Excerpt Sunday Times 26 September 2011
Dyslexic children may have a mind advantage
A new book claims that dyslexia can change the brain for the better, Alice Thomson investigates
Dyslexia was the first long word that I learnt. “My mother is a dyslexic teacher.” I knew more about it at 11 than I knew about Ancient Egypt or even Scooby-Doo.
Dyslexics were always sitting at our kitchen table when I came home from school. There were dustmen who couldn’t read road signs, plumbers who had learnt their trade without ever resorting to a manual and chefs who had been flummoxed by French. There was minor royalty and there were the children of Greek shipping magnates. Distraught parents would call because their offspring couldn’t decipher the 26 characters of the alphabet. I would reassure them that one in ten children was dyslexic, more boys than girls, that there was a genetic link, being left-handed could be an indicator and that life wasn’t all about reversing your ps and qs.
I had, by 11, learnt to reel off the successful dyslexics — Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Agatha Christie, Leonardo da Vinci, W. B. Yeats, Michael Heseltine, Richard Branson. I would end by saying that they were very lucky to have a dyslexic child because they were obviously special. But I was never quite sure why.
Now two American neuro-academics, Brock and Fernette Eide, have written The Dyslexic Advantage, a book about why, against the odds, so many dyslexics excel. At 10 they may be the despair of their frustrated parents, but by 50 often they have distinguished themselves in their chosen fields. This book is different because it isn’t trying to teach dyslexic children to read or to write — it doesn’t even mention phonics — but it shows how their brains are wired differently and how they can take advantage of their dyslexic minds.
My mother first became obsessed by dyslexia when she volunteered to work in a borstal near our house and discovered that most of the boys couldn’t read or write. Of course they were going to bunk off school and cause trouble if they couldn’t decipher the words on the blackboard and were told that they were stupid, she said. “Miss, he called me an illiterate c**t, and no one will tell me what illiterate means,” her first pupil told her. It became her mission to teach them to read a newspaper, and my sister and I were encouraged to become their penpals. One wrote to me recently after 30 years. He is now a successful landscape gardener, though he still finds the Latin spellings of plants tricky.
My middle brother, Ben, is another high-achieving dyslexic. He read astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, was the chief executive of a bank and is now chairman of the National Galleries of Scotland, yet at his West London state school they thought that he was dim and difficult. As a journalist, I am astonished by the number of successful dyslexics that I have interviewed over the years — actors, politicians, scientists — who communicate with words even though they can still struggle with those harsh squiggles and dots that make up alphabet spaghetti.
Ah, but dyslexia doesn’t exist, it’s just a middle-class label — or is it labul? Of course it does, across all backgrounds, just in varying degrees. Some children’s minds are constructed differently, and that should be exciting rather than horrifying. These brains find the complex English language particularly frustrating. Why should the words “suffer” and “celebrate” start differently? The Dyslexic Advantage shows you how to celebrate rather than suffer from your dyslexia. Children don’t need to sit at the back of the class, panicking; they can learn to excel. The book shows that the percentage of dyslexic engineers, artists, computer designers, architects, inventors, film producers, actors and entrepreneurs is more than twice the percentage of dyslexics in the population. There are also a disproportionate number who are pilots, carpenters, orthodontists, geologists, radiologists and sculptors.
Dyslexia was first described in 1896 by W. Pringle Morgan, a British ophthalmologist, who wrote about a 14-year-old boy called Percy “who could only read and spell at the most basic level, even though his schoolmasters believed he was the smartest lad in the school”. Now with more than 100 years of records on dyslexia, the authors believe that it is possible to recognise a pattern and that dyslexia may be more of an ability than a disability. These dyslexics aren’t achieving despite their dyslexia, but because of it.
Many dyslexics that they tested tended to have excellent three-dimensional spatial reasoning and mechanical ability. They were likely to perceive relationships through analogies, metaphors, paradoxes, similarities, differences, implications, gaps and imbalances. They thought in pictures and stories rather than words or numbers. They remembered important personal experiences and understood abstract information in terms of specific examples. They could also perceive and take advantage of subtle patterns in complex and constantly shifting systems and data.
“Non-dyslexic brains display the order, stability and efficiency of train tracks; they work along logical lines. Dyslexic brains store information like murals or stained glass, connect ideas like spider webs and jump from one thought to another,” the authors say. “They are better at learning from maps and illustrations rather than texts.” On the other side, early in school they are likely to struggle with reading, spelling and handwriting, and they tend to find basic arithmetic and rote memory for maths harder. At least half have significant problems with procedural learning (acquiring a skill through repeated performance and practice), are slower to master any rule-based skills and tend to forget them faster. They also show difficulties with time awareness, but as adults are good at multi-tasking.
So how does that help a parent labouring over their dyslexic child’s history homework? “Individuals with dyslexia often have to concentrate harder and experiment to adapt their own way of doing tasks which, in the end, leads to them being more resourceful and innovative even though they may not get an A in their essay at 8,” Fernette says.
The authors also believe that dyslexics are predisposed to use more of the right hemisphere of their brain; they are better at processing the large-scale big picture or global features of objects or ideas. They are good at spotting connections that tie things together, at seeing similarities or relationships between ideas and at determining the essence of a concept. Those who rely on their left hemisphere perceive fine details and differences with greater accuracy, efficiency and speed.
Non-dyslexic brains often apply rules and procedures efficiently. Dyslexic brains are better at finding best fits and at ad hoc problem-solving. Non-dyslexic brains are good at finding primary meanings and correct answers. Dyslexic brains are more likely to spot interesting associations and relationships. Are you getting the picture?
