Hope for Dyslexics
by J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D., Psychology Today
December 15, 2011

What do three successful writers who have risen to the top of their professions have in common? Dyslexia. Read how a world-class editor, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, and a motivational speaker/reading researcher/writer struggled through child- and adulthood dyslexia and rose to the top. Can kids and adults who can't find words become champions at the very thing that smacked them down? You bet. Read on.

What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a neurologically based learning disability related to the organization and processing of brain circuitry for reading. Dyslexics have difficulty processing graphic symbols and it may be manifested in difficulty with phonemic awareness (awareness of the sounds in words), spelling, auditory processing, and memory or retrieval of information. Dyslexic symptoms can shut down the brain when people are nervous or forced to work under the gun. Other symptoms of dyslexia include the following (to name a few):

  • Difficulty learning to read
  • Difficulty learning foreign languages
  • Auditory processing difficulty
  • Poor testing skills
  • Difficulty completing tests
  • Difficulty remembering people's names and song titles
  • Difficulty telling jokes or memorizing scripts
  • Great difficulty in school even though they are smart
  • Spelling, spelling, spelling

Adult dyslexics who learn to read well likely organize the brain circuitry for reading in different ways than normal readers by building alternative reading pathways. For example, they likely adapt more frontal lobe and right brain function for reading, rather than primarily using three main areas of the left hemisphere that most people use when they read. Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. Dyslexics who learn to read may comprehend well or have superior abilities to synthesize information or "think outside the box." They are usually slow in reading rate and likely to be life-long lousy spellers.

The Editor's Whacky Brain Connections
Steve Hendrix is a brilliant Washington Post editor who has covered stories for the Post from the top of Kilimanjaro to the war zone in eastern Libya. He's known for brilliant writing and awful first-draft spelling. He says being humiliated by spell check is a daily adventure. "I once spell-checked a 2,000-word article I had written for the Post's Travel section and found I had spelled itinerary four ways, none of them correctly." He almost lost an early job in Atlanta over spelling mistakes.

In 2004 he interviewed me for an article he was doing on spelling and asked about his own spelling disability. Despite his impressive vocabulary, keen intellect, well-crafted writing and love of words, Hendrix admitted, "I just can't spell." The article he was doing was part of his quest to find out why. I listened to his story, told him he was dyslexic, and then directed him to the Yale Center for the Study of Learning and Attention for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with dyslexia researchers and neuroscientists, Sally Shaywitz and her husband Bennett.

What they found, according to Hendrix, was neither a willful refusal to use a dictionary nor the failure of the educational system. Hendrix has what he calls a "neurological misfire" that about 20 percent of the population shares. Monitoring Hendrix's brain activity while he was engaged in language-based tasks revealed that the right side of his brain had an unusual level of activity; this area is not normally associated with language use.

The researchers at Yale told Hendrix that over the years, his brain had compensated for the misfirings in its language area on the left side by creating unusual connections in his right hemisphere, a compensation characteristic of successful dyslexics. "You're not a classic dyslexic," Bennett Shaywitz told him, "but it's very possible that you had reading problems you've been able to compensate for very well."

The Poet–Bedeviled Pretender
Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Philip Schultz, has a forthcoming memoir entitled My Dyslexia. He never knew a name for the condition that bedeviled his brain until his second grade child was found to be dyslexic with symptoms much like he had. Schultz repeated third grade, endured the "dummy class," and suffered the indignity of being told by a teacher to pretend to read whenever the principal entered the classroom. Like all dyslexia survivors, Schultz found ways to "get around" dyslexia. His road to the Pulitzer Prize began at age 11 with repeated readings of Blackhawk comics. He lay in bed at night and invented a persona imitating his mother's reading aloud and her Blackhawk-comic voice enabled his remarkable brain to chart its own unique pathway to reading. In his words:

I didn't know then that I was to become a poet, that in many ways the very thing that caused me so much confusion and frustration, my belabored relationship with words, had created in me a deep appreciation of language and its music, that the same mind that prevented me from reading had invented a new way of reading, a method that I now use to teach others how to overcome their own difficulties in order to write fiction and poetry.

No two dyslexics have exactly the same experience. Beginning with my mother as my first grade teacher, I fought dyslexia from the beginning and persevered enough to make honor rolls throughout elementary, high school, college and graduate school. Spelling was my biggest nemesis, but now I'm the author of the most popular standalone spelling textbook in America. Thank you, dyslexia. When I step on the stage and speak in front of two thousand teachers or parents, dyslexia is waiting in the wings to trip up my brain. I usually come across okay because I have to work harder than anyone else to be prepared. I'm the tortoise who makes it to the finish line with dyslexia on my back. We're a winning team.

Dyslexia Isn't Hopeless
Dyslexia can create avoidance behavior, social malfunction, inferiority complex, anxiety and embarrassment. There is a high incidence of dyslexia among prison inmates. That being said, the main problem with dyslexia is that it's an inconvenience. But sometimes dyslexia creates drive and passion–passion for words and drive to find meaning in adversity. If you or your child is dyslexic, never give up and never feel sorry for yourself.

Dyslexia played a large role in making me the person I am today, and since I'm happy with my life and have made a small contribution to humankind, I'm not sure I would have preferred life any other way. My fellow dyslexics, F. Scott Fitzgerald, W.B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise, Cher, Orlando Bloom, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre Curie, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Loretta Young, Robin Williams, Leonardo da Vinci, Gustave Flaubert, Agatha Christie, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Andy Warhol, Muhammad Ali, Greg Louganis, Nolan Ryan, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ted Turner, and Henry Ford, made it. So can you!