Flipping the Dyslexic Perspective

By Maggie McDonald

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Image Credit: Pixabay

Perched awkwardly on my stool in a room full of college students, I waited for the professor to walk into the room. As my tender, 10th grade eyes gawked at the superabundance of tattoos and piercings covering my classmates' bodies, I felt the saliva dry in my mouth. Why had I signed up for this?

As every nerve in my body screamed run, the door swung open, the professor strolled into the room, and my first formal art class began.

My parents, fearful that their homeschooled, dyslexic daughter would have a rough transition into college, had convinced me to sign up for a community college drawing class. I had never taken an art class before, and I had minimal confidence in my artistic abilities. Little did I know then that this class would open the door to a bright and artistic future.

Through the drawing and painting classes I took during my last two years of high school, I discovered that I was actually good at something. I found a subject in which I did not need accommodations, tutoring, or proof readers. For the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to learn like a normal student. For the first time in my life, I did not have to fight my dyslexia.

Dyslexia is defined by the premier researcher on this subject, Sally Shaywitz, as a "weakness in phonologically based skills in the context of often-stronger cognitive and academic skills in nonreading-related areas" (462). It affects approximately 17.5 percent of students (Shaywitz 455). Shaywitz also asserts that, "Dyslexia is a chronic, persistent difficulty and is neither a developmental lag nor outgrown" (467). While dyslexia is defined as a learning disability (Shaywitz 453), Norman Geschwind, a behavioral neurologist, cites Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein as evidence in favor of his theory that dyslexics "do not merely succeed in making marginal adjustments. . . but rank high among those who have created the very fabric of our modern world" (15). Catya Von Karolyi, a professor of psychology, adds that, "Whereas typical brains are asymmetrical (with larger left than right hemispheres), dyslexic brains tend to be symmetrical" (381). Since there is a neurological difference between dyslexic and non-dyslexic brains, research has been conducted on the strengths and deficits associated with those differences. Elizabeth Attree, a dyslexia researcher, argues that neurological research on the brains of dyslexics, "has led to speculation that they might not just lead to the condition itself but to the enhancement of other cognitive functions" (163). Specifically, research conducted by Dr. Zoi Kapoula, director of research at the University of Paris Descartes, in conjunction with other psychologists and neurologists, observes that children and teenagers with dyslexia show higher creativity scores than non-dyslexic participants on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, the most well-known and widely used test measuring creativity (Almeida).

Why, then, is dyslexia shrouded in shame and struggle? Do dyslexics experience academic advantages? Are we naturally more creative? Were Edison and Einstein's dyslexia just random coincidences, or was their dyslexia the factor that spurred them into the annals of history?

I was in 8th grade when I first heard the word dyslexia. I did not know much about it, but I knew I did not have it. I was determined not to have it. Even though I spent hours studying every day to get subpar grades, I could read. As my struggles continued to increase, I found myself wondering, is there more to dyslexia than just an inability to read?

A few months later, I was confronted by blue-gray walls, a slightly cluttered desk, and the prospect of a diagnosis I did not want. As the woman across the desk jotted down notes and the tests continued, I watched the word dyslexia loom grimly larger in my future. When I finally walked out of that office back into the clouded March day, I held a dyslexia diagnosis in my clenched and angry fist. "Great," I thought, "just what I need: more proof that I'm not as smart as everyone else."

Over the next few years as I grudgingly accepted the diagnosis, bright cracks began to glimmer through the initial gloom. In their book, The Dyslexic Advantage, Brock and Fernette Eide describe four strength profiles they have observed in dyslexics. The first, spatial reasoning, tends to be the strength most commonly associated with dyslexia (Eide and Eide 47). In fact, enhanced spatial reasoning was the strength I discovered in myself through my first art class. My manipulation of objects in space, rendering 2D to 3D and vice versa, taps directly into the dyslexic circuitry of my brain. While von Karolyi, a professor of psychology, is hesitant to make a global claim about spatial reasoning, she did remark that, "There are numerous case studies, clinical observations, and anecdotal reports of superior visual-spatial skill in individuals with dyslexia" (381).

Robert Rauschenberg, "one of the most influential and prolific artists of the twentieth century," exemplified dyslexic visual-spatial skills, according to Ken Gobbo, the Psychology Department Chair of Landmark College. Rauschenberg was an artistic jack-of-all-trades. He successfully created art in technology, dance, printmaking, photography, and many other mediums (Gobbo). Rauschenberg worked throughout his lifetime to extend the limits of expression (Gobbo). While he, like many dyslexics, had difficulty with written expression, his talent in artistic expression was profound. Perhaps Gobbo put it best: "Rauschenberg's life exemplifies the possibility of taking the innate difficulties that come with dyslexia and turning them into advantages. His tendency to have a broad focus and to see things in a different way perhaps allowed him to incorporate new elements into his artistic work, accounting for his genius and success." Dyslexia, then, was what set Rauschenberg apart. Rauschenberg succeeded in turning his disability into his greatest strength.

The second strength Eide and Eide outline in their book is interconnected reasoning (79). Eide and Eide believe dyslexics have an enhanced ability to form connections between seemingly unrelated subjects (105). This theory corresponds well with current neurological research on dyslexia. Von Karolyi explains, "Phonological and local visual-spatial information processing are mediated primarily by the left hemisphere, whereas global visual-spatial information processing is primarily mediated by the right hemisphere" (382). This, in conjunction with the research produced by neurologist Dr. Manuel Casanova, from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, shed new light on the neurological processing of dyslexics.

