Discovering I’m dyslexic at 35

I discovered that I have dyslexia a couple of years ago. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it’s felt like a huge missing piece of my life has fallen with a clunk into place.

This blog is perhaps a little more personal than usual – it’s not exactly linked to business or management studies – but the effect of finding out has been profound for me and my work.

Discovery

As a qualified instructor I run a lot of workshops and training events, often using whiteboards and displays where any spelling errors are clearly visible to entire audiences. As someone who has never been comfortable with spelling this can be embarrassing and a little uncomfortable. Usually, I’ve found the best way to deal with it is to be open and apologetic about my atrocious spelling.

A couple of years ago I was involved in a project to roll-out Microsoft Office365 into a large public sector organisation. During an introductory session to a group of managers I demonstrated the ability for multiple users to collaborate over a shared OneNote page (a really useful application which I love).

During the session I merrily typed away on my laptop allowing the audience to see my words appearing on their own laptop screens – pretty fancy, huh?

Unfortunately, this also allowed my audience to see every spelling error as I tapped it out on my keyboard, in real time, helpfully underlined in red for all to see. Once again, I apologised for my atrocious spelling and carried on, attempting to hide any embarrassment as the number of words underlined in red grew and grew.

spelling it rwong

Thanks Microsoft, for pointing out my mistakes for the whole world to see…

During a break in the session a manager (and education expert) leaned over and whispered: ‘are you dyslexic?’ and there followed an enlightening conversation and my first step towards discovery. She suggested I have an assessment with a neurodiversity expert, and so, I did.

What is dyslexia?

What is Dyslexia

NHS: Choices

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words (decoding). Also called reading disability, dyslexia affects areas of the brain that process language (The Mayo Clinic, 2017).

Researching dyslexia symptoms and how to manage it is easy; getting an assessment as an adult wasn’t.

The British Dyslexia Association and the International Dyslexia Association both have excellent resources on dyslexia in children and adults. They both provide lists of symptoms that felt more like a checklist as I mentally ticked-off each symptom with the notable exceptions of: ‘poor organisational skills’, ‘difficulty map-reading’ and ‘getting easily frustrated at tasks’.

Laid back map reader

Apparently, I’m a chilled out, well-organised, navigator dyslexic

I discussed the symptoms with my GP who couldn’t help with a diagnosis, so I self-referred to my employer’s Occupational Health team, who were perplexed to say the least. Apparently, adults asking about dyslexia isn’t a usual occurrence.

Eventually the Occupational Health team referred me to an Education Psychologist who invited me to meet her at a local school. She ran through some symptoms (much the same as the list I’d already mentally ticked off) and agreed I was most likely moderately dyslexic, although couldn’t confirm it because she was only trained to test children…

I called the British Dyslexia Association who forwarded me a link to an online indicator test, which indicated moderate to severe dyslexia, and was then offered a private assessment at the very unreasonably priced £600… ouch.

So there we go. Job done.

Finally! It all makes sense

Discovering I’m dyslexic has been an epiphany, explaining why I was slow in learning to read, why I had to study harder and longer hours than others and why my spelling is still so terrible.

Looking back it makes sense. In primary school I’d hide under coats to avoid spelling tests, rarely read books but loved comics (like Asterix, Tintin and later Judge Dredd), I excelled at art, and my favourite book was an atlas (for the younger generation – think Google/Apple Maps but printed on paper, in a book).

My parents bought me books on spelling and grammar, little electronic dictionaries and additional tuition, but still I struggled with spelling and reading.

48-Where's-Wally-WALKER-BOOKS

I was particularly good at finding Wally / Waldo though (spoiler alert: he’s right in the middle behind the red and white windbreak)

Learning to overcome and hide my challenges

Unable to read or write properly, my parents moved me to a private preparatory school to try a more traditional form of education. The sort of school you might imagine when thinking about 1920’s British schoolboys in uniforms and little caps, sitting behind a personal desk with a teacher using chalk on a blackboard and dishing out ‘lines’ for disruptive pupils.

The private school forced me to develop techniques to overcome or hide my reading and writing weaknesses to avoid punishment for poor performance; I couldn’t hide under coats anymore and failure was off the table.

I developed a messy, tiny handwriting style to hide spelling errors in essays and memorised whole passages for reading tests.

I discovered and excelled in new subjects like general knowledge, geography and problem solving.

Most significantly I learnt self-discipline, focus and a hard-work ethic. Simply, I found I had to work harder than my fellow pupils to keep up, and falling behind was not an option.

Within two years I’d improved enough to pass my 11+ exams to get into a very good high school.

Are there benefits of dyslexia?

“8. Dyslexics just need to try harder – TRUE

… a dyslexic individual can learn just like others, but to achieve the same goals, they do often have to try harder. Homework and report writing takes twice as long. Instead of just doing it, all the tricks, the shortcuts need to be learned and implemented. It all takes effort, and you need to try harder.”

Understanding dyslexia, https://doitprofiler.com/specialist-sectors/neurodiversity/dyslexia/

I was surprised to find the above statement in my research, especially on a website that aims to support dyslexics overcome their challenges, but it has been true for me. To keep up with my peers I had to work harder and for longer. I made it through high school, not with the best grades, but always enough.

University is where felt free to excel. The hard-work ethic, coupled with self-motivation to study and perform in the more independent study environment was already embedded in me.

And I had access to technology! Computers, internet and freedom to spend all night in a library without being kicked out or having concerned parents sending out search parties.

