Reflections, Insights, Confessions, and Inspiration on Dyslexia and Talent

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Dr. Dan Peters

Dr. Dan Peters

This article first appeared on the Dyslexic Advantage website, a charitable organization founded by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, and dedicated to helping those with dyslexia thrive.

By Dan Peters, PhD

Sitting at the New York/Newark airport, I feel compelled to write. Something my mother and most of my teachers would have never thought I would feel “compelled” to do. Part of the reason is that I don’t need to “write” anymore – I can type or talk my words. But the main reason I feel compelled is to get my thoughts down, sort through them, and share them with those I work with, care for, and anybody else who will be impacted by, or impact another, by what I have to say is because of the weekend I just experienced.

I came to Connecticut for the first annual Dyslexia and Talent Conference inspired and created by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, and supported by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. For those of you who work in the field of dyslexia or have a child with dyslexia, you may know of the groundbreaking and paradigm shifting work of Brock and Fernette. Capitalizing on the important work of pioneers in the field (many in attendance), Brock and Fernette started a movement of re-framing and re-visioning the conceptualization of dyslexia as solely a “deficit” in reading and writing, to a more complete understanding of the overall processing or brain patterns of the dyslexic brain, which happens to have many strengths in addition to its “deficits.”

Presenters and attendees included scientists from the fields of neuroscience, astrophysics, psychiatry, and paleontology. There were physicians, psychologists, professors, educators, filmmakers, administrators, CEOs, inventors, philanthropists, School Heads, business consultants, writers, and a naturalist. Among the group were very successful entrepreneurs, a Pulitzer Prize poet, best selling authors, and an Academy Award filmmaker. There were parents of dyslexic children, young and old, also in attendance. Many of the attendees occupied more than one of the aforementioned professions and roles.

The purpose of this conference was to bring together entrepreneurs, scientists, professors, educators, practitioners, technology and consulting companies, and advocacy organizations that are stakeholders in the game of dyslexia. While I was aware of the goal of the conference and the professions who would be attending, I hadn’t realized that a vast majority of these people would be dyslexic individuals themselves. This small, and yet very significant fact, seemed to allow for an experience that most attendees did not seem to anticipate, and will never forget.

In The Dyslexic Advantage, the Eides identified “MIND” strengths, which stand for Material Reasoning, Interconnected Reasoning, Narrative Reasoning, and Dynamic Reasoning. In short, the dyslexic mind seems to be very good at 3-D and visual-spatial conceptualizing and problem-solving (Material); Connecting vast and divergent amounts of concepts and ideas (Interconnected); Connecting events and telling stories (Narrative); and predicting or “seeing” future outcomes from current situations (Dynamic).

Research was presented that showed the dyslexic brain structure has more variable and diffuse patterns of connectivity than non-dyslexic brains, and increased grey matter volume and activation. While dyslexics are slower readers, they are faster at identifying certain 3D spatial relations. One leading researcher said that individuals seemed to show strengths because of dyslexia not in spite it. He went on to say, “It is not hard for dyslexics to think outside of the box because they have never been in the box.”
Another researcher shared his research that showed that dyslexics had superior abilities in “spatial abnormalities” or locating things that are out of place. Dyslexics are also better at seeing “incidental images” or things that one is not anticipating seeing. A hypothesis he has is whether reading competes with visual skills, as better readers seem to have less developed visual skills than poor readers.
A well-known professor and museum curator reminded us of a famous quote, which says, “The industrial revolution came not from schools, but from workshops.” He highlighted the need to get dyslexics involved in learning through doing, rather than listening and memorizing. A dyslexic executive of a billion dollar company stated that her dyslexia allowed her to solve problems, build teams, and multitask – all integral in her career success.

An inspirational professor and cinematographer talked about the core strengths he observed in dyslexics – empathy, pattern awareness, and intuitive narrative. He passionately talked about dyslexics deep awareness of others and reading of subtle cues. He stated that dyslexics seem to be able to create patterns, which give rise to pathways, and “birth to our experiences.”

A professor who has extensively studied entrepreneurs found that dyslexics run more companies, manage more people, and use more intuition than non-dyslexics. A very successful dyslexic entrepreneur and CEO stated that he “instantly sees the big picture.” He spends most of his time thinking, “What’s next?” Another successful dyslexic, entrepreneur and CEO talked about the importance of the phrase “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” in describing the dedication and persistence it takes a dyslexic to endure, compete, and survive school. He noted that after school, running and growing a business was easy.

A Pulitzer Prize winning poet stated “the dyslexia that created the honor of me getting an award, also created the anxiety that I didn’t belong” and described his anxiety as an “old feeling.” He felt dyslexia allowed him the ability to “turn things inside out and shift perspectives” which allowed him to create his poetry.

A best selling novelist and physician stated that his dyslexia allowed him to “tell stories with the truth.” He also stated that after winning several academic awards he was “terrified I didn’t belong.”
A panel of Heads of dyslexia school highlighted the necessity for finding a dyslexic child’s talent area. While they seemed to have different methods – some more or less formal than others, all felt this was the pathway to a dyslexic child’s returned self-confidence and their future success.

