By Nadia Rousseau, Ph.D., Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières
Dyslexia, a specific learning disability, is more often investigated on the basis of its limitations than its strengths. The purpose of this article, which is primarily based on a survey of the scientific literature on the hidden potential of individuals with dyslexia, is to increase awareness amongst educators of the complexity of this disability and to offer a fair, even promising, representation of dyslexia. In so doing, it invites educators to reflect on their own perceptions of dyslexia.
Note: The terminology used in this article may not align with vocabulary used in diagnostic materials and IEPs. In Ontario, students would be diagnosed as having a specific learning disability or specific learning disorder in the area of reading or written expression.
The Major Challenges of Dyslexia
Dyslexia is described as “a sustained difficulty in learning how to read and acquiring reading and writing fluency in children who are intelligent, who are receiving a standard education and who do not present with sensory-based issues or pre-existing psychological issues” (Dumont, 2003, p. 11 [freely translated]). Individuals with dyslexia face persistent challenges with reading and spelling (Kemp et al., 2008; Maughan et al., 2009), which can have a significant impact on their competency in written communication (Bourdin, Cogis and Foulin, 2010). Compared to their peers, individuals with dyslexia have weak literacy skills and produce shorter texts with a significant number of spelling and punctuation errors (Berninger et al., 2008; Garcia and Fidalgo, 2008; Tops et al., 2012).These academic challenges resulting from dyslexia can affect self-esteem and result in anxiety at school.
- Self-esteem relates to the perception that someone has of himself (Schillings, Dupont and Baye, 2013), or what he feels about himself introspectively (Riding, 2001). Several researchers have demonstrated that, in the school context, individuals with dyslexia often present with a negative self-image (Lackaye and Margalit, 2006; van Kraayenoord et al., 2011), characterized by feelings of inadequacy or inferiority or of being different from their peers (Rousseau, 2005; Hellendoorn and Ruijssenaars, 2000, cited in Prittimaa, Takala and Ladonlahti, 2015). Anyone who experiences difficulty with reading and writing is familiar with this phenomenon.
- Anxiety can be expressed on various physiological, psychological, emotional, and behavioural scales (Servant, 2007). The ability to perceive a measure of control over threats plays a role in the level of anxiety experienced and the adaptation strategies adopted (Schwarzer et al., 1997; Zimmerman et al., 1997). The level of anxiety experienced, and the strategies used to cope, can influence an individual’s motivation to learn, feelings of competency at school, assessment related stress, and overall well-being. Studies have shown that students with dyslexia are more likely to experience anxiety over being assessed than their non-dyslexic peers (Lufi, Okasha and Cohen, 2004; Pajares et al., 2003, cited in Garcia and de Caso, 2006; Turkington and Harris, 2006).
Here is an example of a coping strategy for dealing with stress:
- Focus on the problem, not the emotional and physical reactions to stress
- Use the following steps to find information and then act on that information to change the stressful situation:
- Define the problem;
- Generate alternative solutions;
- Assess alternatives in terms of costs and benefits;
- And, choose an alternative solution and plan actions accordingly (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
In addition to consulting research to make informed decisions, educators can benefit by addressing not only the challenges that dyslexia presents, but also the potential opportunities it offers.
The Surprising Opportunities that Dyslexia Offers
Having dyslexia won't make every individual with dyslexia a genius, but it is good for the self-esteem of all individuals with dyslexia to know their minds work in exactly the same way as the minds of great geniuses.
Davis and Braun, 1994, p. 23. [freely translated]
Most people think of dyslexia in terms of the problems that it creates and how to ‘fix’ them. According to West (1995), the focus should instead be on the exceptional talents and abilities that often come with this challenge. Aitken, a professor of orthopedics at Duke University in North Carolina who has dyslexia, explains that his ability to see things from a three-dimensional perspective really helped him to learn:
I chose orthopedics because I quickly realized at medical school that I couldn’t process a large corpus of written material quickly enough. I had to rely on summaries instead. However, I excelled at anatomy without having to put in the effort that my peers seemed to need. When I was studying the heart, I realized for the first time that I could move three-dimensional shapes in my head (1995, cited in West, 1995, p. 55 [freely translated]).
In the same vein, researchers (von Karolyi, 2001; von Karolyi et al., 2003; Bacon, Handley and McDonald, 2007) have shown that visual spatial ability is higher in adolescents with dyslexia than in their non-dyslexic peers. Adolescents with dyslexia have a tendency to conceptualize information in visual-spatial form rather than verbally. According to von Karolyi et al. (2003), these abilities have a variety of professional applications in construction, invention, visual art, surgery, and the interpretation of x-rays or MRIs. At school, unlike their non-dyslexic peers, individuals with dyslexia have an advantage when making visual comparisons of the same image, but are at a disadvantage when comparing multiple images. This difference is even more pronounced when the images are not on the same page (Schneps, Rose and Fischer, 2007). Children with dyslexia also perform better than their non-dyslexic peers on visual spatial thought experiments, such as the paper folding test. After making a hole in a piece of folded paper, subjects taking this test must identify the correct illustration once the paper is unfolded (Jarrett, cited in Duranovic, Dedeic and Gavrić, 2014).
