People with the learning disability can have exceptional talents, writes Chrissie Russell

Tuesday November 22 2011

Like many parents, Jill Maher’s first reaction when she discovered her daughter had dyslexia was one of panic. “I’d known something wasn’t right and that’s why I’d decided to get Katie tested,” she explains.

“But when the results came back saying ‘your child shows signs of a learning disability‘ I was shocked and scared. I went through a few terrible weeks wondering what it would mean and who could help.”

The Lucan mum’s reaction is one that most parents, and certainly any parent who has a child with a learning disability, will be able to relate to, but new research shows that mums and dads of dyslexic children can take some positives from the diagnosis.

According to a new book, The Dyslexia Advantage written by American neuro-academics, Brock and Fernette Eide, seeing dyslexia as merely a disorder that causes problems with spelling and learning is just one side of the coin.

Brock explains: “Early in life dyslexic children are typically slow to learn to read and spell, they struggle with rote memory and other academic functions.

“But focusing on working on these basic skills often overlooks their strengths — these children are often sponges for facts, expert problem solvers, fantastic builders, inventive story tellers and creative artists.”

The book contends that the special way dyslexic brains work could actually put them at an advantage.

The fact that they have to learn in a different way can in fact result in dyslexics processing information and thinking at a superior level to non-dyslexics.

Research carried out by the Eides revealed common talents displayed by dyslexics, referred to as the MIND strengths: M stands for Material (or spatial) reasoning, the ability to form a 3D understanding of objects; I for Interconnected reasoning, and ability to identify the big picture; N for Narrative reasoning, an ability to store and communicate information; and D for Dynamic reasoning, the ability to use bits of remembered experience to make predictions about processes changing over time.

The traits help explain the prevalence of successful dyslexics working in architecture and engineering where an ability to think outside the box, see things in a fresh way and problem solve carry a premium.

In fact a wealth of information and famous case studies back up the belief that dyslexia can prove a bonus in the workplace when the individual’s strengths are focused on instead of their weaknesses.

Some 33 per cent of American entrepreneurs are dyslexic, the innovative thinking proving an asset rather than impediment.

Architect Richard Rogers, chef Marco Pierre White, actor Johnny Depp, artist Pablo Picasso and writer Agatha Christie have all been diagnosed with dyslexia and excelled in spite, or perhaps because of the unusual way their brains work.

Rather than a disability, Eide believes dyslexia should be seen as an ability.

He says: “The challenges faced by a dyslexic brain are simply trade-offs for more valuable functions.

We need to focus more heavily on educating dyslexic individuals to do the things their brain does well rather than trying to get them to function just like everyone else.”

Unfortunately this is often a worried parent’s first reaction. Rosie Bissett, director at the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, explains: “The reality is most people are anxious and focus on the difficulties when their child is diagnosed with dyslexia.

“Sometimes parents rush to address the child’s problems and forget or overlook their strengths. It’s not uncommon to see children being pulled out of sport or drama, which they might excel at, to focus on coaching for reading.”

For Katie’s sake, Jill forced herself not to focus on the negatives of her daughter’s diagnosis. “It’s hard,” she says.

“Every parent just wants their child to be ‘normal’, but Katie knew what her problems were and didn’t need them pointed out to her all the time.

“Instead we focused on her strengths, she’s very creative and good at practical things.”

She adds: “I also made it my business to do everything I could to get her support, from paying for extra tuition, computer classes and one-on-one workshops.

As a special-needs teacher, I already had some knowledge of books that could help her, but Katie’s school were also fantastic and thanks to all the support she’s had she’s doing really well.

“It wasn’t a diagnosis I wanted to hear, but thanks to finding out early, we were well placed to do all we could to make sure she got the help she needed.”

While Katie is bright, Jill is under no illusions that her dyslexia will place limitations on her career choices given her difficulties with languages.

“We can’t ignore the fact that there can be a lot of downsides to dyslexia,” agrees Bissett.

“I’ve had parents come in to see me saying ‘we’ve spent ages looking for our child’s gift’ when the reality is that not every dyslexic child will be a genius.

“They all have relative strengths and weaknesses and the important thing is to focus on the strengths.”

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Some 50,000 children in Ireland have dyslexia with up to 10 per cent of the population thought to be affected by a learning disability.

A recent poll revealed four out of five people believe dyslexia is associated with mental retardation.

Bissett says: “Attitudes have improved but there is still some way to go.

“The word ‘disability’ is both a help and a hindrance. It allows dyslexia to have a legal footing, but few sufferers would like to think of themselves as disabled.”

Anyone of any intellect can suffer from dyslexia.

Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll was diagnosed with the disability but is also a member of Mensa.

He says: “If I meet a bunch of children in the Dyslexia Association, I’ll produce my gold card from Mensa and say ‘look, only the top 2 per cent in the world get this and I’m dyslexic.’

“I want them to know what they’re capable of.”

Ultimately this is Eide’s hope for the Dyslexia Advantage. He says: “Teachers tend to equate learning challenges like dyslexia with low potential, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“We hope the book will provoke a deeper consideration of what dyslexic individuals can do. After all, we’ll all benefit from their abilities.”

Irish Independent