reasons–simply because they are ‘wired’ this way or because of our modern lifestyle which has illicited profound changes to our children’s neurology. Neurologist, Dr. Robert Melillo explains in his book Disconnected Kids, that a major factor in childhood brain disorders is because the two hemispheres in the brain are not working together. Children may have over or underdeveloped left or right hemispheres which results in a whole array of disorders depending on which hemispheres is ruling the roost.

An over-developed right brain or under-developed left brain can be both a gift and a hindrance. The good news is that the brain can be re-trained so that an under-developed hemisphere can work more optimally thus allowing the two hemispheres to work together. The overdevelopment of one hemisphere and underdevelopment of another is the same reason for the baffling phenomenon of severely autistic children who possess a giftedness–even genius, in a particular area while daily or other basic skills remain impossible.

In The Gift of DyslexiaRon Davis, a thriving dyslexic, explains that dyslexic individuals think in images and symbols rather than their thoughts being processed in a linear, verbal manner as non-dyslexics do. Their brain has a unique ability to “alter and create perception” and they experience the world in a multi-sensory and multi-dimensional world. Their right-brained dominance allows them to see the whole picture rather than the details and this allows them to make associative connections and possess intuitive reasoning.

Their prime ability in all of this is disorientation which makes them highly imaginative, creative as well as have intuitive reasoning. In many life situations this can allow them to excel, particularly in hands-on learning and tasks as well as in the arts. As a teacher of twelve years, this comes as no surprise as I have seen countless ‘learning disabled’ and ‘dyslexic’ children who have an incredible ability with hands-on tasks like understanding how electronics work, repairing automotives and effortlessly being able to engineer and construct everything from small engines (for their dirt bikes and dune buggies!) to incredible woodwork–and then of course there is Albert Einstein. I have also seen these same students thrive in visual arts, drama, music and dancing because of their ability to tune in and experience the world multi-dimensionally. I know more than a few dyslexic adults who are millwrights, graphic designers and even engineers.

Disorientation can be compared to how our brain plays tricks when we are parked and a car backs up and it feels like our stationary car is moving instead of the other vehicle. The ability to disorient is in fact a thinking style that is also now being recognized as one of the underlying differences among children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, ADD as well as other learning type differences.

Disorientation allows one to view and experience the world from different angles, experiences and perspectives. In the right conditions and situations, this can cause them to excel, but in other instances this can be a hindrance. This makes them highly visual and often empathetic which enables them to excel in problem-solving, creativity, innovation and engineering.

In an education system in which the majority of learning is literacy based most dyslexic individuals experience one failure after another with learning. They come to believe that they have a ‘learning disability’ when in fact they often have an exceptional ability to learn because they are more in tune and aware of the various aspects of their environment. Reading (or even math) becomes overwhelming because many words don’t produce a mental picture such as ‘the’ and ‘for’. Trigger words are abstract words for which there is no mental picture.

When these individuals encounter a challenge or confusion, their default is to disorient in order to problem solve. Perhaps this is what led Einstein, who often claimed his imagination was his intelligence, to discover the theory of relativity.

Disorientation can be highly effective in real-life situations to problem solve. Unfortunately, with reading, it can lead to further disorientation of the senses and can result in various forms of perception becoming compromised such as vision, hearing, balance and timing.

One individual who disorients may be a ‘traditional dyslexic’ in that their hearing or vision may become distorted and therefore affect their ability to decode the written word, while another may have distorted timing and balance which can present as struggles in math, known as dyscalculia. Disorientation is not something the dyslexic individual is continuously experiencing but rather comes and goes.

Disorientation accounts for:

-What is known as ‘good-days’ and ‘bad-days’ among dyslexics

-Poor co-ordination a common symptom of dyslexia, but that also comes and goes with disorientation. This is why dyspraxia and dysgraphia so often accompany dyslexia.

People whose thinking style is verbal have a speed of 150 words per minute. Individuals who think in images process thoughts more rapidly and holistically as opposed to in linear and a sequenced manner. Their thoughts come faster than the words on the page which can also cause disorientation. They also become disorientated as they try to take in the whole of the word or even a paragraph all at once instead of the parts. This can also trigger disorientation and for words to blur, move and even disappear.

In addition, reading and writing is typically a process that is very linear and involves sequencing  both in the decoding of words as well as the comprehension of a story. Dyslexics become disorientated when reading words because they read the whole word at once instead of simply parts. As a result they read parts of the word–often the beginning and/or end. This relates to the findings of Dr. Sally Shaywitz that dyslexics possess a phonemic deficit which prevents them from being able to break down words into phonemes–the smallest sound units which make up language.

Dr. Shaywitz asserts in her book, Overcoming Dyslexia, that a phonemic deficit has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. In her many years of working as a researcher at Yale University, she has encountered countless dyslexic adults who are highly successful as doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists. They learned to cope with their dyslexia through long hours of laborious reading both as university students and professionals by reading based on the context of other words they are able to decipher.

This is a habit that many a parent and teacher has expressed concern over when reading with their dyslexic child. The child guesses a word that is completely different from the word on the page, leaving the parent wondering how they even came to arrive at such an ‘interpretation’. This  can occur due to them disorientating and using context instead of decoding the word itself.

Another factor is that the parieto and occipito area of the brain in individuals with dyslexia is underdeveloped–where typical readers decode and interpret text from. Since dyslexics instead rely on Broca’s area of the brain to read–the task of reading becomes laborious if not impossible. The intensity and experience of dyslexia is different for each individual as various factors such as the degree of imbalance between the two hemispheres and functioning of the visual and auditory senses all come into play. Fortunately, various forms of brain training such as the Cellfield Reading Program and brain integration therapy can be effective at retraining the brain to read from a more functional area of the brain.

One can easily see why dyslexia–an isolated challenge in decoding written words can display as a learning disability because standard classroom learning is mainly literacy based. Dyslexic individuals often have learning gaps because their inability to read prevents them from being able to acquire and improve new skills that are dependent on being able to read. Many a dyslexic child has learned to adapt and acquire their learning therefore by relying on environmental cues, context, as well as oral communication and instruction in order to learn and navigate their experiences in school.

I am often amazed at the incredible memory that many of my dyslexic students possess as well as their ability to problem-solve, think critically and come to insightful realizations. Essentially, their deficit results in the advantage of them experiencing the world differently than their non-dyslexic peers and colleagues. The ability to view the world differently may account for the reason why so many successful, innovative individuals are in fact dyslexic. Their success may not have occurred in spite of their dyslexia but because of it!


Overcoming Dyslexia by Dr. Sally Shaywitz

Disconnected Kids by Dr. Robert Melillo

Reversing Dyslexia: Your Guide to Helping Children Recover Self-Esteem, Retrain Their Brains & Recla im Their Ability to Learn by Phyllis Books

The Gift of Dyslexia, by  by Ronald D. Davis, Eldon M. Braun