Figure 1. Example of a paper folding test
The surprising entrepreneurial skills of individuals with dyslexia are also of interest. Marazzi (2011, p. 19) wrote an article for Fortune magazine on individuals with dyslexia who had made a name for themselves in the business world. Marazzi further stated that dyslexia is actually a virtue or talent that schools and institutions (both of which are systems dominated by language) are incapable of understanding or valuing. A number of qualities associated with dyslexia, as reported by Davis and Braun (2012), are present in a high percentage of entrepreneurs:
- Increased level of curiosity
- Ability to think in images
- Multidimensional perception
- Ability to feel things as if they were real
- A vivid imagination
Other studies, including those by Logan (2008, 2009), also note that adults with dyslexia are over-represented amongst entrepreneurs, and are particularly effective at setting up a company. This ability could be a result of their needing to think and act outside the box. Logan states that businesses developed by individuals with dyslexia also tend to grow more rapidly than businesses developed by their counterparts without dyslexia. One explanation might be their ability to delegate certain tasks in order to compensate for their own shortcomings. Another interesting possibility is raised by Doyle (2012, cited in Sutton, 2012), an industrial psychologist, who states that individuals with dyslexia need to work in unconventional ways, creating their own rules and making connections between ideas. This translates into a talent for identifying market niches and more direct paths to success.
Individuals with dyslexia also tend to be highly creative. Researchers have noted their ability to find new uses for everyday objects (Everatt, Steffert and Smythe, 1999). They have also noted their significant creative and artistic talents (Chakravarty, 2009; Lowe, 2002; Wolff and Lundberg, 2002). Çorlu, Özcan and Korkmazlar (2007, 2009) write that individuals with dyslexia are especially suited for the field of graphic arts and should be considered as strong candidates for work in this field. They conclude that, due to their ability to see the world around them differently, individuals with dyslexia are more imaginative and creative than their non-dyslexic counterparts (Everatt, Steffert and Smythe, 1999).
Davis and Braun (1994) boldly associated dyslexia with genius and they are certainly not alone. Other academics have followed suit, noting surprising talents that are all too often obscured by reading and writing disabilities at school. Now that light has been shed on the subject, we can no longer adopt a reductive vision of dyslexia; indeed, recent research invites us to tap into these talents, regardless of the nature of our role in the education community.
The face of dyslexia has forever changed. To contribute to the development of this new vision, we must accept or at least acknowledge that dyslexia is complex and that an individual’s ability to read and write is not the sole indicator of his or her potential. Using the research for enlightened decision-making in schools, let’s explore the surprising talent of individuals with dyslexia to:
- think in images instead of words
- think differently, think creatively
- use an innovative approach to problem-solving
- use all of the senses to understand the world
- make heightened use of visual representations
Self-realization is influenced by an individual’s subjective experience of school; it is also influenced by the opportunities that are offered to experiment with every aspect of one’s potential.
Many individuals with dyslexia have become successful and accomplished adults.
Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website
Bacon, A.M., Handley, S.J. and McDonald, E.L. (2007). Reasoning and dyslexia: A spatial strategy may impede reasoning with visually rich information. British Journal of Psychology, 98, 79-92.
Berninger, V.W., Nielsen, K.H., Abbott, R.D., Wijsman, E. and Raskind, W. (2008). Writing problems in developmental dyslexia: Under-recognized and under-treated. Journal of School Psychology, 46(1), 1-21.
Bourdin, B., Cogis, D. and Foulin, J.-N. (2010). Influence des traitements graphomoteurs et ortho-graphiques sur la production de textes écrits: perspective pluridisciplinaire. Langages, (1), 57-82.
Chakravarty, A. (2009). Artistic talent in dyslexia – A hypothesis. Medical Hypotheses, 73, 569-571.
Çorlu, M., Özcan, O. and Korkmazlar, Ü. (2007). The potential of dyslexic individuals in communication design education. Behavioural Neurology, 18, 217-223.
Çorlu, M., Özcan, O. and Korkmazlar, Ü. (2009). The Meaning of Dyslexics’ Drawings in Communication Design, Dyslexia, 15, 147-154.
Davis, R.D. and Braun, E.M. (1994). Le don de dyslexie. Paris : La Méridienne.
Davis, R.D. and Braun, E.M. (2012). Le don de dyslexie. 2e édition revue et augmentée. Paris : La Méridienne.
Dumont, A. (2003). Réponses à vos questions sur la dyslexie. Paris : Éditions Solar.
