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Why do schools treat dyslexics like fools? Neurodivergence is a superpower, not a disability

We wait for dyslexics to fail at school and only then intervene. Credit: Gareth Copley/Getty

We wait for dyslexics to fail at school and only then intervene. Credit: Gareth Copley/Getty


May 6, 2021   5 mins

My first sermon was a disaster. I worked on the text all week and printed it out, in large print, double-spaced. But when I got up into the pulpit I just couldn’t see the words in the order that I had written them. In order to focus on the words, I had to point at each one as I read it out, staccato. Even then I missed some lines. I sounded like a stumbling fool.

You know the joke about the dyslexic priest who had a crisis of faith? He lay up all night wondering if there was a dog… Well that’s me. Sort of.

Dyslexia takes various forms — and reading out loud can be as much of a problem as spelling. My spelling is a nightmare too. Just ask my editors. However, we do make better spies. This week I learned on GCHQ’s, top secret espionage training scheme are four times as likely to have dyslexia as those on other training schemes. We see the world differently. And those distinctive ways in which dyslexics process information enables us to see things that others often miss.

After that torturously embarrassing sermon, the priest who was training me had an idea. Throw away the script, he said. Get up in that pulpit and tell me a story. So I did. It worked. And I’ve never looked back — or used notes again.

I do prepare though. I think about the matter in hand abstractly — I have always been more comfortable in the abstract than the concrete. And theology, of course, encourages this. In Moses and Monotheism, Freud came up with the controversial idea that because of their suspicion of idolatry — of turning God into something concrete, like a Golden Calf — Moses invented abstract thought. “The prohibition against making an image of God — the compulsion to worship a God one cannot see” became a defining feature of the Jewish imagination, thus “a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea — a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality”.

My ideas find their place and are given some sort of order. Then what begins as a kind of philosophy is translated into story form, with a beginning, middle and end. When I preach, I tell a story like others would tell a joke. With this process — abstract first, then conversion into narrative form — my preaching was transformed. I was no longer the stumbling fool. I had found my voice — thanks to my dyslexia.

There are 10 things dyslexics are often good at, according to Jillian Petrova: the first is a “Strong memory for stories. the seventh is “Abstract thinkers”.  We dyslexics apparently “understand things that are not tangible, many of which are innate human qualities like bravery, love and deception”. Which may well be why, by working out a different way of doing things, my ‘disability’ did become a kind of superpower. I wonder if the same was true of Moses. The Bible says he had a stammer, and Jewish tradition has him as left handed – both, perhaps, signs that he was not, as it were, neurotypical.

There is a cost. Tasks that are simple for others, are fiendishly complicated for me. Basic organisation is always a problem. I can be absurdly literal when asked a question and rude (or what i would consider clear) in replying. Often, I do not understand even the simplest of tasks if not fully specified. I can’t drive. I still have to say to myself “write with the right” and then wiggle my writing hand to work out which way is right.

If asked a question, I often imagine the line of questioning going forward and answer the third one along. And if I feel I have been asked to do contradictory things, I just seize up, emotionally paralysed. I also have an astonishingly high fidget factor — not good for that calm, prayerful, beatific look priests are supposed to adopt during services.

But there are up-sides. Dyslexics are often good at pattern recognition. I was reasonably good at chess from quite a young age. I could see the whole board in one, rather than as a collection of individual potential moves. And, for those of us who are religious, pattern recognition may be a rather important feature of our faith. Like that great patron saint of all neurodivergent mystics, I totally get it when William Blake talks about seeing the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a flower. I open the curtains to the garden and I see God.

When I was a school, I was at the bottom of the bottom set. We were the dunces, the no-hopers. Sitting a few desks along from me was fellow dyslexic Charlie Dunstone. Like me, he had a reputation for being trouble. His nickname was “stubber” because he was often to be found smoking roll-ups behind the fives court rather than swatting away in the library. “They said I didn’t work hard and I was lazy because I was bored in classes” remembers Dunstone. He left school to go and set up something called The Carphone Warehouse. “It would be a mistake to make dyslexia a problem. We should celebrate it. 
 In later life [dyslexia] can be great for imaginative, productive people because they come up with loads of ideas and are creative.”

In other words, what counts as an ability or a disability are highly context dependent. Yet our educational system still seems set up to turn us dyslexics into fools. I scraped into University, god knows how. By luck I chose to read philosophy. And almost immediately, I found something I was able to do. I had never got A’s before. Within months, my reputation for being thick had gone. It felt like the difference between a penguin waddling along on land and a penguin swimming in water, free and graceful.

