Dog Is Doog: The [Possible] Upsides to the Downsides of My Dyslexia

One of the reasons I’m interested in cognitive science and different ways of perceiving the world is because of my dyslexia.

I was diagnosed as dyslexic well before most people had heard of the condition. I was lucky. My father was a doctor and my mother a psychology graduate back in the days when fewer women got college degrees.

I was a poor student in the first and second grades, having a hard time reading and writing. Of course, being an August baby probably didn’t help. Kids born in late summer tend to start school younger than their classmates, which means they are both cognitively and physically behind most other kids at a time when even a few months of extra development can mean a lot. Such kids tend to get worse grades and wind up with less confidence in their ability to learn.

Iced Tea and Phonics

But I also had signs of learning disabilities. For example, although “mirror writing” isn’t a definite sign of dyslexia at young ages, it can be one symptom. And it was certainly one of my specialties. I wouldn’t just get certain letters backwards such as d’s and b’s, I’d write whole words and phrases backwards including, of course, my name.

I’m sure there were many other signs as well, enough to convince my mother to seek specialist help since most teachers had never heard of the condition. In fact, my mother tried to educate my second-grade teacher on the topic, though Mrs. Decker was at first skeptical such a condition existed.

The long-and-short of it, though, was that I was taken to a special teacher in the Buffalo, NY. I knew her only as Mrs. Clark, though I want to say her name was Mary Clark (I hope I’m not conflating her name with that of the novelist Mary Higgins Clark).

I can’t quite form a clear mental picture of Mrs. Clark, though I remember her as kind and charming. I recall she was very professional-looking, her hair pinned up in a blondish, maybe grayish bun. But what I remember best is the iced tea she served, along with cookies. The glassware was crinkly and dark green and my hands often wet with condensation.

Once her tests confirmed I was a bona fide dyslexic, she set me to doing booklet after booklet of reading and writing exercises. Much of what she taught me, I believe, was phonics. I remember sounding out word after word for her. Keep in mind that was before the “Hooked on Phonics” craze began and “phonics versus whole language” battles were so savagely waged.

I imagine Mrs. Clark used other strategies as well. I seem to remember doing a lot of pencil work, so I assume she was conditioning my muscle memories as well as honing my perceptions. I have very fond memories of these lessons, which I’m sure is a testament to her patience, care and personality as well as her pedagogy. Mrs. Clark transformed my life.

Disability, Capability or Maybe a Bit of Both

After my sessions with Mrs. Clark, I went from a very poor student to quite a good one, at least within the not-so-rarified confines of public elementary school. At 8 years old, I started reading books of all kinds, though especially fiction, and have never really stopped since then.

I’m still a dyslexic, of course. Can I blame it for my lousy sense of direction? My absent mindedness? Or an initial mental sluggishness when picking of brand new skills?

Maybe. That’d certainly be convenient.

But maybe it’s more than just a handy excuse. Maybe it’s a backwards superpower. Or, at least, a cognitive distinction that that has upsides as well a downsides.

A recent study by Cambridge University researchers Dr. Helen Taylor and Dr. Martin Vestergaard indicates that dyslexic brains play a useful role in human evolution because they are, well, different. Indeed, some heavy hitters have reportedly played for the dyslexic team, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Sir Stephen Hawking, Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.

(To be honest, I’m always a bit skeptical of such lists, especially when they apply to people living as far back as the Renaissance, but that’s the historical scuttlebutt).

Dr. Taylor, who studies cognition and evolution, is quoted in Science Focus as saying, “In many other fields of research it is understood that adaptive systems – be they organizations, the brain or a beehive – need to achieve a balance between the extent to which they explore and exploit in order to adapt and survive.”

So, basically, as I understand it, the theory is that dyslexics have a tough time “acquiring automaticity.” That is, when compared to non-dyslexics, they are not-so-hot at procedural learning. This can make it harder for some to learn, among other things, to learn how to read and write.

The good news about such learning difficulties is that dyslexics become more conscious (or, in my case, maybe just self-conscious) of whatever processes they’re trying to master. This turns out to be a pain in the butt in the short term but a potential advantage in the longer term. Taylor states, “The upside is that a skill or process can still be improved and exploration can continue.”

This helps dyslexics excel as explorers and creative types, even if they pay a societal price. Taylor notes, “It is important to emphasize people with dyslexia do still face a lot of difficulties, but the difficulties exist because of the environment and an emphasis on rote learning and reading and writing. [Instead, we could] nurture ‘explorative learning’ – learning through discovery, invention, creativity, etc. which would work more to their strengths.”

Nice to Finally Know

Over the years, I’ve learned to take any research findings with a grain of salt. One study suggests coffee is associated with stress and high cholesterol. The next one indicates its good for your liver and heart. The next one…well, we’ll see.

The bottom line is that Taylor and Vestergaard will not have the final say on the pluses and minuses of the dyslexic brain.  

Nonetheless, it’s nice for dyslexics to finally hear that their learning disabilities are also learning capabilities. And, it’s fun to envision us as bunches of unconventional but adaptive clusters of neurons buzzing usefully about in the vibrantly bizarre hive mind known as humanity.

Featured image from Totesquatre: Català: la dislexia. Wikimedia Commons.