Third-grade me sat in the back of the class, staring at the scrawled penmanship on wide-ruled paper. More specifically, I was staring at the large, unforgiving red F at the top. Ironically the failing letter grade was the easiest letter to read on the entire page.
My failing spelling grades weren’t just for lack of diligence. Oh, I tried to write legibly, tried to read without stumbling, and tried to pass a spelling class with an acceptable grade—but I struggled with something other kids didn’t: I was dyslexic.
But here’s the thing. Although I struggled with spelling in school, Mom wouldn’t let me believe I was disadvantaged. She determined to share with me the secret of dyslexia: it isn’t so much a disability as it is a superpower.
“But dyslexics aren’t as smart because they can’t read or write,” you may say. “A superpower is supposed to benefit you, not hurt you.”
“Well, yeah?” I quip back. “Superman has a severe case of Kryptonite Intolerance. It makes him weak, helpless, and overall a pretty pathetic wimp on his off days. Forget the fact that his intolerance lets him race faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
Every hero needs a weakness. Reading and writing just happen to be ours. And sometimes these weaknesses are actually abilities, depending how dyslexics use them.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
A friend of mine once told me her dyslexic sister struggled too much with grammar to tackle college right away. But instead of permanently riding the struggle bus, she discovered woodworking. She could conceive an idea and create a finished product in under twenty minutes because she followed exact blueprints she drew in her mind.
How is this possible? It’s because dyslexics process information differently from others, aiding in things like woodworking as opposed to grammar.
According to Ronald Davis, founder of the Davis Dyslexia Association International, people think in two ways: verbally and nonverbally. Verbal thinkers use the sounds of words to process information in linear thought, while nonverbal thinkers process information through the use of pictures. They see the words as moving images always compounding as the sentence is read.
Dyslexics are nonverbal thinkers who struggle with linear thought. The images appear so quickly that dyslexics struggle arranging them in order. The saying “It sounded better in my head” is more than just a lame excuse for me; often times, it really does sound better because I’m able to look at every thought simultaneously.
Despite this, Davis theorizes that verbal thinking “occurs at about the same speed as speech,” which is “about . . . 2.5 words per second.” But for dyslexics, each image is like a subconscious 4D movie processed between 400 to 2,000 times faster than verbal thinkers. It’s the difference between reading a book and watching a movie: one can take weeks to read, while the other takes only two hours.
We also tend to be more creative than verbal thinkers. As babies, dyslexics use their mental process to explore the world around them by mentally tearing apart and reassembling objects they encounter. It’s one reason why we often never crawled as babies, because we could sit in a corner and mentally observe everything around us. For this reason, creative skills such as art and design come naturally to us, because, as Sue Blyth Hall says in her book, Fish Don’t Climb Trees, we dyslexics can see a finished product before we begin.
In addition to thinking in pictures, dyslexics also have the uncanny ability to distort their perception of reality. Davis calls this main symptom of dyslexia “disorientation,” which is the primary way dyslexics solve problems. We flip objects around in our heads at the same speed we think—just like we did as babies.
This is really the only reason dyslexics struggle in school. We distort words, attempting to understand them as we do with everything else. Davis provides an image in his book that displays forty spellings of “cat” that a dyslexic can potentially see, including “tac,” and “act,” amongst other impossible variations.
While a hinderance in school, this is an advantage beyond the classroom. Disorientation makes dyslexics hyper-aware of their surroundings. When I was little, I’d notice every decoration at a party before I noticed the people. What other kids failed to notice was the streamers and balloons tastefully placed in the drop ceiling, but I registered them before crossing the door’s threshold.
This awareness and ability to distort reality contributes to the dyslexic’s unusual intuition. Davis describes a toddler who finds a cat curled up in the corner. The boy sees the fur, turns it around in his mind, and pictures the cat’s face and paws without actually having to see it. Since this intuition often appears before logic is developed in the child, Davis says disorientation seems to “border on the supernatural.”
These skills aid the dyslexic in advanced problem-solving by considering multiple solutions simultaneously, then choosing the best option, making it appear that he possesses some kind of unnatural insight. Still think dyslexics are disadvantaged? Well, let me see your supernatural, demigod abilities some time.
Dyslexia in Action
We can do more than daydream, though: we thrive in the workplace. Some of the greatest people to live were dyslexic, but they didn’t succeed in spite of dyslexia: as Davis notes, they succeeded because of dyslexia.
For example, since dyslexics tend to be more creative, employers hire dyslexics to be graphic designers, artists, and video editors. Every package, book, movie, and T-shirt is designed, and dyslexics can dominate in this high-tech, digital world because of our abilities.
Today more people would rather watch a short video than read long text, and as the demand for creators goes up, more people scramble to learn the designer’s way. What better place for a dyslexic to thrive?
A dyslexic may turn to architecture because he can visualize the blueprints and take a stroll through an imagined building. Or for dyslexics who like work more advanced than Sim City, he can be an urban and regional planner, which makes a median salary of $70,020 as of 2016. Hall lists a number of career options for dyslexics including landscapers, hair stylists, dress designers, interior designers, electricians, and mechanics.
According to the book The Dyslexic Advantage, once they’re able to circumnavigate their struggles in spelling, dyslexics make exceptional writers because of their ability to visualize scenes and make subtle connections when writing. In fact, any job that involves problem solving, spatial awareness, the understanding of how things work, or visual thinking can be a job in which the dyslexic can thrive. For this reason, it’s safe to say that dyslexics rarely struggle in landing a successful job, even if they struggled in school.
Still don’t believe me?
Alexander Graham Bell. Winston Churchill. Albert Einstein. Henry Ford. Hans Christian Anderson. Leonardo Da Vinci. Walt Disney. All these and many more became successful because of dyslexia. For example, scientists have written thousands of books on the theory of relativity, but Einstein came up with the concept in a daydream.
According to Hall, who briefly mentions Ron Davis and his work, Davis was thirty-seven-years-old when he read his first book, yet he had the IQ of a genius, was an engineer, a successful sculptor, and a millionaire. She also mentions hockey player Wayne Gretzky visualizing his game from above as he plays. The Scottish racing driver Jackie Stewart can push his perception and Mind’s Eye ahead of him in a race to anticipate turns and obstacles before his competitors do.
A dyslexic perceives the world differently from others, but that doesn’t make dyslexia a negative quality. While many consider dyslexia a disability, I believe it’s a superpower, not a weakness. Hinderances definitely exist, but as the Dyslexic Advantage says, it’s more of a trade-off of skills for something better.
I think author Rick Riordan, known for his dyslexic protagonist Percy Jackson, said it best:
“It’s not a bad thing to be different. Sometimes, it’s the mark of being very, very talented.”
So next time you meet a dyslexic, remember that just because we struggle with reading and spelling, we aren’t dumb. We just process information differently and have our superpowers invested elsewhere. Instead you should be like my roommate, who once asked me: “HOW CAN I MAKE MYSELF DYSLEXIC?”