I learnt skills and techniques to assist my studies; highlighting text on screens to prevent me from skipping lines or losing my place, exploiting search functions to find relevant information in complex journal articles rather than methodically reading (and re-reading) whole chapters of technical language to find the information I needed.

highlighting text

Highlighting information on screen and moving the cursor down the page helped me not lose my place or accidentally re-read lines

I learnt about and used mind-maps extensively, transforming the way I recorded and processed information. I wrote copious notes in FULL CAPITALS and simple language to confirm my understanding of theories, which were then widely photocopied and distributed amongst my classmates as revision documents.

… and of course, the ever-helpful spell-check that identified and corrected spelling errors even if I couldn’t see the mistake.

The change that it’s made

Dyslexia (or more accurately, not knowing I’m dyslexic) forced me to learn skills and techniques to overcome (and hide) the challenges of dyslexia that have proved invaluable throughout later life. However, I certainly wouldn’t advocate this course of action as a viable or preferable option for any young person.
I’m lucky to have parents who had the option to send me to a private school and extra tuition, I was lucky I didn’t just drop out, and I’m lucky that I was able and supported to spend so much of my childhood in study as I needed (instead of being outside socialising and doing what kids should be doing).

I really can’t over-emphasise the value that recognising my dyslexia has had. Knowing I’m dyslexic means I can do something about it.
Since discovering I’m dyslexic, my confidence has increased (I now know there’s a reason my spelling is atrocious and I often lose words mid-speech). I’m more efficient at work and my enjoyment of reading for fun has shot through the roof.

I researched the benefits of eReaders for dyslexics (M. Schneps et al, 2013), and acquired an Amazon Kindle and starting devouring books like never before; going from 4 or 5 novels a year, to 3 a month.

The discovery of the OpenDyslexic font has further transformed my reading ability. It took a little getting used to, but now words and letters no longer ‘jiggle’ when I read, and the background doesn’t bleed into the text. I no longer accidentally skip lines or need to re-read entire passages to understand what’s going on.

OpenDyslexia

OpenDyslexia font – it looks weird, but after a few seconds I don’t even notice the the oddly shaped lettering

(Although, oddly, recent research appears to show the opposite is true for most dyslexics, (Eddy Cavalli at al, 2019)).

Summary

Some things haven’t changed: My spelling is still atrocious; I still need to apologise when running workshops; and I still find writing Birthday or Christmas cards frustrating (mistakes are really noticeable with so few words on a page). But I no longer feel as embarrassed about it.

The skills, techniques and technology I have adopted since learning about dyslexia has transformed my enjoyment of activities and opened new literary worlds to explore.

I’m lucky to have had the chances and opportunities I have had, not everyone has. Schools are better now at identifying dyslexia and other learning difficulties, providing proper support to pupils to overcome challenges and even exploit the benefits that dyslexia can bring.

Even businesses are getting better at adapting to the needs of those with neurodiverse talents like dyslexics, unlocking and unleashing their potential.

Learning that I’m dyslexic hasn’t changed my academic abilities – I’ve already proved my skills and achievements, but it has brought a sense of understanding as to why I struggled so much and brought enjoyment to activities I hadn’t appreciated before.

References

  1. LoGiudice K, 2008, Common Characteristics of Adult Dyslexia, Dyslexia Solutions, New England (paraphrased online: https://www.dyslexia.com/about-dyslexia/signs-of-dyslexia/common-characteristics-of-adult-dyslexia/)
  2. British Dyslexia Association, Signs of dyslexia in adults, (Viewed online, 30/12/2019 at: https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/advice/adults/am-i-dyslexic/signs-of-dyslexia)
  3. Nosowitz D, 2013, Ebook Readers Make Reading Easier For People With Dyslexia: The ability to customize how words appear on the page is a boon to dyslexic readers, Popular Science, ‎September‎ ‎19‎, ‎2013 (viewed online, 02/01/2020 at: https://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2013-09/ebook-readers-make-reading-easier-dyslexics/)
  4. British Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia Indicator test, (viewed online 02/01/2020 at: https://cdn.bdadyslexia.org.uk/documents/Advice/Adult-16/Adult-Checklist.pdf?mtime=20190409151233)
  5. Innes E, 2013, How Kindles are better for dyslexics than paper books: Shorter lines of text make it easier for readers to digest the words, The Daily Mail (yuck), 19 September 2013 (viewed online: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2425611/How-KINDLES-better-dyslexics-paper-books-Shorter-lines-text-make-easier.html)
  6. Schneps M, Thomson J, Chen Chen, Sonnert G, Pomplun M, 2013, E-Readers Are More Effective than Paper for Some with Dyslexia, September 18, 2013, Public Library of Science Journal (PLOS ONE) (viewed online 03/01/2019: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075634)
  7. Marshall A, 2019, E-Books? New Study shows dyslexic comprehension better with printed books, posted July 28, 2019 (viewed online 03/01/2020 at https://blog.dyslexia.com/ebook-study-reading-comprehension/)
  8. Cavalli E, Colé P, Brèthes H, et al, 2019, E-book reading hinders aspects of long-text comprehension for adults with dyslexia, Annals of Dyslexia First Online: 16 July 2019 2019 | DOI: 10.1007/s11881-019-00182-w https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11881-019-00182-w
  9. The Mayo Clinic, 2017, Dyslexia: Symptoms and causes, posted 22/07/2017 (viewed online at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dyslexia/symptoms-causes/syc-20353552, 6th February, 2020)
  10. Chi Chi Izundu, 17/01/2020, Does your company nurture neurodiverse talent? BBC News (Viewed online, 6th February 2020 at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51014028#)

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