Having spoken to the Eides, it became easy to spot which of my family and friends have more dyslexic brains and why families displaying dyslexic traits tend to follow certain professions. They may have taken years to grasp their six-times table but they turn into formidable scientists; they may have reversed all their ps and ds, but they become thriller writers.
Kalvis Jansons, professor of mathematics at University College London, and a dyslexic, says: “To me, abstact pictures and diagrams feel more important than words ... many of my mathematical ideas began with some form of visualisation.” Albert Einstein, who learnt to read late, said that he thought in “images and pictures, not words”.
These are the dyslexics whose skill usually only becomes apparent in their teens and who should be encouraged to become the next generation of engineers, inventors and scientists. Fred Epstein, a leading neurosurgeon in the US, was rejected by 12 medical schools. He didn’t pick up his skills in the classroom, he says, but while he was making model planes.
Then there are the creative dyslexics who turn to acting, such as Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom and Tom Cruise. Only this week on Radio 4, Henry Winkler (The Fonz in Happy Days) talked about the “chronic dyslexia” that restricted him to learning half a sentence at a time — which was why he sounded so cool.
Many dyslexics appear to be skilled at constructing a series of connected mental scenes, often from a history of day dreaming. Lynda La Plante, the writer of Prime Suspect, is dyslexic, as is John Irving. Hans Christian Andersen, the master storyteller, was also dyslexic.
I wish that I had known this when I was 11. I then could have told the despondent mothers waiting while their children were tested that the Meccano crane their son had just built was a far greater indicator of success than his failed 11-plus, or that an intricate drawing of a butterfly was worth more than ten sheets of Kumon.
If you have a dyslexic child, you really are lucky. You may not appreciate it now while other mothers show off at the school gates, discussing clarinet grades or waving around the copy of The Lord of the Rings that their seven-year-old is reading. But your dyslexic child thinks differently — and difference in this homogenised world is what will make them stand out.
Is your child dyslexic?
Dyslexia is complex and defies stereotyping: you may have one child with amazing mechanical skills, and another with real spatial problems. But as well as the obvious problems with reading and spelling, there are other common threads that I have found in my work with dyslexic children.
Dyslexic children tend to be into everything. They have a real intellectual curiosity about how things work and don’t want to take mum’s word for it. They’re the ones unscrewing the back of the television, to the exasperation of their parents. Indifference does not come naturally to them, but it can be created by an educational environment not suited to their needs.
They are lateral thinkers. They tend to think in pictures rather than words, which makes them more able to think associatively: one image will trigger another linked to it. That makes them able to reach ingenious solutions that others may not have considered. That’s quite different from a non-dyslexic’s thinking, which is linear because language is linear.
They love building games. Many dyslexics have good spatial awareness, so will love construction games such as Meccano or Lego, but others do not. They struggle to ‘track’ words. Dyslexics will often describe words and pictures jumping off the page, a bit like the sensation we feel on a stationary train when the train next to us moves. They will often struggle to read small, high-frequency words like “a” or “the” yet have no trouble with elephant, because they can picture an elephant. At my practice we help by making these abstract words in Plasticine, together with a picture of the meaning.
A good long-term memory. They may have a strong and long-term memory for events, but struggle to learn facts or sequences of numbers, such as telephone numbers, by rote.
Richard Whitehead is a teacher of dyslexic children (davislearningfoundation.org.uk)
How to bring out your child’s potential
Having dyslexia need not be a block to doing well in life — as plenty of successful dyslexics will testify — but spotting it early is key. Dyslexic pre-schoolers will have trouble with the alphabet; they are slow to make a connection between printed letters and the sounds they represent ( even when they manage, they will forget quickly). They will also struggle to learn nursery rhymes and understand the concept of rhyme and won’t often “get” word games like I Spy. There’s evidence that they’re also slow to establish handedness, although it’s a myth that more dyslexics are left-handed. Four times as many boys as girls have dyslexia.
At school, they will struggle with sounding out even simple words and it’s not unusual for dyslexic children aged 6 to 8 to mix up letters such as “d” and “b”. They may do well in a spelling test, but not be able to remember words later. The trick is to talk to the teacher and get extra help as soon as you spot that they are struggling: parents are a child’s best advocates.
At home, read with them daily — but keep it short, say ten minutes — and provide incentives. Play sound games (I Spy and rhyming competitions) to encourage phonological awareness. Keep practising and praising their efforts.
Read to them, introduce new words and encourage books on CD, which will expand their vocabulary and give them good oral skills. This can work as a protective effect against the dyslexia and massively influences their progress at school.
Valerie Muter Valerie Muter is a consultant clinical psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital and co-author of Dyslexia, A Parents’ Guide (Vermilion, £10.99)
No barrier to success.
Jerry Hall I’m dyslexic, and so are all four of my children. It can be very difficult in the beginning but then you learn to cope with it. It can seem like a gift because it makes you think differently.
Henry Winkler (The Fonz) I was called stupid and lazy. My parents had no idea that I had a learning disability.
A. A. Gill People still laugh at me on paper: “Oh my God, is that real? Is that how you write?” To me it makes perfect sense. And I pretty much decided then and there always to make my dyslexia someone else’s problem.
Tom Cruise Being dyslexic, I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learnt how to create mental images so as to comprehend what I read.
Eddie Izzard I believe that dyslexia tends to make you go off in a weird direction. And then you go: ‘Oh, that’s nice.’
Keira Knightley The only way my mum could get me to work at my reading was if she promised to get me an agent. She said to me: ‘If you come to me with a book in your hand and a smile on your face every single day during the summer holidays, then at the end of it I will get you an agent.’
Richard Rogers I lost confidence. It was very disabling for about 20 years of my life.
Jamie Oliver People just thought that I was thick. I never had anyone who understood dyslexia and who could bring out my strengths.