My son is Dyslexic and I admit that I all too often fall into the mode of lamenting that he (and my family) must ‘deal’ with his condition.  I wallow and worry about how he struggles in school and at home.  Together we suffer through the standard approaches to learning and doing things, and we spend time and money for targeted therapy and remediation.  I muse to myself that it sure would be nice to spend time and money on other endeavors instead.

People are always talking about the need to find the upside of situations, of pointing out strengths instead of weaknesses, of celebrating achievements instead of noting shortcomings.  This is supposed to be the ‘new age’ of appreciating differences and lauding what the differences bring to the table, right? At the smorgasbord of humanity should we really be complaining that all the burgers don’t have the same shape and taste?  That someone is ‘doing it wrong’?  Most of us ‘get’ this but we still fall into societal expectations (limitations?) about performance and achievement.  We keep finding ourselves spending too much time lamenting the inability to measure up.

Consider the situation of the dyslexic child who is having academic difficulties in school.  You know they’re not lazy so you get help and do everything you can to help them struggle less and feel good more often.  So What’s the Upside of Dyslexia? Is there anything else besides waiting for results to celebrate?  Waiting to say “Hooray, you’re fixed.”

In all that waiting, I forget to remind him and myself of his unusual strengths and gifts. I KNOW Dyslexics experience the world differently and I need to find a way to appreciate that – and believe it.  But I always end up immersing myself in literature and other venues to figure out how to ‘fix’ that.  I gotta step out of that kind of thinking more often.  We all do and maybe what I found can give you a boost as well.

I recently came across the work of Dr. Matthew H. Schneps, a founding member of the Science Education Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Astrophysics?  Yes. But wait, it gets better.

Schneps founded the Laboratory for Visual Learning (LVL) to carry out research on how individual differences in neurology such as those associated with dyslexia, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders, affect how people learn science.  His work has led to a number of spinoffs such as the development of an innovative technique for reading for people with dyslexia using mobile devices, but what I found most rewarding were the descriptions of visual advantages that dyslexics have in our world.

Dyslexics get the whole pictureFor example did you know that that many people with dyslexia have sharper peripheral vision than others?  The brain processes separately the information from the central versus the peripheral areas of the visual field.  And the brain seems to trade off on these capacities. The key to reading is being adept focusing on details located in the center of the visual field while being less proficient at recognizing features and patterns in the periphery.  As it turns out, people with dyslexia have a bias in favor of the periphery and so can quickly take in a scene as a whole; they get the “visual gist” more readily.

As an astrophysicist, Schneps and other scientists in his line of work must make sense of vast quantities of visual data and accurately detect patterns or anomalies.  He suggested that a condition of dyslexia may actually enhance the ability to carry out just such a task.  Indeed, one study he conducted showed that astrophysicists with dyslexia outperformed their non-dyslexic colleagues in assessing visual data (radiographs) to identify distinctive characteristics of black holes.  In another simple experiment, he blurred regular photographs to the extent that they resembled astronomical images.  Dyslexics easily caught on whereas typical readers failed to do so.  Still more studies demonstrate enhanced peripheral capture and whole scene capture by dyslexics as compared to non-dyslexics .

I’m only scratching the surface here and I certainly don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we should simply ‘celebrate’ the gift of dyslexia and leave it at that.  Reading and other academic pursuits remain a real challenge for those with dyslexia and other related disabilities.  We have lifetimes of work ahead of us as we work to remediate weaknesses. But identifying the distinctive aptitudes of those with dyslexia helps us understand the condition more completely.  I plan on keeping an eye on Schneps’ work and LVL to increase my understanding and help me appreciate my son and other dyslexics for their unique abilities – not just their ability to overcome certain learning challenges.

Happy New Year!