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The Gift of Dyslexia

© Beverley Paine, Nov 1999

In the Spring edition of Stepping Stones for Home Educators an article on the gift of dyslexia reaffirmed in my mind that traditional and conventional teaching as practiced in school 'dumbs' everyone down - no matter what our individual learning or thinking styles.

As I read I began to see many parallels between the 'mystical ability' of dyslexics as described in the article and early childhood, especially during the first four years of life. The day dreaming and imaginative abilities of young children, so essential to healthy growth and development are progressively squashed by society's definition of education. I feel that all action stems from the way we define things, and if the definition is too narrow, then the action can be exclusive and damaging - not only to some, resulting in disadvantage, but to all.

Reflecting on what the article had to say about the way dyslexics 'think' and 'perceive' in all of my family members I found I call say my children exhibited many of the listed abilities during their early years. For example, until the age of twelve, when the need to conform to the 'normal' way of doing things overwhelmed her, April would just look at any maths problem within her ability level and just 'guess' the correct answer. If I pressed her for her 'working out' method she would become distressed. As a result of my well intentioned pressure (derived from my conditioned approach to learning based on a narrow definition of education) she lost confidence in her innate mathematical ability, and sought more than ever to conform.

I have noticed the same with the boys, and am allowing Thomas to 'guess' rather than calculate maths whenever he wants to, even if the answer is wrong. In time he will 'see' his mistake as his understanding of mathematical concepts and processes grow. Perhaps dyslexia is something most of us 'grow out of' by early adolescence under the all pervasive need to conform?

The article said that dyslexics think mainly in pictures. I think mainly in feelings. Snatches of verbal thought plus fragments of pictures accompany these emotional images. How does one describe an emotional image? A mood? I have relatively poor visual and auditory recall. Each learning moment is in a context of making meaning for myself - I remember 'meanings'. This is a handicap for my imagination in many ways, and a boon in others. Some might say I have 'gift'. I prefer to think that I have just chosen to develop a particular ability innate in all of us.

This is how I view the abilities of dyslexics. Perhaps we all start life of like that, and through experience and circumstance we are moulded to conform to the prevailing definition of education and social expectation. This conditioning is powerful because it has the weight of culture behind it and is for the most part unseen, subconscious.

"Dyslexia is a product of thought and a special way of reacting to feelings of confusion" - leading to "disorientation" and an ability to perceive multidimensionally. I am not sure what multidimensionally means, but if it means, as the article infers, that the dyslexic can "see things mentally from more than one perspective" then everyone in my family is dyslexic!

For example, Robin can visualise the inner workings of an engine, and even those things he can only imagine, having never seen them before. On the other hand I cannot, and my inability to visualise things in picture form sometimes hampers my creative writing. Instead of creating visual worlds in my novels I create moods, worlds of feeling. I do this by being able to perceive the many moods and feelings of others - empathy.

The result of using altered perceptions during non-verbal conceptualisation, the article continues, might otherwise be called "intuition, invention, inspiration, fantasising or daydreaming". These are all qualities I see in every individual I come across! Are we all then dyslexic to some degree? Perhaps we are all underdeveloped dyslexics, whose need to conform to the standards, norms and expectations in our society, to the narrow definition of education, led us to this mentally crippled state? What would it take to develop the dyslexic genius in all of us?

As an adult I consciously chose to cultivate my development of altered perceptions, knowing that I am limited in some respects by the way I think. I honour the process by which I developed that way to think and see the positives rather than focus on the negatives. I don't try and develop a visual or picture based memory for example. I don't have enough personal reasons to do so. I prefer to use aids to help me remember things visually. Instead of improving this lack of ability I try and understand the gifts I do have and work on developing these. Is it wrong to do this? Must we all be multi-talented, the way schools, the way Edward De Bono, Howard Gardner and others, urge us to be?

I think of the "confusion" mentioned above as the 'edge', a place where two or more elements meet and come into conflict, seeking harmony from competition. This conflict IS learning. Learning is conflict. It isn't a good or bad thing, it is just a thing, a process. But it is exciting, as all conflict seems to be! My most profound learning derives from the greatest moments of confusion in every instance I can think of, in every field of endeavor. I see this belief verified in the growth and development of my children, and the children of my friends, and also in the adults I meet.

"Creativity is the means by which real learning takes place... the act of reasoning is a function of creativity... reasoning and logic are the foundations of creativity...." I have to disagree. Emotional thought is neither reasoning or logical, but it is powerfully creative. The real foundation of learning is the conflict at the edge, the place of confusion. How we deal with this confusion is critical to how we act. If we step back into known territory, into the safety of what we know, we don't push forward into new territory, the unknown, into creative thought. From birth we are taught to be 'safe', to chose 'safety'. Our creative urges are drummed out of us from the very beginning. The socialisation process, including education, always seeks to protect us. Difference is seen as a threat, and this conditioned response is gradually overdone and eventually causes us harm, especially to our ability to be creative.

Creativity becomes a latent skill in most of us, in order for us to live comfortably and safely in the society we do. Non conforming creative people are ostracised by just about everyone, including each other! Most of us don't want to live that way - the price is too high.

In all discussions about how people think and perceive I ask myself this question - "How do we know individuals think this way - in pictures, verbally, etc?" Isn't all just a collection of vast assumptions based on interpretative data, or perhaps the necessarily narrow reasoning of one or two minds? Are we buying into pseudo-science here, using projections instead of evidence? And is the information offered fact or fiction? Does it hold true for every case or not?

I am wary of texts that boldly declare statements such as "picture thinking is the same as intuitive thinking". I for one don't think in pictures, except perhaps fragments of pictures, interspersed with verbal thought, both of these overwhelmed by emotional 'image'. And I have the best intuitive ability of all the visual, picture thinkers I know. Perhaps a true dyslexic could knock me off my perch... I certainly enjoy the company of others who 'see' the big picture and focus on the connections rather than the elements. I love the challenge of being presented with yet more perceptions to experience the world with. Perhaps I am dyslexic? But I have celebrated excellent verbal skills, which were also demonstrated at an early age, so that discounts me, by accepted definition of dyslexia, doesn't it?

This is a complex subject and one that should not be trivialised in any way. I am happy to see any developments of the topic of how we think and learn, and applaud the efforts of those seeking to find ways to make difference acceptable in the community. I am not so sure that promenading dyslexia as the gift of genius is a good idea. I feel that this is just more of the elitist thinking conditioned into us by the narrow definition of education that we all seem to accept. I think the subject of how we all learn, or how individuals learn, and how we value those processes, to be a vast topic and one of deep and meaningful investigation, exploration and discussion.

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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