I didn’t discover I was dyslexic until I was 50. Of course, when I was at school in the 1950s and ‘60s dyslexia didn’t exist. Certainly nobody had a name for it. Dyslexic children were either considered “thick” or a bit “weird”. But there are thousands of adult dyslexics like me, most of whom may never realise they are part of the dyslexic community.
Indeed, I only discovered my own dyslexia after my children had been assessed as dyslexic. My wife felt she had to fully understand the challenges our kids faced, so she took herself off to study special educational needs at a specialist dyslexia centre. After qualifying as a specialist assessor, she informally tested me and announced that I displayed a raft of dyslexic tendencies.
This came as no surprise, as there seems to be a genetic dyslexic connection that passes down the male line. My kids were dyslexic, so there was every chance I might be too. Current wisdom is that there are as many as three dyslexic males for every dyslexic female.
My own school days consisted of being drilled sergeant-majorly fashion in reading, writing and arithmetic, the legendary “three Rs”, a legacy of the rigours of Victorian education. My dyslexia manifests itself mostly as a short-term and working memory problem. Thus, the repetition and frequency with which we chanted our alphabet, times tables, days of the week and months of the year worked well for my dyslexic brain.
By and large, this educational journey in ignorance of dyslexia seemed pretty normal at the time. With hindsight, though, I now realise that I always had trouble finishing exams, and I will always wonder whether, had I had the extra time allowed these days, I might have got the A grades I needed for Oxbridge rather than the B grades that got me into University College London.
But times change and the journey I have taken through dyslexia with my children over the past ten years has been a lot more stressful. Actually, with my kids now aged 20 and seventeen, it all looks like ending happily ever after, but some of the steps along the way have been painful.
For me, coming to terms with their dyslexia was difficult. In the first place, the lexicon of dyslexia is really rather clumsy and open to a range of interpretations, not to mention the fact that there seems to be no one single definition of the dyslexic state. Ask ten people what it means to be dyslexic and you’ll get ten different answers. That makes it difficult for parents to get their heads around even the starting point for moving forward.
Accordingly, when I recently came to write a book about the topic, I felt I had to have a definitive viewpoint and came up with the proposition: “dyslexia is something that prevents an individual from performing tasks to the levels you would normally expect given his or her true potential.”
Most people in the dyslexia establishment seem quite happy with that. Of course, from the parent’s point of view it immediately begs the question of how you determine true potential, which ushers in the mysteries of assessment and intelligence quotient (IQ).
In the competitive world of parenting, IQ is a touchy subject. While we all take pride in our kids, finding out exactly how bright they are is a defining moment, and something of a double-edged sword. Most people go through life not knowing their IQ, and not really needing to. We prefer to use verbal metaphors, like bright, articulate or interesting, to describe a person's engagement with those around them.
However the minute you know your IQ you are benchmarked against the rest of the world; as it is a quotient, it will actively give you a direct comparison to the guy next door. Sometimes in life, things may be better unknown, but if you think your child is dyslexic you’re going to have to bite the bullet and confront reality. Worse still, you’re almost certainly going to pay for the privilege.
So here you are; you have what everybody thinks is a bright, engaging, lively, articulate child, who is, for reasons unknown, under-performing in class. Then the educational psychologist turns up at your door and a couple of hour later the lights are switched out.
Of course there is good news to go with the bad news. The good news is that your child is above (often way above) average intelligence. The bad news is that your child can’t perform simple tasks of literacy and numeracy that many of his/her less gifted peers find easy. Your child is not normal; he/she is dyslexic. Nature has torn up the rule-book and from here on in life is going to be a different game entirely.
If it’s your first trip around the dyslexia loop, your mind is much more full of questions than answers. What causes dyslexia? Is it a disability, a condition or a syndrome? How will your child cope? How will you cope? What can you do to help? The main conundrum is that you define dyslexia, not by what’s there, but by what’s not there, and measure this against what you think, or what society thinks, should be there.
Essentially, the dyslexic’s brain is different. It has two equal hemispheres, whereas in the non-dyslexic brain, the left hemisphere, the one that deals with speech and language, is bigger. And it tends to be wired up differently. Compare non-dyslexic and dyslexic brains using a functioning MRI scan and they “light up” in completely different ways when performing tasks like spelling or maths.
As we live in a society where we’re all expected to develop similar skill sets of communication and behaviour, the challenge then becomes finding ways the dyslexic brain, which is generally a pretty powerful thing, can learn to compensate for its inabilities and engage with the real day-to-day world. Having found strategies for remediation, they need to be delivered. It requires a team effort from child, parents, classroom teachers, specialist teachers and educational authorities alike.
In effect, an additional subject is going to be added to your child’s curriculum: compensation studies for dyslexics. Your child will never get a GCSE or A level in it, and it will mean working harder and longer and getting more tired and frustrated. However, learning the skill set is essential to open the gate to all future qualifications. It’s a daunting task and it’s going to be a long haul.
Al Campbell is the author of A Dyslexic Writes: an essay on dyslexia - a conundrum of conundrums, published by Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre and available online at:
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.