Those who spoke to the group, and during smaller conversations throughout the weekend, had similar themes and experiences. Dyslexic people had strengths in seeing the “big picture,” just knowing things, “connecting the dots,” strong visual-spatial skills,” “out-side the box thinking,” and strong “story tellers.” Common weaknesses, on the other hand, included poor reading, spelling, and writing; slow processing, disorganization, and word finding challenges. The aforementioned are no surprise to any who work in the dyslexic field or know dyslexic people.

However, another less talked about and less known theme emerged – one of shame, guilt, and anxiety. I was surrounded by highly successful and accomplished people who described, regardless of how old there were or what they accomplished, they still felt these emotions very intimately. These feelings were created and informed by feeling “stupid” and “not belonging” due to past experiences in school (being put in the low reading group, pulled out of class, or placed in the back of the room) and being called names that attacked their intelligence and “soul.” In a small group discussion, one young and mostly retired entrepreneur stated that he found it odd that many of the dyslexics he knew that were successful flew around in their own jets and still felt like they needed to hide their dyslexia, feeling embarrassed and shame in the inability to read and write well.

Another very important theme emerged as each speaker presented and smaller conversations ensued. These highly accomplished people continually talked about experiencing something they rarely, or never felt before – a sense of community, being able to be who they are, and actually feeling good about being dyslexic. They always knew what they were good at, but were often hiding their weaknesses and just trying to survive in school. Here, as Brock pointed out, people were finding their “tribe.”

I attended this conference as a licensed psychologist and center director who evaluates many dyslexic children. Our goal is to educate parents, and the children themselves, about their child’s learning strengths and weaknesses, and how to work with their child’s school to maximize their child’s strengths, while obtaining accommodations in the classroom to help their child succeed and be successful. I was drawn to the field of twice-exceptionality (those who have advanced cognitive ability AND a learning or processing challenge like dyslexia, ADHD, dysgraphia, and others) because this subfield focuses on maximizing ones abilities and talents, while finding creative solutions for accommodation and intervention. This is what the Eide’s wrote about in The Dyslexic Advantage, which is what drew me to them and their conceptualization too.

I also attended this conference because I have three children, all who have dyslexia. My wife and I have had a steep learning curve (although I was a professional who worked in this area) in learning about the real life challenges of sending bright and creative children to school and getting back frustrated, irritable, and emotional children who lack confidence and feel “less than.” We understand what it is like to tell our child’s teacher that something is wrong with our child’s learning and it falling on deaf ears, what it feels like to sit in an IEP meeting and not be listened to (even though I am a professional who has advocated for families in hundreds of IEP meetings) while a plan was being made for our child, without anyone really knowing our child’s strengths, and a plan we knew would not be that helpful. We know what it is like to wonder and stress about how we are going to pay for all the needed intervention, and whether our child will be able to stay “mainstreamed” and still “qualify” for services when they meet “grade expectations.”

What I didn’t realize was that I was also attending this conference for myself. Very few close to me know, and those who work with me now do, that I found out I was dyslexic and dysgraphic a few years ago. Our wonderful dyslexic specialist filled my wife in about this when telling us that our third child was dyslexic too. Understanding the strength and weakness profile of the dyslexic, and knowing a bit about me, she basically said in a nice way, “Duh?” I was initially stunned. Me, dyslexic? How could it be? I can read (slowly) and I can write (but nobody can read it and I write the same word twice and leave out words in sentences). Then slowly things started to make more sense for me. I always hated to read (until I found my interest area of psychology in college). I always hated to write (until I learned to type and write about things that interested me). I am sure my mother remembers me crying when having to do long reports and sitting patiently with me and writing out flashcards of my ideas. I was always slow to finish class work and felt nervous that I wouldn’t have time to finish tests. Is that why I never liked math and always had tutors? I just always felt I was “average.” I worked hard to get mostly B’s (until I excelled in graduate school) and got average SAT and GRE scores. I just felt that all my friends were smarter than I was.

I sat and listened to one accomplished speaker after another and started to put the dots together. I was good at understanding and getting to the big picture, connecting people and ideas, understanding people and anticipating outcomes (especially when working with people, families, and programs). I was (and am) not that good at reading (my wife reads in bed while I think in bed), writing, or reading spreadsheets (I really can’t make sense of them). But then something else happened that I didn’t expect while my colleagues and “tribe” were talking about their bad experiences in, and related to school. I had flashes of having to stay in at recess and write “in the lines” and “more neatly” over and over. I felt embarrassed and shame while my friends played soccer and kickball. I was told to stop “rushing through” my work and pay more attention to the details.

I remembered being called on at the beginning of 5th grade to do a long division problem on the board in front of the class (something we had learned in 4th grade). I stood at the board with no idea or memory of how to do it even though I remembered doing it the previous year. I actually thought I was going to be okay until I picked up the chalk. I was panicking and embarrassed.