There has been a lot of blah in the press recently about Hull University deciding not to count bad spelling against its students. Admittedly, the issue was slightly different, with much talk of the need to decolonise the curriculum. But I was more sympathetic. Educational environments exist to enable students to find what they are good at. More enlightened educationalists often talk of dyslexics needing “support”. But I want more than support to, as it were, walk on land. I suppose help is useful, but people like me won’t ever be much good at that. I want them to show me the water.

Yet according to a 2019 report, schools are failing to diagnose at least 80% of children with dyslexia. We wait for them to fail and only then intervene says Helen Boden, Chief Executive of the British Dyslexia Association. By which time, they are behind their peers and the curriculum and we are losing them.

I don’t know the science. I don’t really understand what makes dyslexics different. But I do know that what counts as neurotypical or neurodivergent is as much to do with the way society has set itself up — what it decides to count as normative — as much as it has to do with the workings of my brain.

If educational establishments are to get the best out of us, they need to be more aware that certain tasks suit some people more than others. Why, when they’re designing a curriculum aren’t they considering what type of people will do well and who will not. Whose strengths are their curriculums playing to? What the GCHQ experience suggests is that we need people who think differently. We should be able to assess them too. Because often, we see things you don’t.

Yes, I was trouble at school. Frustrated and angry. Academically, a lost cause. Yet within a decade of leaving, I had my PhD and was teaching philosophy at Oxford. If I could go back to school again, this I what I would want to tell them: dyslexia is your problem not mine.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
3 years ago

The notion that a learning disability is the education system’s problem is an appealing idea, but in my experience is far from accurate. I have quite a lot of experience with the higher education system and I can assure the author that no one, outside an Education department, is figuring out how to design curricula to reach the maximum number of university students whatever their learning disability or learning style might be. Even the education specialists aren’t really working on these topics with the students in mind. They’re working toward a publication in a respected journal and one more notch on their CV.
Higher education is a profit-seeking business and a sausage grinder. Maximum number of students in, maximum amount of fees charged, maximum number of students graduating (even if that requires grade inflation).
As human population grows and the number of good-paying jobs decrease due to technology, the greater the competition for everyone. Figure out your own way through the education system or sink. That’s the harsh reality.

Last edited 3 years ago by J Bryant
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Also a teacher with 35 pupils in a class could potentially need about 10 special helpers and aids just for the pupils with a diagnosis-which would be impossible to pay for and disadvantage the other pupils. I can’t remember random numbers -so have problems taking down code or invoice numbers over the phone & I have no idea what my phone number is if asked . This is something I sort out myself by keeping notebooks with all the numbers in.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

No. Just be aware. Teach normally, but excuse individuals their issues. The answer is not that all the different people each need special help, it is to NOT punish for each students innate inabilities.
In my day anyway, the dyslexic did not need special help, just to not be beaten down.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You would have to have a different set of marking for each pupil-how would this fit into the national curriculum?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

They do NOT need a system to teach dyslexics separately – just one to not hold dyslexics back by not tolerating the issues they struggle with. Dyslexics will be fine if you just let them fail at things they cannot do, and exceed at those they exceed at. Just don’t F*** with them at bad spelling, just accommodate them – but this needs to be figured out, in other words, some evaluation made so you just do not let standards drop for everyone, but not harm those who have real issues. When you are 12 and write a paper on history and it comes back all marked in red and a low grade given because you misspell so badly, and same in every class, and end up with low marks in everything over this – it is not helpful.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

That child will then be statemented and given special allowance ie extra time with exams. However ( devil’s advocate) is it fair for this child to get an exam pass with a good grade and then go to work for someone who finds they can’t write out invoices? Education is paid for by the state/us not because it is therapeutic but so that it turns out enough educated people as required.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

‘That child will then be statemented’ I wonder if you’ve ever tried to get a statement for a child who needed support? I was really intrigued by Giles’ article. I’ve no experience of dyslexia, but my wife & I have fostered children for over 25yrs. I could tell many stories of trying to get support for children who needed it. There is one thing you always encounter- blind pitiless indifference. Dedicated teachers point out the child’s struggles & advice on applying to have a statement. It always comes down to money, though usually disguised as something else. As someone who’s run my own business & well able to advance an argument, I often reflect on what it must be like as a single mum, (perhaps not well versed in the ins & outs of educational policy) Trying to get help for their child. We delude ourselves if we think there’s help out there for children who need it.

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I don’t know about higher education but in secondary it is common now for all students to be at least screened, and all students want this as if you are deemed positive you can get an extra 25% time in exams. In my daughters private school one-third of the girls now get this extra time, which I think is more about people fiddling the system than it is about dyslexia, but I guess a lot of those girls are truly dyslexic to some degree. I believe this also carries over into higher ed as long as the educational psychologists report was done when the student is over 16, i.e. an adult

Last edited 3 years ago by G Matthews
James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago

Don’t educationalists just love labels? The more labels for “ syndromes” the more high paying “expert” 9 to 5 jobs in schools but not teaching kids.
Less money in the pot for recruiting good science or maths teachers and all kids labelled or not get bigger classes, but hey, why should these experts worry about that…….

