Dyslexia Makes Your Brain Cool
Dyslexia is a wide ranging learning disability which affects 1 in every 10–20 people (according to the internet) and Neuroscientists at MIT have recently uncovered a possible reason why some people have it. Using MRI scans, they monitored the brains of people with dyslexia and found a “really pronounced” difference in responses to a series of visual and audio cues, in comparison to those without dyslexia.
“The brains of people without dyslexia were more able to recognise repeated words or images in a process known as “neural adaptation”, while a “neural signature” was identified among dyslexics, whose brains displayed lower levels of “plasticity” — or response ability.”
In laymans terms: dyslexic brains do not pick up shit as quickly as non dyslexic brains, and do not retain shit as well as non dyslexic brains. As a dyslexic (I have my dyslexic standard issue hat and cane to prove this), it’s always lovely to have scientific research within ones reach when discussing dyslexia with non dyslexics who think it’s not a thing. They assume it is some kind of middle class luxury, like owning a house or getting a train, but now I can send them a link to the MIT article, which they won’t read, but my point will be valid. LOOK SCIENCE SAYS IT’S A THING.
I don’t tend to tell people I am dyslexic off the bat. Because that would be weird. But I will relay this factoid about myself after someone corrects my grammar/spelling/mispronunciation of a word one too many times. I inform the corrector that although I am trying, I am liable to make the same mistake time and time again, so let’s save everyone some hassle and skip the school lesson. Plus I have an app for that.
Responses vary. Some say ‘me too,’ and we do the special dyslexic handshake and mating dance. Some know other dyslexics and get it, and some think I am incorrect with my diagnosis, because I just don’t seem dyslexic — I write a lot, despite my terrible spelling, and hey — didn’t I see you read a book last week? This is where science based research comes in very handy. I can try and explain the myriad of ways in which dyslexia manifests itself, or, again, I can send them a link to an article they won’t read. But still, my point will be upheld BECAUSE OF SCIENCE! You see, the MIT researchers found a broad range of effects of dyslexia — and whilst it was more evident with reading, it isn’t specific to reading. It’s actually a lot of stuff (I am quoting verbatim from the science paper here).
My family is rife with the heredity learning disability of dyslexia, and for me it is not solely an issue with reading. I am on the milder side of the spectrum, but I do struggle with processing information, short term memory, grammar, spelling, and spatial awareness. It’s like my brain is 2 glasses of pinot grigio drunk most of all the time. When informed that I can’t possible be dyslexic (which FYI has no effect on intelligence, so yes, smart people can be dyslexic. Not that I am not placing myself in this category, I just come across smart because I have read many long books, but my I.Q is one above average) I suddenly feel the need to prove that I have a learning disability. That I am not making excuses or lying. I feel like only when I walk into a door, forget my own name and misread a fire escape sign as fart axis will said ignorant non dyslexic person believe me. I try and explain that it is not as black and white as struggling with reading, although it is certainly one of the more obvious signs of dyslexia.
I read an article by the late and wonderful AA Gill about how he was asked to give an empowering speech to a group of school children on his struggles with dyslexia. I think he was meant to reassure the dyslexic children and educate their classmates on their difficulties. Instead he went out and talked about how they should embrace the uniqueness of their learning difficulty, how it helped his writing, how it helped him have the penmanship he was famous for. How they were different, so lets not pretend otherwise and they needed to accept and utilise that. If possible. I found this the most encouraging article I had read yet. But I am one of the lucky ones.
My mother is severely dyslexic; if dyslexia was a coffee analogy (and for the purposes of this essay, it is) then I would be the milky latte to her Americano with an extra shot of espresso. I spent most of my childhood trying to remember where she parked the car (the time I had left over was spent watching Bucky O Hare). I have flashbacks to a 3 hour traipse around Bath when she couldn’t remember which car park she had used, let alone where her car was in it. I got use to her magical ways and how she remembered or didn’t remember things, so for me it was normal, for the new school friends who were also traipsing around Bath with us, it was frustrating.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 17 after years of exceptionally confusing and contradictory school reports, and feeling a little bit thick. My dyslexia did not manifest itself in the same way as my mothers, so it was hard to pin down or spot. If there had been more awareness over the myriad of ways it affects your brain, as mentioned by those MIT guys and gals, then maybe someone would have picked up on it sooner.
But I knew something was not quite right.
I kept using words which sounded like the ones I meant, but were often a mixture of two and when slung together made no sense, I kept writing sentences where the end would appear at the start, I didn’t understand basic grammar rules, apostrophes could fuck right off, and know and now were always the same word to me. They still are. I could not retain basic information on certain subjects at school without hours and hours of repetition. For my French oral exam I learnt the pre-written answers to 200 questions because nothing would stick. I found our own language rules tricky enough, so French ones were impossible. There were some French words that lived in my head (mainly my grandmere est flambe, which is just from watching Eddie Izzard) but after 5 years of French I just didn’t get it.
I got a B for that exam. And I didn’t get to tell my French teacher my grandmother was on fire.
The Independent article on the MIT research stated:
‘What is particularly interesting is that better reading skills in adults and children with dyslexia were associated with greater repetition-induced neural adaptation,’
I felt like, this is me. That’s what I did.
I ended up having a free dyslexia test at university, which lead to more tests with an educational psychologist (not free). These were actually kind of fun, I got to play with plastic bricks and make shapes, but the result was — I was dyslexic. I had a massive imbalance in terms of percentiles. I was the top percentage in terms of vocabulary (I might make some words up but I have a good knowledge of the rest of them. Other than know and now) but bottom in terms of spelling, top in terms of reading, bottom in terms of maths, memory processing etc. Finally. Those confusing and contradictory school reports finally made sense.
I wish I had been diagnosed earlier, so I could have got a different kind of support in school and would not have been so horribly frustrated with my brain. But the older I get the more I like A A Gills idea of it being something you work with, embrace and accept as a positive. This is the only brain you get.
But as i said earlier, I am lucky. I am mildly dyslexic. I don’t suffer the way my mother does, and I remember how lucky I am to be present in a time where there are more avenues for help. No one picked up on her difficulties when she was young. She was moved down a grade at school, and was continually told she was stupid. I am hoping however that this increased scientific focus on the brains of dyslexics will compound the fact that dyslexic children do process information differently, and therefore need to be educated and tested differently. Otherwise they are going to continue to be stuck in a system where they are at a disadvantage from the start.
I now embrace this awkward side of my head which has hindered me internally but externally has made me continually try to prove myself. It doesn’t mean I don’t get upset when people call me out on my grammar or mumbled words, but I know that’s just part and parcel of what makes me, me. And it has forced me to work my arse off.
I was at a private school with very smart kids and by golly I worked my arse off to get to university, and by goodness when i got there, I realised that I couldn’t write academic essays for shit so focused my attention on the extra curricular activities instead. I hoped they would make up for the inevitably bad degree grade. I was correct to do so because I got a 2:2, which I had sweated blood for (another symptom of dyslexia). And all that extra learning I did, all the repetition in order to retain information I should have just known off the bat, it helped me retain reams and reams of information, which is handy when you have to memorise the words to an hour long comedy show.
Sure, I will forget all the great books I have read, interesting dinner party facts, films and people’s names, and sure I don’t understand the rules for temperature, language, and I know that I will sometimes spell idea as eyedear. But I guess it keeps things exciting.
I can only hope that those smart scientists continue to cement home the very important point that not all brains are the same, some are different, not different bad. Just different.