As Eide and Eide report, Dr. Casanova observed that in the general population the spacing and distribution of frontal processing units called minicolumns in the brain are generally bell-shaped. When minicolumns are close together there is little room for projecting axons to make connections to other columns and form large circuits. When the columns are densely packed together, they make connections with columns with very similar functions. When the columns are further apart, the axons make connections with columns of many purposes. Dyslexics tend to have very widely spaced columns, making their ability to form connections easier. Conversely, autistics tend to have very tightly packed columns which corresponds to an enhanced attention to details and linear processes (Eide and Eide 41). Many careers promote this connection making that comes so naturally to dyslexics. Coincidentally, architecture, my intended major, fits quite well into this strength. Many majors and careers focus on one or two subjects. Architecture, however, forms a climax between engineering, art, science, and business. I was naturally drawn to a field that utilizes my ability to form connections and synthesize information.

The third strength outlined in The Dyslexic Advantage, is narrative reasoning (Eide and Eide 113). Eide and Eide define narrative reasoning as "the ability to construct a connected series of 'mental scenes' from fragments of past personal experience. . . that can be used to recall the past, explain the present, simulate potential future or imaginary scenarios, and grasp and test important concepts" (114). This strength explains why Richard Ford, John Irving, Robert Benton, Vince Flynn, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Lynda La Plante are both dyslexic and renowned authors (Eide and Eide 113). I had always wondered why I remembered the plot of every book I ever read but struggled to memorize biology terms. Now, I know forming connections is key for my memory.

On a muggy July day last summer, my mother asked me to pick out some books for my younger brother. My brother was ten years old, dyslexic, and not at all interested in reading. I took him down to our little library, a storage room lined floor-to-ceiling with books. As I glanced over the shelves of hundreds of books, I started reciting plotlines to him. I had read almost all the books in that room, and I remembered each story distinctly. It had been ten years since I read the books my little brother was interested in; yet, I remembered not only the general plotlines, but the characters and settings as well. After we settled on Encyclopedia Brown, I walked back upstairs and went on with my day. Despite struggling to memorize terms and dates, I thought nothing of my ability to remember plotlines and stories.

Now I understand that I learn through stories, not facts. Emily Daly, a dyslexic, double major in neuroscience and art history at the University of Notre Dame, also memorizes through stories. She said, "I never had to think twice in literature classes; they were so easy." Because we remember stories so well, Eide and Eide note that for children with dyslexia, "It's very common for their families to describe these kids as the family elephant. They'll be the go-to person when someone wants to remember who gave what to sister for her birthday two years ago" (Venton).

Dynamic reasoning, the fourth and final strength outlined in The Dyslexic Advantage, pertains to past or future states whose components are variable, and for making 'best-fit' predictions in situations with incomplete information (Eide and Eide 143). This ability to predict and "fill in the blank" often makes dyslexics excellent entrepreneurs. Eide and Eide cite Dr. Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London, as the researcher behind this hypothesis (Eide and Eide 160). In 2007, Dr. Logan found that the incidence of dyslexia among entrepreneurs in the United States was about three times as high as in the general population (Eide and Eide 160). Before literate society, entrepreneurship was crucial for progress. Since dyslexics thrive on the incomplete information entrepreneurs must work with, their enhanced abilities in this area would have made them extremely successful. Thus, Geschwind, a behavioral neurologist, argues that in less reading-dependent society dyslexia may be considered a benefit rather than a deficit. Consequently, Geschwind insists that dyslexia only became a disability when reading became the primary source of communication (15).

When asked what one thing she wished everyone knew about dyslexia, Emily Daly responded with this: "Dyslexia is not a disability: it's a learning difference. And if you keep trying to fit a difference into a system that doesn't allow for it, you're going to lose the beauty of that difference. It's so wrong to judge a human being's intelligence by one minutia skill: reading and writing. We were never evolutionarily selected to read and write." Emily expresses what I believe, and what many people with learning disabilities wish the world knew.

Dyslexia, often associated with deficits, nevertheless has many advantages. Strengths in spatial reasoning, interconnected reasoning, narrative reasoning, and dynamic reasoning characterize dyslexia just as much as the weaknesses. There are areas in which we struggle, but there are also areas in which we excel. Why characterize a person by their weaknesses? We all have weaknesses; but our strengths, and what we do with our strengths, are what define us. So take pride in your differences. Take pride in who you are, and what you can do.

As my parents predicted, my transition to college was rough. I have had professors who clearly do not understand my disability, and I have heard every common misconception about dyslexia from students and faculty alike. I have had to explain to professors that my accommodations are not "wants," they are needs. I have had to explain to my classmates that, yes, I can actually read, it is just more difficult. One of my goals in writing this article is to dispel some of those misconceptions. However, my larger goal is to eradicate the shame that so many students with learning disabilities feel in academic environments. There is no shame in being different. Unlike many of my peers, I came to the University of Notre Dame knowing how to fail. I consider that an advantage. I am familiar with struggling in school. I am familiar with working twice as hard as everyone else. I am familiar with office hours, help sessions, and tutors. I know what I need in order to succeed. I know how to work through the struggle, and how to combat discouragement. If I did not, I would not be here. I worked unbelievably hard to get to Notre Dame, and I intend to work just as hard to excel here.