*Orginally posted on January 25, 2009

As most of you have learned through reading my blog over the years, both Niki and myself are dyslexic.  Of which, we only confirmed this a year ago and I’m still learning about it.  I’m half way through the book “The Gift of Dyslexia“.  I actually only bought it because it was the only book at Borders on dyslexia and I needed more information since the book I had just read didn’t really shed any light on the subject for me.  As with many things this past year, it got put on the back shelf (figuratively and literally) until yesterday.  I am eternally thankful I’m reading this book now.

Each dyslexic is unique.  They have the same general characteristics but there’s no checklist a doctor marks off to diagnose you with dyslexia.  It’s subjective.  While reading this book, it’s not like I see a little bit here or a little bit there that resembles one of us (Niki and myself) – it’s like the book was written about the two of us…personally.

First of all, people with dyslexia think in pictures.  They can visualize in their head.  How does that work?  For example, when it comes to spelling, visual-spatial people will picture the word written on a chalkboard, floating in the air, or in some other manner and copy the word from the picture in their mind onto the paper.  Without it, spelling is impossible.  If you or anyone you know have written a word on a piece of paper to see if it “looks right” before writing it in a research paper, form, or something else you needed to hand in – chances are you might be visual-spatial.

I took for granted for a very long time that everyone could visualize in their head like I could.  It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that not everyone could but that didn’t mean I understood why.  For example,  I would try and describe something to my mom and she would tell me she’d have to see a picture of it or have me try it on so she could see what I was talking about.  What?!  That confused me.  In another example – I have a good friend who is like my mom.  When we were looking at patterns for bridesmaids dresses, I suggested we merge two dress patterns (seeing the new dress perfectly in my head) but she was extremely hesitant because she had no idea if it would look good or not because she couldn’t visualize it.  She ended up trusting me and loving the dresses after they were made.

Most of the time, the pictures flash in your mind so fast, you don’t even realize what you’re doing.  I recognize it more since I started learning about dyslexia a year ago but I think I’m just at the tip of the iceberg with how much I understand.

After reading “The Gift of Dyslexia” , these are some of the highlights from the book that have really stuck with me as “ah ha” moments:

1) Someone with dyslexia evaluates their surroundings through pictures.  They are extremely curious and the slightest movement or change will grab their attention.  They have the knack for walking into a room in their home and immediately know when something is new or out of place in that room.  (This is different from OCD)  Their attention will immediately be brought to it because they scan the room each time they walk into it – unknowingly so.  The example that was given in the book was that you could buy a new cat from the pet store, roll it into a ball and place it in the corner of the room.  A dyslexic child would walk into the room and see the ball in the corner and immediately start analyzing it.  In their mind, they would be rotating the object around trying to figure out what it is as if it was a puzzle to solve.  Hmmmm…fur…tells me it’s an animal.  Shape and size would narrow it down more – until your brain says…it’s a cat.  This child gets older.  They are 5 or 6 now and go to school.  Up until now, their world was pictures.  They learned and analyzed the world through pictures.  They are sitting at their desk and the teacher, whom they trust, writes on the chalkboard “cat” and tells the class that this says cat.  The dyslexic child will unknowingly start twirling those letters around in their brain trying to solve the puzzle and see the cat just like they would if the teacher had rolled a cat into a ball in the corner of the room and asked the students to tell her what it is.  As much as the dyslexic child flips and turns the letters, they can’t see a cat.  They’ve been told it says cat by the teacher but they are not finding the cat.  When they write the word cat on their paper, the direction or order of the letters doesn’t have much meaning to them so they will write them however they last had them in their head.  Hence…the diagnostic flipping and rotating of letters and numbers traditionally associated with dyslexia.  Fascinating, huh?!

2.  Each person with dyslexia is actually a visual-spatial learner.  The “disability” comes in when they’re in an environment, for sake of this example – school, and the child has to learn to compensate in order to function in the classroom.  Each child will compensate differently based on personality, teacher, environment, etc, etc.  I’ve learn to compensate differently than Niki.  To this day, I cannot alphabetize without singing my ABC’s.  I couldn’t tell you what letter comes before or after “V” without singing the song.  Why?  (Just learned this.)  Because I learned the song to compensate in school.  I memorized the jingle not the letters.  That’s how I got through needing to know my letters.  For the dyslexic, written language is extremely difficult because the symbols don’t match the pictures they’re told it represents.  The brain is confused and scrambles to figure out why they don’t understand.  The brain will learn any trick it can to compensate and complete the assignment.  The problem is that for the dyslexic, they are having to complete many more steps in their brain to transform this information into something they understand.   So essentially, they will come across as a slow learner to the outside world. i.e. Someone needing help or even special ed.  The way around this is to have the child associate the letter/word in a way they can visualize it in their head for later retrieval.  An example that readily comes to mind are the “Leap Frog” videos.  The alphabet video has a school full of letters learning their sounds.  The teacher is the capital letter and the students are the lower case letters.  The capital letter H is panting and telling the lowercase h’s that their sound is “hu hu hu hu” like hot and the capital letter H is panting because their classroom is a desert.  It gives a visual for the child to go back to and thus makes it understandable that “hot” means the same thing as when they are outside sweating.  Word World is another excellent visual-spatial cartoon for teaching letters and words.

3.  Hands on projects are phenomenal for dyslexics because it gives them a visual.  Niki was having an extremely hard time with animal classification in Biology.  She was simply not understanding it.  Why?  She didn’t have a visual in her mind to be able to organize what the textbook was telling her.  It occured to me tonight that I did animal classification in elementary school where we had poster boards of diagrams with pictures of animals for our simple classification project.  When I was trying to teach Niki, I still had that project in my head and I was able to expand my understanding into a broader classification of animals because of that project.  Niki has never had a project like that hence she wasn’t grasping what the book was teaching.

4.  Reading – especially out loud in a classroom:  Once dyslexics start compensating and learn to read, then all words that are associated with a pictures are “easy” for them.  Nouns and verbs will be the easiest.  When you read “boy”, you can picture your brother or some other boy.  When you read “sleep”, you can picture what your parents or someone else looks like when they are sleeping.  But….when you get to picture-less words like “the”, “a”, “an”, “can’t”, “was”, “were”, “is”, “what”…then your brain gets confused.  There’s no picture to associate with that word.  Dyslexics tend to add these words in when reading when they’re not there, skip over them completely, or put a new word in to replace them because those words have little meaning to them.  People who have learned the art of speed reading, will skip over most of these picture-less words and only pluck out mostly the nouns and verbs.

When it comes right down to it, I’m happy to understand that there are multiple ways of thinking and learning.  It explains so many things.  This book has enabled me to not only learn how to teach to my children’s strengths but also understand how I, myself, learn.