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Living with Dyslexia

04/12/2019 14:28

Dyslexia is one of the most common obstacles to learning and the British Dyslexia Association estimate about 10% of the population in the UK have dyslexia.  Today, Picaroon Kim talks to our Creative Director, Emma, to find out about her experience of living with dyslexia.

Kim: Hi Emma, thank you for talking to me today. I’m really interested in finding out what it’s like to live with dyslexia.  And whilst I don’t have dyslexia, I know it’s quite common so I wonder if some of my Picaroon friends find learning English hard because of dyslexia.  Could you tell me about any day-to-day difficulties you might have as a result of being dyslexic?

Emma: Well, dyslexia can affect me subtle ways that most people wouldn’t even notice unless you were a keen observer.  One area I have problems with is my memory; especially my short-term and working-processing memory.  This affects my ability to listen and write notes when I’m in meetings.  Most people can very easily write and fully listen to what other people are saying but for me I can’t do these two actions at the same time.  If I try, I won’t take in what’s being said to me and I won’t know what happened in the meeting!  Also, one area that I do find particularly difficult is writing, not the action of physically writing but putting my thoughts onto paper.  Often, even if it’s a subject I know a lot about, if you ask me to write about it, I find it very difficult to write my ideas down. 

My dyslexia also affects my recalling of sequences - especially numbers; taking on large chunks of information in quick succession can be very stressful for me!  I’ve had the same phone number for about 10 years now where the thought of trying to learn a new number is too much!  You’ll find that if you fire a lot of information at me I won’t say much, not because I don’t have a response, but because it just takes me a while to process everything - I might even ask for information you’ve already told me or for something that seems obvious but that’s where my brain is just trying to catch up and make sense of things.  It can also affect me when I talk.  I know the word I want to use but I can’t grab it if I’m speaking too fast, I didn’t properly learn how to talk until I was around 4 years old.  I’m also very forgetful and scatty; often forgetting where I’ve put things or remembering to bring things with me when leaving the house!

Kim: Oh, it sounds a bit frustrating to me.  Have you worked out any tricks to help you?

Emma: Well, I find it difficult to tell left from right so I sometimes will quickly look at certain moles that I have on my hands so I can tell left from right.  If I’m in a meeting, sometimes I will (with everyone’s permission) record the meeting on my dictaphone and then just write down the times when something important is mentioned.  Then, after the meeting, I can go back through the recording and write down notes in my own time without pressure.  To help me with my memory I write down a lot of to-do lists and have a note-board at home so everything important is all in one place for me.  Also having reminders on my phone is a big help!  I have to remember to just take my time with things.  Very often my dyslexia comes out when I’m stressed or tired, so allowing myself the time to complete a task is a massive help – especially if I have to present something - being given the time to prepare notes, write down key information that I need to say in advance is so helpful!  Before a meeting, I usually spend 15 minutes writing down a bullet-pointed list of everything I need to talk about so I don’t forget anything.

Kim: Did you find out you had dyslexia at school and was there much help for kids with dyslexia?

Emma: Well when I was little, my family moved around a lot so I went to many different schools and they all helped me in different ways.  While at my first primary school I found writing hard and holding a pen was tricky, so they gave me a special attachment to teach me how to grip the pencil properly.  I also have a little bit of dyspraxia and so I had problems with co-ordination - if there is a hole to fall down, guaranteed it will be me to fall down it!  I had speech-therapy when talking was difficult for me too, although you wouldn’t know that now from how much I talk all the time!  Teachers at school also gave me lots of help using stories and rhymes to help me to remember how to spell and remember things, these are called mnemonics.  For example, they taught me a simple poem to remember how to correctly spell the word “because” which I still sometimes say in my head when I’m writing:

Birds

Eat

Crumbs

As

Uncle

Sits

Eating

Because uncle is such a messy eater!

In secondary school I was taught different techniques to remember sequences and facts.  For example, the teachers asked me to make up a story to remember the names of all the UK prime ministers - although I seem to have forgotten it!  I was also given extra help and time with exams.  Often the exam questions set take a lot longer for dyslexic children to understand and process because direct instructions aren’t always given.  Sometimes, if I did have difficulty, there would be someone to help read the exam question to me and would help me break down the question so I could understand it.  Also, the extra time I had was also extremely useful to gather my thoughts and put them down in writing because this takes me a lot longer, especially under pressure.  

At my university there was a specialist dyslexia unit, and many people might be surprised to find out that dyslexics can be very intelligent and also very gifted in the arts.  I went to a specialist Art University (The University for the Creative Arts in Rochester) and they were able to provide me with a personal tutor once a week, gave me my first dictaphone and software that helped with spelling and could even record my voice and type the words for me but I didn’t really use the software.  I found it far more useful having the dictaphone and tutor to help me.

Kim: Do you find people ever treat you differently or have any misconceptions around dyslexia?