Duranovic, M., Dedeic, M. and Gavrić, M. (2014). Dyslexia and Visual-Spatial Talents. Current Psychology, 34(2), 207-222 DOI: 10.1007/s12144-014-9252-3
Everatt, J., Steffert, B. and Smythe, I. (1999). An Eye for the Unusual: Creative Thinking in Dyslexics. Dyslexia, 5, 28-46.
García, J.N. and de Caso, A.M. (2006). Changes in writing self-efficacy and writing products and processes through specific training in the self-efficacy beliefs of the learning disabled. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 4, 1-27.
García, J.N. and Fidalgo, R. (2008). Orchestration of working processes and writing products: A comparison of sixth-grade students with and without learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal, 6(2), 77-98.
Kemp, N., Parrila, R.K. et al. (2008). Phonological and orthographic spelling in high‐functioning adult dyslexics. Dyslexia, 15(2), 105-128.
Lackaye, T.D. and Margalit, M. (2006). Comparisons of achievement, efforts, and self perceptions among students with learning disabilities and their peers from different achievement groups. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 39, 432-446.
Lazarus, R.S. and Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Springer Publishing Company
Logan, J. (2008, January). Analysis of the incidence of dyslexia in entrepreneurs and its implications. Paper presented to the United States Association for small business and entrepreneurship (USASBE). San Antonio, TX.
Logan, J. (2009). Dyslexic Entrepreneurs: The Incidence; Their Coping Strategies and Their Business Skills. Dyslexia, 15, 328-346.
Lowe, M.R. (2002). Dyslexia, a different ability: a phenomenological study. Doctoral thesis, Pacifica graduate institute. Carpinteria, Californie.
Lufi, D., Okasha, S. and Cohen, A. (2004). Test anxiety and its effect on the personality of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 27, 176-184.
Marazzi, C. (2011). Dyslexia and the economy. Journal of the theoretical humanities, 16(3), 19-
Maughan, B., Messer, J., Collishaw S., Pickles, A., Snowling, M., Yule W. and Rutter, M. (2009). Persistence of literacy problems: spelling in adolescence and at mid‐life. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(8), 893-901.
Riding, R.J. (2001). Self-Perception in context: toward a model of individual differences in school performance. In R.J. Riding and S.G. Rayner (eds.), International perspectives on individual differences, vol. 2, Self-Perception (p. 77-100). Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.
Schillings, P., Dupont, V. and Baye, A. (2013). Le rôle de la perception de soi comme lecteur dans le développement de la compétence en lecture. Mesure et évaluation en éducation, 36(2), 111-142.
Schneps, M.H., Rose, L.T. and Fischer K.W. (2007). Visual Learning and the Brain: Implications for Dyslexia. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(3), 128-139.
Schwarzer, R., Bäßler, J., Kwiatek, P., Schröder, K. and Xin Zhang, J.X. (1997). The assessment of optimistic self-beliefs: Comparison of the german, spanish, and chinese versions of the general self-efficacy scale. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46, 69-88.
Servant, D. (2007). Gestion du stress et de l'anxiété (2nd ed.). Issy-les-Moulineaux, France : Elsevier Masson.
Sutton, J. (2012).The entrepreneur within. Careers, 25(7), 542-545.
Tops, W., Callens, C., Van Cauwenberghe, E., Adriaens, J. and Brysbaert, M. (2012). Beyond spelling: the writing skills of students with dyslexia in higher education. Reading and Writing, 1-16.
Turkington, C. and Harris, J.R. (2006). The Encyclopedia of Learning Disabilities (2nd edition). New York, NY: Facts on File.
Van Kraayenoord, C.E., Moni, K.B., Jobling, A., Elkins, J., Koppenhaver, D. and Miller, R. (2011). The writing achievement, metacognitive knowledge of writing and motivation of middle-school students with learning difficulties. In C. Wyatt-Smith et al. (ed.) (2011). Multiple perspectives on difficulties in learning literacy and numeracy (p. 213-234). Springer Science.
von Karolyi, C. (2001). Visual-Spatial Strength in Dyslexia: Rapid Discrimination of Impossible Figures. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(4), 380-391.
Von Karolyi, C., Winner, E., Gray, W. and Sherman, G.F. (2003). Dyslexia linked to talent: Global visual-spatial ability. Brain and Language, 85(3), 427-431.
West, T.G. (1995). Awakening to dyslexic talents in the “new economy”. Dyslexia, 1(1), 55-56.
Wolff, U. and Lundberg, I. (2002). The Prevalence of Dyslexia Among Art Students. Dyslexia, 8, 34-42.
Zimmerman, M.A., L.A., Copeland, J.T. Shope and T.E. Dielman (1997). A Longitudinal Study of Self Esteem: Implications for Adolescent Development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 26(2), p.117-143.