Through The Looking Glass Of Dyslexia.
A guest post from Siofra McCann
The diagnosis of a disability is usually delivered with a list of obstacles. The funny thing is it was rarely my dyslexia that made me feel less abled, it was the ignorance that surrounded it. The people that made me feel like I was running a race where everyone else had a head start. You would think it was the feeling of starting the race late that would have bothered me, but it was the feeling that I didn’t belong at all. It was like forcing yourself to learn the piano even though you know you were better at drawing.
At the heart of my dyslexia is making strong associations and identifying patterns and sequences. I have a peculiar talent for it. Some say it’s a malfunction, even a mistake in the hardwiring of the brain, but I think it’s a lot more than that. I think it’s an approach, like seeing your life through a coloured lens. Dyslexia is formally described as a language-based learning difference.
Dyslexia affects the organization in the brain that controls the ability to process the way language is heard, spoken, read, or spelt, but can also manifest as difficulties with memory, attention, organization, sense of time, exam performance, articulation, a sense of direction/navigation and self-esteem. There is a misconception that people with dyslexia are stupid or just lazy but generally, they are of average to above-average intellectually. Mistakes and symptoms increase dramatically with confusion, time pressure, emotional stress or poor health. This is particularly evident for me. The ability to articulate myself when I’m confused, under time pressure, stressed or sick is cut in half.
I read somewhere that dyslexic people read fewer letters per word and words per sentence, but assume what the word is quicker than someone without dyslexia. God knows if it’s true but it fits my experience like a glove. Dyslexia, for me, is all about building assumptions with less information than those that aren’t dyslexic. This sometimes means solving problems promptly and piecing puzzles together quicker than the average joe, but it also means making ‘silly’ mistakes, thinking you have all the information when you have ignored half of it. This is where the tunnel vision comes in, it manifests as compulsive attention to detail with an inability to spread my attention. So, I end up either looking at things under a microscope and missing the bigger picture or thinking I see the bigger picture while missing important details. For many years there seemed to be no in between, I was either brilliant or outrageously naïve. I was the girl who could point out the patterns of behaviour that were perpetuating your destructive tendencies but would get the bus in the wrong direction even with clear instruction. There seemed to be this gaping hole between my strengths and my weaknesses, which left me feeling either highly capable or totally inadequate. This is often why people with dyslexia have low levels of self-esteem, to make matters tougher, dyslexic people tend to be emotionally sensitive and strive for perfection.
My brain specialises in making associations with things that look, sound, taste, smell, move, and function similarly. I have tried to ignore these patterns and sequences in my life but they appear like the turning pages of a pop-up book. It has proved incredibly useful to identify patterns in life, particularly with human behaviour, so it allows me to connect dots others usually wouldn’t. My friends often slag me for explaining many of my oddities with “I’m dyslexic,” but what they don’t understand is that my dyslexia is not confined to certain areas of my brain, it shapes who I am as a whole, the good and the bad. I have always found it interesting when people say that their disability doesn’t define them because I feel like mine does. It defines me in the sense that it shapes the way I interact with the world and the way the world can reach me, dyslexia affects the way I take in information and the way I put information into the world, so surely it must define me in some sense? I don’t think it defines me in a negative sense, it's just a label used to describe the difference between my learning and someone else's. I see it almost like a personality characteristic more than a disability. If you consider all aspects of any human characteristic it proposes advantages and disadvantages.
With my dyslexia being mild, I was told by an educational psychologist that my IQ and logic and reasoning was too high to get any help in school. Luckily, the times my dyslexia had left me feeling brilliant allowed me to acknowledge that although I was starting the race a little behind, I could sprint until I caught up. This felt great for the first while, but it takes its toll. I can finish the race with you, but you rarely see how hard I tried to get there. I didn’t do well in school, in fact, my teachers religiously told my parents I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. It felt like a kick in the face every time I heard it, I had no interest in school but knew I was intelligent. I was caught somewhere in between not wanting to try as hard as I needed to and feeling the brunt of failure every time I didn’t. The people around me usually don’t notice because, for the most part, I can make up the lost ground. It only becomes apparent when I am faced with a seemingly simple task like filling in a grid of numbers on a computer and end up left in an empty computer room an hour later than my classmates with my lecturer telling me not to bother finishing the task because I was taking too long. Or the fact that I had to use google maps to find my way around Dublin city centre for the first year of college as I couldn’t find my arse from my elbow with a map.
I feel like I see life in a colour that doesn’t exist to anyone else, there’s no word for it and no other way to explain it. Dyslexic people tend to be highly intelligent but struggle to articulate themselves through language. I don’t usually struggle to explain myself, but there has been many a time I have given up trying to speak, read or write when I’m tired. I struggle to string sentences together, each one is a lucky dip, what word will I throw in next? Or worse which one will I leave out? Having Dyslexia can often feel like you’re trying to learn an impossible language that everyone else just seems to get. In general, dyslexics are better at expressing themselves through art, drama, and music, we often think in images, colours, and sensory information as opposed to a reel of thoughts. I wish I could say that one fits for my mind but my internal monologue is never-ending. However, that applies perfectly to my emotional experience. Colours and images ignite emotions and strong associations for me.
Being diagnosed with dyslexia in school only helped me to explain to others why I am the way I am, it didn’t make my experience any easier or any harder and it's lead me to wonder, is the diagnosis of a disability for the comfort and understanding of those around you? Having the diagnosis of mild dyslexia in school only allowed my teachers, classmates and family to explain my academic performances but never really cater it to the needs they were acknowledging. Logically you would assume that the diagnosis of a learning disability means that your education would be fitted to suit your needs, but it felt a lot more like a short explanation for why the current teaching methods didn’t work for you. Until I went to college I held the view that learning wasn’t for me despite my insatiable curiosity and eagerness to learn in many other aspects of my life. It was only when my learning became my responsibility that I realised I could learn and understand things that were outside of my practical experience. This was life-changing. Dyslexia was no longer a life sentence of practical learning but rather it was an indicator that my education style didn’t fit and I needed a new size. It was exciting to figure that piece out for myself, and even better to see some progress, like going dress shopping for too long but finally finding an absolute gem.
The interesting thing about feeling like there is a massive gap between your capabilities and your incompetency is it's humbling. For quite some time I felt like the areas of my life that I thrived in was cancelled out by the areas that I struggled. I had to come to terms with the imbalance in my life and stop putting so much energy into the areas that were already doing well and give a little love to the areas where I was failing. As humans, its more comfortable to do the things we are good at, the discomfort around not doing well at something was always amplified for me by watching my friends perform with ease and pass judgement as I struggled, saying things like ‘Oh I thought you were smart, this is easy?’ These comments only consolidated my fears, but as I got older I realised I didn’t have to be brilliant at everything, I just had to even the playing field as much as possible, to figure out what my obstacles were, where my starting point was and cater my performance to that. And I think that’s what life is all about, aside from dyslexia, everyone has their starting point, their own internal and external obstacles, it’s a matter of getting to know yourself and shape your life accordingly. I don’t like the word disability because it forgets many positive attributes that accompany ‘disabilities.’ Dyslexia is my different learning ability, not my learning disability. It is not the difference between myself and my friend's capabilities that says anything about me, it is the difference between my capabilities now and my capabilities when I began this journey of acceptance. You cannot shape yourself to fit your life, you must shape your life to fit you. That goes for all of you, dyslexic or not.