Emma: There are a lot of misconceptions around dyslexia, the number of times people have asked me if I see letters backwards.  I’ve had people think that I can’t read or count so will read out things for me, I once had someone read a menu out to me as if I couldn’t understand English…  It’s a spectrum, it affects people in different ways.  I’ve also had people in work make me feel bad or reprimand me because of my spelling, usually if I take my time and if I have time to spell-check everything you wouldn’t know I was dyslexic.  But I’ve worked in places where everything is timed and you have to do a lot of writing and multi-tasking in a very short space of time.  No one ever complained about the quality of my work but I would always be singled out if I made any errors with spelling which would really bring me down.  I have also worked in places where people openly mock people with dyslexia as part of “office banter”.  This is why I kept my dyslexia hidden in my working life for a long time; even though many places are accommodating there is still a lot of prejudice around dyslexia.

Kim: It all sounds a bit negative.  Are there any benefits of having dyslexic tendencies?

Emma: Yes, of course!  As I’ve said before, people with dyslexia usually excel in the arts and we tend to think ‘outside the box’ so many of our great thinkers in history were in fact dyslexic, some examples include:

· Pablo Picasso – Artist/Painter

· Leonardo Da Vinci – Painter & Polymath

· Albert Einstein – Theoretical physicist

· Walt Disney – Artist/Animator

· Galileo Galilei – Astronomer & Scientist

· Lewis Carroll – Author & Mathematician

· Steven Spielberg – Film director

· Whoopi Goldberg – Actress, Comedian & Author

· Erin Brockovich – Environmental activist

The list just goes on and on!

You see, people with dyslexia see patterns and think about things differently to people without dyslexia.  For one, I find patterns in everything that many people might miss and I learn from seeing and doing.  We are often good at thinking outside the box, visualising information in pictures, we love puzzles, have strong imaginations, and have amazing spatial awareness (we can manipulate 3D objects in our heads, which is great for artists and architects). 

A great example I like to use is one of my friends.  She is very bright academically, reads loads of books every week, would test very well in school and can write and write.  She is your textbook A+ student… but she cannot build with Lego.  If you give her a puzzle or a very simple Lego model to build she can’t do it, she will struggle and become so frustrated with it that she’ll just give up on it.  I can take that same model and without looking at the instructions, put it together with very little difficulty.  In fact, I LOVE putting together puzzles and 3D models – I’m the only person I know who loves putting together flatpack furniture!  So, in school she would have been top of the class; I would have been struggling but something as simple as Lego would defeat her.  And that’s because of my dyslexia.  My friend and I are just as smart as each other but I don’t fit the traditional mould.  I think this is where the saying “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  This quote comes from my fellow dyslexic Albert Einstein!

Kim: Wow!  I really feel I’ve learnt so much about what it’s like to have dyslexia.  I have one final question: What would you like teachers to do to help dyslexic children do their best?

Emma: Many people think that schools and teachers need to invest tonnes of money into specialist equipment and private tutors the moment anyone mentions dyslexia, actually there are some very simple things you can do to help us that don’t cost anything other than a little understanding.

1. Please do not ask us to read out loud to the class, or if you’d like us to read a passage please make it only a sentence or two.  The thought of having to read out a passage of text to an audience is very stressful for us and it’s that stress and anxiety that can make the dyslexia worse.

2. We can be very forgetful like remembering pens, pencils so please be patient with us.  Encourage us to carry a notepad so we can make lists of things that we need to bring and remind us about things.

3. Please don’t think we’re lazy.  Dyslexics usually have above-average intelligence - yes, we might take a little longer writing or reading something but we’ll get there in the end!  The worst thing you can do is ruin our confidence or put pressure on us. 

4. Try and let us give an answer verbally rather than written, most of the time we will know the answer and can verbally tell you but find it hard to write it.  If we are having trouble writing what we’re thinking give us a little extra time and ask us at first to just bullet-point what we’re thinking.  By putting our ideas onto the page in bullet points, we can then write short, sharp sentences and then restructure it in a written format.

5. Give us notes before the lesson starts.  One of the problems I had at school was trying to listen and understand what the teacher was saying while also trying to copy what they were writing on the board at the same time.  That is incredibly stressful for us and we’ll spend so much time trying to keep up with copying from the board that we won’t pay attention to what the teacher is saying.  Please give students a print out of the notes for the lesson and ask them to highlight and write quick notes on the important parts of the lesson.

6. Ensure questions and instructions are short, sharp and very direct.  If we have a large piece of information to digest it can be overwhelming so we might need help to break the question down into manageable pieces so we know what’s required of us.

7. Probably the most important thing you can do is give us praise!  There’s no pre-test for dyslexia so students with dyslexia will already be struggling with their self-confidence because they have found learning hard.  So probably the most important thing you can do is build up their confidence and self-esteem.  Once they have that the rest should slot into place.

Kim: Thank you so much for talking with me, Emma. 

Emma: That’s no problem!  It was great talking to you!

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