Last edited 3 years ago by James Rowlands
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

I am just like the Giles, a dyslexic. School was hell and I ended up just refusing to be part of it, showing up 2/3 of the time, but not doing homework or any work – I left early and virtually uneducated and at the bottom of my class. Reading was something which was easy for me, but could barely write when I left, I also had become highly rebellious and defiant. I still cannot spell, it is impossible for me to spell a word by trying to sound it out, and cannot remember spelling either – but because I write so much I have learned to compensate (spell checker).
I hit the road and lived rough out of a backpack for almost a decade on and off, stopping to work, and to go to collages (I did high school as an adult first, at local collages), and finally university, one term at a time, then hitting the road between, I even lived homeless wile in college, living rough, for almost a year wile enrolled in classes one time. But it wore me down, life on the road, and life in general with no money, and no home, or base, is hard, so I dropped out of that life too and took to living in cities and doing manual work long enough to hit the road out of vehicles for another decade, and then went off to live remote in the Far North a few years, and more drifting later.
I did not fit into school because of my dyslexia, so basically at 13 when it really got bad I just dropped out of being a part, they just let me alone, and I left them alone, there in body, but not a part of the system otherwise. I stayed dropped out till my 40s, and then I decided to make money as poverty in old age was a horrible thought – and so made a lot of money in construction. And that was an odd thing – once I set out to actually make money for its own sake I found I could do it very well – very hard work though. But I then knew I could have been very wealthy if only I had remained part of the system at 13, and did things conventionally, but I did not because of the school, and how they treated me, and because I am by nature exceedingly defiant, unable to take anything pushing me, or harassing me. Punishment always just made me much worse, and so the spiral It took 30 years to break out of.

I regret I did not become the success I could have, and at much less work than being the person I became. Life is Hard, living fringe, it was much harder than if I had just tried in school, I know I am able to be successful in university from the bit I did, and becoming a millionaire would have not been hard, if I had just not fought the system every time. But then I would not have had the experiences I have had, and I have seen a lot of wild stuff in my days, and met every manner of people, and that has taught me a lot of life and existence – and although it would have been better to be rich with 3 well adjusted children and a trophy wife, you make your own bed, so sleep in it.

vladimir gorelov
vladimir gorelov
3 years ago

Excellent article. Interestingly, I recognise a few things in myself having never considered myself dyslexic. Giving a talk without notes – most certainly.

I have just come across an ad that offers guitar lessons – playing without thinking. Correct. Don’t we do most things better when we don’t think? Don’t need to be a dyslexic (if there is such thing as dyslexia).

Of course the way schools educate dyslexics could not be more wrong. But then the way they educate ‘normal’ children could not be more wrong either.

vladimir gorelov
vladimir gorelov
3 years ago

I didn’t mean to post anonymously. Vladimir Gorelov

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

What do you mean they educate “wrongly”? Children come out primed for the entitlement society, for a society that left wing teachers and academics believe is the solution to all humanity’s problems. That is academics and teachers who have themselves never provided even part of a solution to real world problems.
Academically, I did quite well at school, but sometimes I think it was in spite of the teachers rather than because of them.

vladimir gorelov
vladimir gorelov
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

I mean bad education. Mediocre. Apart from left indoctrination which is another bad thing.

Vladimir Gorelov

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

I think that they are inseparably intertwined.

vladimir gorelov
vladimir gorelov
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

I doubt left thinking and bad education are the same thing.

If you enforce equality by suppressing gifted children, dumb lessons down in case not everyone will cope, etc. then yes, you make education bad by left-wing mentality. But more often it is just bad. Trivial. Tedious. Not stimulating. Just mediocre. Like television can be mediocre. Or literature. Or people generally.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

I didn’t say they were the same thing. Read my comment again. You are even confirming my point.
Of course there can be bad education without the left-wing, but can there be good teaching with the left-wing who have to bring diversity (say) into (say) maths? That didn’t happen in my time. Then. it didn’t matter that men were digging the holes and not transwomen. or a diverse group where non-white people could dig better and faster than white people, or that fat people should consume fewer calories than thin people in order to become thin.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

Teachers have to teach the curriculum-but why for example do we seem to learn a lot of the geography of other countries , but little of our own-which might have some use to the student?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

I wonder if dyslexia is one those things that persists in populations because it’s often actually useful.
Are there any populations that don’t have any dyslexic people? If so it rather suggests it’s a useful adaptation that is selected to be preserved.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

