Inspired by a discussion on the Being Dyslexic forums I decided to look into whether dyslexia is a gift. There is this perception that dyslexia gives you great talent at the expense of mundane skills such as reading and writing. People claim that many of the great scientists such as Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell and Faraday were dyslexic. Though given the arguments over diagnosing dyslexia on living people I fail to see how you can do it on dead people.
So is dyslexia a gift? Does it make you more creative and smarter? Ron Davis in his book The Gift of Dyslexia certainly thinks so as do many dyslexics. Certainly there is anecdotal evidence which is reinforced by web sites like the International Institute of Dyslexia: “[Adult dyslexics are] often spatially talented; professions include, but are not limited, to engineers, architects, designers, artists and craftspeople, mathematicians, physicists, physicians (esp. surgeons and orthopedists), and dentists.“
But what is the truth? Is this wishful thinking by parents who would rather dream their child will be great one day rather than tackling actual problems of dyslexia? At this point I need to get something off my chest:
Disclaimer: I’ve never felt dyslexia was a gift. School was hell and when I left school I struggled in the world of work. I couldn’t draw or play musical instruments or study science no matter how hard I tried. My dyslexia held me back and since I’ve got rid of my dyslexia I can now draw, play instruments and spell complicated words. I’m not very good at any of them yet but I am getting better.
So my opinion may be biased however this shouldn’t matter because there should be good scientific evidence to settle the argument right? Wrong, I’ve only found two studies that are immediately relevant. The prevalence of dyslexia among art students found that “according to self-reports combined with objective testing, the incidence of dyslexia was far higher among art students“. So it looks good for the dyslexics-are-creative argument. However this study paints a different picture: Findings from the International Adult Literacy Survey on the incidence and correlates of learning disabilities in New Zealand “compared to non-[Self Reported Learning Difficulties] (SRLD) adults, those with SRLD were found to leave school earlier, engage more often in manual occupations, are more frequently unemployed, and rely on more state assistance“. Dyslexics are more likely to be without a job or in a poor job. Dyslexia isn’t looking like a gift now. If we examine those at the bottom of society, two studies on dyslexia and prison found that 50% of prisoners are dyslexic.
So how do we reconcile the higher percentage of art students plus the anecdotal evidence against the increased unemployment and the prison studies?
Simply put, its sink or swim.
10% of all children are dyslexic and they are as diverse in their strengths and weaknesses as normal children are. Some dyslexics are bright, some aren’t so bright, some are good at art, some can’t hold a pencil properly and so on. Image you are a dyslexic child who struggles in academic subjects but do quite well in art and you get the opportunity to pick which subjects you want to take at GCSE level. Are you going to pick art based subjects or academic subjects? Inevitably people pick subjects they can do and drop the other subjects as soon as they can. Where as a child who is good at art and good at the academic subjects might pick art or they might pick an academic subject. So all the dyslexic, artistic students will end up in art school where as only some of the non-dyslexic, artistic students will. This will skew the number of dyslexics in art school and then subsequently in jobs like graphic design and architecture. It is not the dyslexic that made them good at art but it was the dyslexia that forced them along a certain route.
The same concept applies to science and dyslexia. Some people do have a natural interest in science and have the memory for details that you need to study it. If someone has enough interest and memory skills then they can cope with the essays and books even if they are dyslexic. If science is the only subject area a dyslexic can cope with then they are going to focus on it. So again dyslexia doesn’t make them good scientists, it just prevents them from pursuing other academic subjects.
But what happens to the dyslexics who don’t have the interest in science or the artistic abilities? The system fails them. They under-perform, become disillusioned with school and often society as a whole. They drop out. In any class there are going to be kids with emotional problems or who just are not very clever who will be at the bottom of the pile. These are who are statistically likely to end up unemployed or in jail. The curse of dyslexia is that it is the averagely able but dyslexic students who join their less able peers at the bottom of society.
The school system is like a long distance swimming race. Some competitors are strong and fast. They will win the race and set new records. Most competitors are in the pack, never winning but still completing the race. Whereas the weak swimmers at the back, they struggle to reach the end but some flounder and drown. Dyslexia is a heavy weight that is given out randomly to the competitors regardless of how well they can swim. Those who are fast and strong can overcome the weight. The weight might even help them, force them to work harder and learn to swim better. The average competitors given a weight will struggle. Maybe they are just strong enough and those will keep their head above water but find themselves at the back with the other strugglers. Pity the those already at the back who are given the weight. What chance do they have of keeping their head above water?