In the last few weeks, I’ve had my world rocked by learning something I’ve always known.
I have dyslexia. This is not news, this is something that my instructors and I have been fighting all my life. It’s been the background noise to my education, sometimes drowning out the class.
I have recently found that dyslexia is not what we thought it was in the late 80’s. Then, I simply knew that I had a disability that affects my ability to write and spell. We now know that a major component of dyslexia is vocal. I am not able to differentiate all of the sounds of the English language. Some of the sounds I can speak, but I don’t fully appreciate the sounds themselves. When I speak them, it’s just the natural process of getting from one noise to the other.
Imagine I was making a blended color band of the entire rainbow; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Imagine I could not perceive orange, yet was shading from red to yellow. I would pass through orange on the way through blending red and yellow, and my rainbow would look completely normal. If all I had to do was show the picture, there would be no problem. Now, imagine I am describing the picture. My inability to describe orange would become much more pronounced.
This is me trying to understand reading and writing. If I don’t recognize all of the sounds within the word, describing those sounds in the written form is exceedingly difficult. Reading the written form becomes significantly harder, as the brain struggles to decode all of this extra, to me meaningless, information that is within the phonetic spelling of a word. The extra concentration needed, the brain’s attempt to get to the answer using abnormal brain paths, that all causes some of the weird effects reported by many with dyslexia. However, that’s not the problem, that’s the symptom.
There are other markers that come up in dyslexic writing that led to the more traditional understanding of dyslexia. The stereotype of b-d confusion is real (along with q and p, thank you very much). That, we now know, is about orientation of letters more than spelling. If you know how to spell something, but you write a d instead of a b, that’s not a spelling problem. One of the startling moments of my recent discussion with a speech pathologist was when she, before she looked at a sample of my handwriting, predicted I write with mixed capitalization. I do, although I was never taught to. She said that it is a fairly standard accommodation that people with dyslexia often come to, as it removes one of the barriers to communication (B is not easily confused with D) in a manner that has nothing to do with spelling.
This new information means many things. Not the least of which, this means that all of the considerable work I have tried to do to become a better speller was not actually aimed at fixing the problem I was facing. It means I should cut myself some slack, and go about learning in different ways.
It ALSO means that there are now better understood different ways to learn.
I don’t know of anyone who is quite as fortunate as I with regards to education. My parents were the strongest advocates I could hope for, as were most of my teachers. My teachers were tireless in reaching me as a student. Mr. Wright, in third grade, went to great lengths to rein in my frustration (and bad behavior that stemmed from it) and instead re-focused my understanding of school around my curiosity.
Ms. Mills, my 5th grade math teacher (who I tended to treat as a sparring partner more than a teacher) figured that if I could not learn how to do my multiplication tables (by 5th grade), she would find me rhymes to remember that gave me specific bookmarks from which I could work forward or backwards. Ms. Pazar, who faced the same challenge teaching me in high school, taught me physical and visual tricks to do math, and then focused on giving me the tools to know when a calculator was lying to me.
In writing, Mr. Bagley, Mr. Stevens and Ms. Orbison went to great lengths to separate my spelling problems from my creative expression, making sure that the former did not make me lose my interest in the latter, and teaching me how to use tools to mitigate my problems with the former.
Most children with dyslexia are not nearly so lucky. The good news is that with the new understanding of dyslexia, new curriculums are being developed that mirror much of the unofficial curriculum I was taught with. There is more focus and less experimentation, and apparently good outcomes. Good news for me personally is that there is an adult version of this curriculum available, which may be able to help me further going forward. Those who have taught me taught me to find and use the tools for life long learning. This new understanding of dyslexia have given me a complete new toolkit going forward.