For current neurological thinking along these lines, read Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene. There is a certain problem in that there are multiple things that can cause a child’s difficulty with reading, and they all are generally stuffed into the same pot, called dyslexia, but it is clear that a significant fraction of the dyslexics, the majority of those Dehaene has looked at — have the same problem. There is a moment when a reader, interpreting a letter or pair of letters, maps that letter into ‘what it sounds like’. This is true even with readers who were trained to read ‘not by sounding the words out’ — they just do it faster, and you can stick them in a MRI machine and watch it happen. There are cool pictures in the book. If your copy has only black and white prints, there are colour prints on the publisher’s website and you need the colour prints to make sense of what you are seeing.
In the dyslexics, something goes wrong with this lookup and instead of getting ‘the sound’ you get a resolution to several sounds. You can look at European languages and see how they rank in terms of ‘each letter maps onto one, and only one sound’ and ‘each sound, has one and only one way to write it’. English and French score badly on this scale. Italian and Hungarian score great. Italian and Hungarian schoolchildren do not have to spend any time learning ‘spelling’ — if they know how a word is pronounced, they know how to spell it. You can also hand them advanced texts in Italian or Hungarian, and ask them to read it. They have no clue what they mean, but they can read it off just fine.
How much dyslexia you have in your country maps perfectly to how easy your language is to use on this scale, to the point where the Italian educators for the longest time thought that dyslexia wasn’t real, but just a think that American and English educators made up in order to hide their bad practices as educators. It turns out there are dyslexics in Italy, but they are vanishingly few.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago

To continue, without triggering modification…
It is also the case that there are students who are dyslexic in English but who aren’t in Italian. In Japan, where you learn 3 representations of the language, there are children who are fine with memorising the character (picture) forms of their language, but cannot read the phonetic version of their language.
The book is really first rate. One of the best reads I have had in the last 10 years. There is some speculation that the ability to read comes from wherever our ability to understand animal tracks comes from. That one is a little hard to prove!

Last edited 3 years ago by Laura Creighton
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

Thanks Laura, that’s a really interesting post (well, two, in fact).
I find it interesting that language itself appears likely to have been onomatopoeic way, way back. Among the oldest words in the world are things like “agua”, still in use in several languages. If a group of people all say it together, like movie crowd extras muttering “rhubarb”, the word makes a sound like running water.
Written language coming afterwards relies mostly (I think) on graphemes to capture the sounds or on ideograms to capture the idea, and neither is at all close to how spoken language works. In a way, inventing writing is even more impressive than inventing language itself, and it’s not in the lest surprising that it’s possible to struggle with it.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Not even close.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

There are not three (written) representations of the Japanese language in Japan.

Weyland Smith
Weyland Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

ExamplesHere is an example of a sentence that uses all three Japanese scripts (kanji (red), hiragana (blue), katakana (green)), as well as the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals (black):
Tă‚·ăƒŁăƒ„ă‚’3æžšèłŒć…„ă—ăŸă—ăŸă€‚
I have no idea whether this wikipedia entry is correct, but it mentions three Japanese scripts. It would be useful if you could provide useful criticism and correction.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago
Reply to  Weyland Smith

I do wish people would not treat wikipedia entries as gospel truth, without bothering to go further. [The same applies to people who use google without understanding how it works.]
The scripts are not used interchangeably in standard writing. The phonetic hiragana is used for grammatical purposes. It is also used for children and other learners. The phonetic katakana is used to express foreign/loan words. On the other hand, a single kanji character may have different meanings. And the same kanji may have different meanings.
As Japanese writing is a human activity, it is not also consistent and the general priniciples above are occasionally breeched.
Remember that the author(s) of a Wikipedia entry may have even less understanding of the topic than you, the reader.
There are some very good books around on Japanese which can explain in more detail and better than I have here.Although that does take time, so much hard than looking at a wikipedia entry.

Liz Walsh
Liz Walsh
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

I wonder if in saying that “the same kanji” could have two different meanings, but then saying that twice, you actually meant to convey kanji potentially have not only two different meanings, but two different pronunciations, too, as when used with hiragana. Two thousand kanji, in their combinations and permutations will get you through minimal civic life in Japan. Almost everyone manages that, without the excessive academic “modifications” of the US and GB. Having taught in both Japan and the US, I wish we could jettison the education establishment’s idolatry of nomenclature. Different students learn in different ways, some subtle, some gross. Teaching is an art, at best, at worst teachers are pressured to act as if they were on a production line: the average good for the greatest number at the least expense. But a good teacher leads (e ducare) students from their strengths…The Rev. Mr. Fraser had such a teacher, with his public speaking challenge. I come from a strong heredity of “neurodiversity” (yes, succumbing to the edu-newspeak here, as that seems an appealingly euphemistic label), none of us with special accommodations but all achievers. Though my sister, a gifted sailor did have to wear a jersey which read, upside down, on her bosom, PORT and STARBOARD — for quick reference when racing.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

“modification” is that how dyslexics spell “moderation”?