Then I had a vivid memory that I hadn’t had in a long time. I was in third grade and we had to do an oral report on a chapter book we checked out from the library. I now realize why I hated “chapter books.” They didn’t have any pictures. I checked out a book called something like “My Robot Buddy” because I liked the cover and the concept seemed interesting. I kept putting off reading it because, of course, I hated to read. I couldn’t explain why I hated to read, and I still can’t explain why I often don’t seek it out. The day of my oral report came closer and closer and my anxiety (I didn’t know what the feeling was) increased. I realized I had avoided reading so long that I no longer had enough time to read the book prior to my oral report. The day came and it was my turn. I was supposed to give an oral report on a book I didn’t read. I walked up to the front of the class having no idea what I would do. I guess dyslexics are good at improvising because I proceeded to make up the entire book while speaking in front of my class (while praying to myself that nobody had read it and would shout out that I clearly didn’t read it.) Well, nobody did and I remember getting a good grade. Classmates told me they wanted to read the book because it sounded so interesting. Phew! I pulled it off – until somebody would read it. I didn’t get embarrassed in the moment, but was still left guilt and shame since I was really a rule-follower at heart. Sorry, Mrs. Dodson. Fast forward to college, the panic I felt looking for anyone who would give me a research paper I could turn in. And worse, buying a research paper from a company that I was thrilled existed then spending more time in the library looking up all the resources and citations to make sure they were accurate so I wouldn’t get caught. I felt anxiety throughout the quarter until I could move on to the next one.

So yes, I am one of them. Since I tend to be a high purpose individual, my connection to this field as a professional, parent, and individual deepened further this weekend. I felt, and feel, compelled to spread the word, help the conversation evolve, and be a part of the “movement” that has been started in changing the paradigm of dyslexia to incorporate the positive side – the strengths and talents of the dyslexic brain and person that are responsible for coming up with our most beautiful architecture, most significant inventions, and our most important discoveries. However, there is a lot of work to do. As in most things in life that are worth anything, the issues, opinions, and ideas are numerous and complex. Here are some main issues this group grappled with and will continue to:

  • Is dyslexia a “disability” or a “difference?”
  • How do we obtain accommodations through special education law if we do not identify the deficit or give a diagnosis?
  • How much of the child’s curriculum and experience should be strength-based versus intervention and accommodation driven?
  • If we focus too much on the strengths, when will they learn to read and write (well enough)?
  • How do we identify a child’s talent? When we do, how should it be nurtured and developed?
  • How do we get information and training to teachers who teach the 20% of the population who is dyslexic?
  • How do we educate parents about the signs of dyslexia so they know what to look for in their children?
  • How do we fix a school system where 68% of our nation’s children do not read proficiently by 3rd grade?
  • How do we fix our school system where kids who read “at grade level” which may be considered at the 12th percentile as seen as doing fine?
  • How do we infuse art, science, and creativity – the strength of the dyslexic, back into school?
  • How do we coordinate the advocacy efforts of all of the organizations that are trying to raise awareness, implement programs, and change policy?
  • Should we broaden the conversation and join forces with other LD (Learning Disorder) organizations like autism, ADHD, and others?
  • How do we create change for our children today, rather than having to wait for tomorrow (or another 50 years)?
  • Yes, the questions are many and complex. And I am sure I left out several that were discussed as well. I have good news however. There is increased awareness of dyslexia and the paradigm is shifting to one that values the abilities and talents that dyslexics possess. Dyslexic entrepreneurs who succeeded because of their dyslexia are raising money and using their business and leadership skills to create change. Advocacy groups are growing by the week, and many powered by parents. Improved technology continues to provide an avenue for dyslexic children to read, write, keep up, and do well in school. People, like those of us at the conference, are starting to feel good about being dyslexic and want to talk about it rather than hide it.

    I must also mention the other critical people at the conference and in our lives, the non-dyslexics. They, we all agreed, are essential for partnering with us to take all of the ideas, put them into action and see them through. The non-dyslexics are just as important in all of our endeavors – whether it be raising our children or organizing and managing all the details. Their skills sets too are responsible for all of the inventions, creations, and discoveries. My wife is the first and last reader of everything I write. The non-dyslexics are critical to our lives and the lives of our dyslexic children.

    I witnessed a force and energy this weekend unlike any I have experienced. There is a momentum building that combines the talents of scientists, entrepreneurs, practitioners, professionals, organizations, and parents. These people are passionate, committed, and creative. The train has left the station and is picking up speed. Complex problems call for complex solutions. It will not be easy, will take a lot of persistence and determination, and will be faced with doubt and scrutiny. It is a good thing we have dyslexics on our team.

    Dan Peters, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Summit Center, specializing in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families with special emphasis on gifted, twice-exceptional, talented, and creative individuals and families. Dr. Peters speaks regularly at state and national conferences on a variety of gifted, learning, and parenting topics, and trains teachers and parents about understanding, teaching, and raising children to be engaged in the classroom, home, and in life. His professional interests include the diagnosis and misdiagnosis of gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) individuals, helping individuals tame the “Worry Monster”, and maximizing one’s developmental potential. Dr. Peters is co-author (with Dr. Susan Daniels) of Raising Creative Kids.