“I’ve got dyslexia,” my husband said to me shortly after we met and fell in love some 13 years ago.
“But you read all those deep, complicated books,” I protested in disbelief. For back then I knew very little about dyslexia and simply thought it meant you couldn’t read properly. But my beloved clearly had no problems reading.
I have to confess that I wasn’t as understanding and empathic back then as I would have liked, sometimes losing my temper when asked to correct his writing. I didn’t get that his spelling problems and difficulty with sentence structure were all attributes of his dyslexia. I just thought that once he’d had a basic grammar lesson, he’d be ok.
It was only when our eldest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of eight that I finally began to understand how dyslexia works.
To begin with, not everyone with dyslexia struggles with reading, although many do; some people, such as my husband, will have more difficulty with spelling than they do with reading. The attributes of dyslexia are by no means uniform, and no two people will exhibit the same symptoms nor the same degree of learning difficulty.
It’s also important to clarify that having dyslexia is NOT an indication of lower intelligence. In fact, many creative geniuses have been known to have dyslexia, including Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, film director Steven Spielberg, Danish author H C Andersen, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, and the famous American artist Robert Rauschenberg, to name only a few.
Like many people with dyslexia, my daughter thinks in pictures rather than words and consequently, when she first learned to read at school, she struggled with the British phonics system, which relies heavily on the ability to think with the sounds of words. Since she thinks in pictures, however, the phonics system made little sense to her; instead, she needed to visualise each word in its entirety.
It took time for her to develop her reading skills, but she’s now ten years old and enjoys reading 400-page long fantasy novels by herself, and though she still struggles with spelling at times, creative writing is one of her strongest subjects at school. Yes, she finds it hard to structure a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, but that is because her thought process is visual rather than verbal.
“I don’t know how to plan what to write,” she says. “I just put pen to paper, and all these images begin to flow.”
Recently her class was asked to write a story with the title, ‘A Secret Place’, and what she wrote blew me away. With her permission, I’m reproducing it here (unedited):
My Secret Place is past that door carved into that tree in the meadow. I open the door and walk in. The grass shivers under my feet. The trees are swaying like they are alive, dancing till dusk. The leaves twist and turn and gently do pirouettes like a ballerina until they land on the ground so lightly that the grass doesn’t know they’re there. The tulips, roses, daisies, violets and sunflowers bloom ’til winter, then curl up like a shy child.
The blue jays, robins and all sort of birds sing like a choir in the morning, while the sun wakes up and begins to rise higher and higher into the sky. The birds continue to chatter ’til nightfall. Clouds make shapes like hearts, cars, birds, houses and teddies while passing by my secret place. Snow dribbles down to the ground; the snowflakes glide gently down into my hand then melt into water. The breeze drifts through my hair and ripples it like the lake shimmering in the distance, like a child wanting attention. The swans glide gracefully by like posh ladies in white gowns of silk feathers. The sun reflects on the rippling water of the lake. The mushrooms, like toadstools, are just waiting to be sat on.
Butterflies flutter by with their symmetrical wings of black, blue, yellow, brown, green, and other colours too; they land on a flower like it’s their home. Bees buzz around and land on flowers to suck up all their nectar, then buzz off to their hive to make honey. Squirrels sneak past and hide their acorns in the ground, not realising that I am watching. Later they come back to dig up the acorns and eat them.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn if my daughter never learns how to create the kind of neat and nicely linear story plan school teachers like to see. Her ability to think in images means that, as the author Sally Gardner says, she “can portray the world through images.”
Dyslexia, then, is not a disability; it’s a natural ability, a talent that needs nurturing, not fixing. My daughter, she paints with words.