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

No, just how tired me spelt it this morning, alas.
What Stanislas Dehaene and his colleague Kimihiro Nakamura have been studying is what goes on in Japanese brains when Japanese people are reading. In particular, do different things happen when they are reading Kana as opposed to Kanji? The answer is, not a whole lot. Both of them do the same thing — which involve the region of the brain where sounds are identified and processed. Before people like these researchers stuck people into MRI machines and recorded what was going on, many researchers assumed that this region was only involved in decoding language components which were created to express phonemes. If your language wasn’t doing this, so went the thinking, you could go directly from recognizing shapes of letters/characters/strokes directly to concept formation, no verbal processing necessary. Now we know that this is not true. The part of the brain that does verbal processing is involved whether on not your language is encoding phonemes or not.
See, for instance: Nakamura, K. Dehaene, S. Jobert, A. Le Behan, D & Kouider S (2005) Subliminal convergence of Kanji and Kana words: Further evidence for functional parcellation of the posterior temporal cortex in visual word perception. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 17(6):954-968
There are Japanese children who can read Kanji perfectly well but who are dyslexic when it comes to reading Kana. (And others who just cannot read, period.) If you are a neuroscientist studying what happens when people read, this is an interesting result.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

When did you have your irony bypass fitted? I did realise it was (almost certainly) a mistake but in the context of an article on dyslexia, my “question” was super-ironic. Thank you for taking it in good part.
Oversights like that don’t affect my assessment of what someone is saying. It’s the meaning (which I hope I have discerned correctly) which matters.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

What you say is very interesting though I stand by my original claim – there is only one writing system (though not always consistently applied) not three.
I am always skeptical about scientific conclusions. Scientists come up with a theory, then do their utmost to prove it. In fact, the theory should only be accepted (even then provisionally) when they have done their utmost to disprove it. Doing the latter won’t lead them getting much financial support or promote their career. Even scientist have families to support!
I have some stories from my personal experience to tell to add/complement what you said about reading Japanese, but tempus fugit, so bye for now.
One last thing, hiragana and katakana are used in very different “constructs”, so it is dangerous to lump them together in a single group.
And now I really must stop.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

From the point of view of a Neurologist, measuring what is going on in the brain when you read something, though, the important part is not whether they are called 2 different systems, or 2 different subsystems that make up the Japanese system, but whether they cause different behaviour in the brain. Which is what the book is all about — what goes on in your brain when you read something. The notion that reading might perform the same function for those people who have phonetic alphabets and those who have a huge number of characters to memorise but be accomplished entirely differently ‘under the hood’ so to speak was an interesting thing to study. Or at least I found it so.

Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

How on earth could dyslexia possibly be useful? By any measure it is a disadvantage in that it makes life more difficult and confers no benefit (unless, of course you consider being unable to read the Guardian, or Geoffrey Archer’s abominations a benefit. I would have to concede those points.)

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

As someone who was diagnosed with dyspraxia as a child, and who seems to tick all the boxes for what is regarded as ‘aspergers’ I sympathise. Though in my experience education is the least of the problems people face – at least for me my eidectic memory meant I could pass exams without revision and even taking any notes. I struggled at university mainly because I (foolishly) went into an arts subject where there was a woolly reading list that demanded a degree of ambiguity about what you actually had to be able to do and read. The lack of structure meant I had a miserable time. But worse came when I left and realised that any of the kind of professions a history degree might offer you such as law (even if it was a long shot) required social skills that were outside my balliwick. I had verbal abilities… very high verbal abilities but without the necessary social grace and presence these don’t really count for much as verbal-orientated careers require a strong dose of social awareness and social presence.
Eventually I got into programming and work as a software engineer and indeed have degrees in that. It has been ideal the last 10 years as it takes advantage of my ability to concentrate and solve a problem without having to deal with too much politics or people which is something I am very maladorit at. But neither the school nor the higher education system made it clear that I would have been better off following a more of a technical/engineering route given my skills. I think it is in *this* area where they could have given better advice to me. Whether I was too lazy and disorganised to have followed that route back then, who knows, though a hard dose of cold reality about what lay beyond education may have made me concentrate more.
As for getting a PhD… as much as I would love 3 years to study and devote myself to my passions, coming from a lower middle class background meant the hard reality of having to work and get ahead. I only managed to achieve my 2 masters by evening classes and distance learning. I think the family expectations and support that people have from different class background explains why some people with ‘neurodiverse’ profiles do all right for themselves and other end up wasting their lives.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

“maladroit”
Stick to Engish words where your dyslexia is less likely to become apparent.

CYRIL NAMMOCK
CYRIL NAMMOCK
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

That’s likely to have been a typo.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago
Reply to  CYRIL NAMMOCK

What amazing powers of deduction you have. I would never have thought of that possibility.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

You got into programming.
Does that mean you bear some of the responsibility for the poor quality of IT systems that people have to use?
“Garbage in, Garbage out” applies to IT systems as well as the data itself.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago
Reply to  Tami Misledus

The number of downvotes on my comment could be an indication of why there are so many bad systems. Too few people are competent enough to realise what a good system should do.

Kathy Prendergast
Kathy Prendergast
3 years ago

Having struggled mightily all through my schooling with mathematics, even though I was an early reader and always read at a level several grades higher and excelled in language arts, I sympathize greatly with those who did not fall into the mold and were thus labeled as slow or thick. Its grossly unfair. However, just because there are some things dyslexics are often good at, like pattern recognition, doesnt mean that being dyslexic itself confers any advantage. Correlation does not equal causation. It could simply be that, unable to rely on the ability to read easily, dyslexics tend to hone other skills in order to compensate. Or its just the luck of the draw, to have strong abilities in some areas but not in others. Most dyslexics I have known tended to have excellent memories, but it may have bee because they hadnt been able to rely on reading from notes when giving presentations. I think were always going to struggle with the terminology, though. I guess it sounds better to call them learningdifferences, but either way, kids who have these issues are always going to have a harder time than most. Being labeled as gifted when I was a kid wouldnt have helped me, when I couldnt keep up with any of the other kids in my class in math even though I could read rings around them. Ultimately, in school nobody cares if youre unusually good at one or two things but terrible in another, especially a skill, like math or reading, seen as essential. Thats not really being gifted.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago

Separate matter, Cathy, but your posting (at least on my PC) shows up in a mixture of red and black and in different fonts. I have the same problem when I post. It seems to be every time I use an apostrophe. So I now have to use contorted sentences like the friends of my brother.
This problem only appears on Unherd.

George Bruce
George Bruce
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Sorry, Kathy, not Cathy!

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

Have you let them know? They do not seem to pick up problems very easily but they should be able to deal with it.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  George Bruce

(I think she is illustrating how inputs to her brain are in clashing kinds – verbal, great, numerical, chaos.)

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

Also there are obviously genuine dyslexics like Susan Hampshire , who has written books about it , but it suddenly became a catch-phrase for some pupils who weren’t especially academic.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

Yes, you are right Kathleen. Parents whose children are not as academic as they want use dyslexia as an excuse. Of course, this disadvantages the genuine dyslexics and simply adds to the problems of those with pushy parents.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

A bit like being racially discriminated against then.
As in “I am from a racial minority, I am thick. I am thick because of discrimination against me”

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

DYSLEXIA IS REAL.What is surprising is the huge list of the worlds greatest who were dyslexic. Often it is accompanied by a very high IQ, and the way the brain works is with an ability to see issues in bigger pictures. I also think dyslexia also often is with a bit of a defiant disorder so you go independently instead of with the pack, and the three qualities out weigh the inability to spell – the problem is the inability to spell in school often means you get off the rails of the steady progression upwards and end up a dropout somewhat.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Though as most people in the world in the past were illiterate, surely it cannot have been diagnosed until recently?

danielgeorgepalmer
danielgeorgepalmer
3 years ago

Thanks Giles for this article and for highlighting the issue. I myself have dyslexia and have experienced similar difficulties with underachievement at school, organisation, and driving. I expected that diagnosis in schools and support would have improved over the years (i was last in school 20 years ago) but 80% being undiagnosed is a big worry. I took matters into my own hands after scraping into university after my tutors suggested taking a test after observing my work. When I was told I had dyslexia it was a big relief that I wasn’t as thick as i thought! Dyslexia is broad and is not just about poor spelling, as many think. For example, I need to re-read paragraphs several times to understand them, find it hard to maintain focus and concentration, get confused when given several instructions at once, and read slowly. It is not all bad as I work in a creative industry and have many ideas about how to solve issues, but it took me a long time to understand what work i could do due to thinking i was not good enough. Hopefully diagnosis and understanding improve in schools and workplaces over time.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago

My husband is dyslexic and spent the whole of his school days being regarded as thick. He left school without any qualifications and worked for several years in low level jobs which never lasted long, before going back into education to do an Access to HE course and then on to a degree. Even at college he never got identified as dyslexic – I was the one who recognised it and encouraged him to get tested.What alerted me to it was his extremely high level of verbal reasoning skills contrasted with the poor spelling and weak grammar, and his ability to learn a skill just by watching someone do it – a skill I have never been able to master. He’s also a top class lateral thinker.
In the psychometric tests administered by a psychologist, he came in the top 20 percentile for verbal reasoning and in the bottom 10% for processing skills which include spelling and basic numeracy.
He can’t remember the date of my birthday despite us having been together for nearly 40 years and struggles to work out how old he is if asked.
He eventually learnt how to do photography and entered the industry just at the point it went digital. It was a relief to him as he could never remember the chemical formulas needed to develop prints the old-fashioned way – but took to Photoshop and other software like a duck to water. It’s a source of great pleasure to him that he has his own successful business after constantly being underestimated and patronised in his previous education and employment experiences.
Apparently dyslexic people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system – probably from never having been given the support they need, and discovering that crime was more erwarding than the minimum wage jobs they would otherwise be trapped in.

Last edited 3 years ago by Eleanor Barlow
david.ginsberg
david.ginsberg
3 years ago

I was at the Lycee Francais Charles De Gaulle in London and struggled immensely with my dyslexia which wasn’t recognised. I think I had the record for the most 0 out of 20 in dictation in my year. Teachers, parents and myself put it down to me being terrible at French and Inevitably I hat to repeat “redouble” my year 6. this did allow me to catch up but even when I switched to the English section for GCSE and A-Levels at 14 I still made similar mistakes. My Geography teacher the kind Mr Weeks could never understand why I spelt “settlement” wrong every time. It was only at Birmingham University later that a great tutor Dr Alex Hughes who taught me french literature suggested I get a dyslexia assessment in my final year, she noticed I made the same mistakes in all 3 years she taught me. It was a big help though I was still ashamed to tell my housemates that I would be sitting exams separate from them. it helped massively though I did really well in my final year and gave me huge confidence. However if I’m honest the biggest improvement in my life is using a computer that checks your spelling, the auto-correct stops your mistakes and teaches you instantly. However the not knowing my left from my right I have never been able to cure!

John Coulthard
John Coulthard
3 years ago

I’m dyslexic, diagnosed in my 40’s when working for Microsoft. About a third of the Company are thought to be dyslexic. I have some advantages over my non-dyslexic colleagues; I can see patterns in massive data sets, predict number trends, code without error and speak in public to huge audiences without notes and total recall. I imagine if my school had diagnosed and embraced my dyslexia and helped me exploit the powers I seem to have, my early business life would have been a great deal easier. However, I think they would have tried to “cure” me, and God knows where I would have ended up.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
3 years ago
Reply to  John Coulthard

You found your own way, just as my husband did – and utilised the skills and talents that you do have. Schools are set up to deal with the average pupil and generally don’t deal well with those who can’t learn in the way that school expects them to do.If school had tried to cure you, you would probaly ended up highly stressed and in a job well below your ability level.

Claire Olszanska
Claire Olszanska
3 years ago

Your title seems to be way off mark. In the last 26 years of being a parent it seems to me that high potential achievers and specific educational needs get the attention. Tough luck to the majority who sit in the middle – those who could do with a bit of extra help, but don’t fit tick box for special needs, and those who could do better given the time and resources. Those in the middle are always overlooked because they can muddle along!

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

The education system has an academic focus that may suit teachers butters does not meet the needs of many students or the countries needs for other skills including those in innovation and entrepreneurship.
I have little faith the educational system has the will to change, despite technology changing many of key skills needed.

Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

You raise an interesting point : it seems to me that people (generally) do not question precisely what school is meant to achieve (unless it is literate, numerate fodder for the workforce, and that is now out of date) and the only people who do talk about it generally have a personal axe to grind (“I’m nearly illiterate, so I don’t think spelling matters”(Hull!) – “I can’t count and schools do not teach enough arty subjects.” – “I’m a bit dull, so I would like more STEM teaching in schools.” and my personal favourite “Schools don’t spend enough time on sports.” though of course I admit that really I am one of those people who has always loathed sport, so I think schools should waste less resources on it.)

I remain impressed by the head teacher of my eldest’s primary school who, nearly forty years ago, said to me (I paraphrase) “I believe in a broad-based education, but the bottom line is that I want children to leave my school able to read, write, and count.” Those were the days!!

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago

People interested in this subject will find Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene very interesting. I discussed it a bit in a reply to Jon Redman here, but then thought maybe the reference deserved a top level post.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
3 years ago

I do think there is room for more understanding of neurodiversity as a positive and a negative – but it is not a superpower any more than being neuronormative is.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

there is a slight difference between dyslexia and Hull’s bout of mental incontinence.
If I could go back to school again, this I what I would want to tell them: dyslexia is your problem not mine. Uh, no; the underlying issue is yours. That schools may not be well-equipped to deal with it is another matter, but ultimately, it is your problem. It’s still around as shown by the sermon story at the outset. Calling attention to an issue is one thing; absolving the person who has it of any connection is quite another.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

“or”.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago

All systems struggle with “outliers” and education is no different. I’d add also that education is an eternal political football where the question “what is education for?” is never satisfactorily answered once and for all.

James Moss
James Moss
3 years ago

How on earth does Unherd get away with publishing this dross.
Dyslexics are not treated in schools as they were 30 years ago.

Charlie Dunstone would not have been successful had he come from humble beginnings and gone to a sink secondary-modern. His family was well off and he went to Uppingham. Dyslexia was neither here nor there.

Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago

“I don’t know the science. I don’t really understand what makes dyslexics different.” But your article gives the distinct impression that you do know that they are ‘better’ – “Which may well be why, by working out a different way of doing things, my ‘disability’ did become a kind of superpower.”

Sorry, I don’t buy it. I am sorry that you are dyslexic; it must make life very difficult. I am glad you are making the most of it (which is all that any of us can do, in the end) and that you have been academically successful but I really am most sceptical that dyslexia gives you ‘other’ enhanced skills (though I have to say, as I read your article, I found myself wondering whether you are actually on the autistic spectrum rather than just dyslexic).

I was amused by your statement “I have always been more comfortable in the abstract than the concrete. And theology, of course, encourages this.” Of course it does; blundering around in the dark, making pronouncements about things you cannot possibly know, but hiding ignorance behind a fog of ‘Faith’ – what a happy state!

On a more serious note, you are right that the education system fails a whole range of people (dyslexics do not have a monopoly on this) and someone is lucky if they just happen to be the sort of person with the sort of skills that schools pick up on and develop (I was that someone – I admit how lucky I was). But your conclusion is wholly wrong “If I could go back to school again, this I what I would want to tell them: dyslexia is your problem not mine.”

Sorry mate, it’s your problem, it’s no-one else’s. You are going to have to come up with a better argument if you want help with your problem. Or you are just going to have to keep on doing the best you can.

Fiona Cordy
Fiona Cordy
3 years ago

“Swatting away in the library.“ Was the sub-editor trying to show solidarity? Sorry, couldn‘t resist it.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

There’s a good chance today that hardworking dyslexics are better readers than ‘normal’ children.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Please provide your working.

Adam M
Adam M
3 years ago

“When I was a school” Dyslexia strikes again Giles!

Fred Atkinstalk
Fred Atkinstalk
3 years ago
Reply to  Adam M

Indeed. I was also struck that ‘god’ (sic) had a lower case G. (Well done, vicar!)

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago

My friend at school (early 80s) had a badge that said: “dyslexics of the world untie”.
it took me years to work out I had consistently misread it….

Vanessa Dylyn
Vanessa Dylyn
3 years ago

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the founder of the Arrowsmith School and author of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. She was born severely learning-disabled and struggled a great deal in her life to get through school. She became aware of the new science of neuroplasticity and designed a method to stimulate certain areas of the brain and raise the functioning level of the disability. Her school in Toronto changed the lives of thousands of students and adults. And her method is now used world-wide. Her story is told in the film Fixing My Brain (CBC/Canada) available through http://www.matteroffactmedia.com
Full disclosure: I am the producer of the film but in my earlier career was a teacher of English who was told by the administration to modify the marks of learning-disabled students. It was a privilege to make a film about this pioneer who helped so many people.

Last edited 3 years ago by Vanessa Dylyn
G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago

A lot of work has been done in schools as I have learned through the experiences of my own daughter, but not enough and when my wife did her PGCE 3 years ago we were both amazed that it did not cover how to identify dyslexia. In our daughter’s case it was so apparent, even to a layman like me with no experience of it (for example, she kept spelling the same words incorrectly but in various different incorrect ways, there was no pattern to the errors she was making), that I told the school 3 times over 4 years that I thought she was dyslexic only for the school to test her with a high-level screening test and come back and tell me that she wasn’t. After this we could only accept the views of teachers that she was lazy, etc. Matters came to a head at GCSE time when we found out you can get 25% extra time if you are diagnosed dyslexic and the school suddenly became interested (anything for the league tables) and said she should be tested by an educational psychologist, who gave her what is an old-school IQ test (of course the psychologist refused to admit that was what it was but did let the cat out of the bag along the way) and found the problems in processing speed and something else i forgot. So a private school with a full time SEN specialist and all the incentive cannot get it half-right (in fact they got it exactly wrong) so I doubt much hope for anyone else.

Tami Misledus
Tami Misledus
3 years ago

Why do followers of the semitic doctrines (Jews, Christians and muslims) believe that those who don’t follow their doctrine will be punished by a Supreme Being for not following their doctrine?
Semitic doctrines are vile.
Giles Fraser is a follower of (and total believer in) the semitic doctrine of Christianity.