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Terry Child
Terry Child

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Dyslexia Awareness Week

October the 4th to 10th is Dyslexia Awareness Week, a time to raise awareness and understanding of dyslexia and how it affects the people who have it. It is believed up to 10% of people experience dyslexia, I’m one of them. I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on the subject, some of the challenges I experience and the incredible gift I consider dyslexia to be.

I’d like to start by explaining how I was tested for dyslexia, it gives some insight into what educational psychologists are looking for and what dyslexia is. The main part of the evaluation process consists of a series of short tests covering all kinds of areas. As you might expect there are reading, writing and spelling tests. There are also comprehension, logical reasoning, spatial awareness and memory tests, the list goes on. It’s a complete workout for the brain and the whole process takes a few hours.

Each test starts easy (spell "cat" for example), and gets progressively more difficult (spell "dyslexia") before you fail or run out of time. Some tests are repeated using different communication styles, for example the spelling test will be done as a written test and then as an oral test.

The results for each test are compared to the national averages to see which percentile they scored in. Scoring in the 50th percentile means half the nation scored better, half worse, in other words a perfectly average score.

The psychologist is interested in the differences in the percentiles. Everyone has their strengths and will score higher on some tests than others, for most people the spread should be relatively small, within 10 to 15 points of each other. When a person has a significantly lower score for some tests compared to others, this suggests a specific learning difficulty. When those lower scores are for reading, writing, short term memory etc this is called dyslexia, which was the case for me.

There is more to the evaluation than this, but an important point is that people who experience dyslexia have notably below average ability when it comes to reading and writing, but often above average skills when it comes to creative thinking, logical analysis and problem solving.

Not everyone who is diagnosed with dyslexia has the same difficulties. My particular brand of dyslexia manifests itself in a few ways, but I'm lucky as my symptoms just tend to slow me down. For the more serious cases it can be debilitating where words and letters are hard to even focus on let alone read.

I have big problems with vowels, they all sound the same to me and when spelling I know that words are supposed to have vowels, I’m just never sure which ones and where they go. This has become less of a problem over the years as spell checkers have gotten smarter. For anything important I always get someone to proofread my work. Mistakes slip through though, for the longest time an application I developed had a view titled “pepole”.

I'll often transpose numbers. I almost missed my driving test because I thought it was on the "23rd of the 4th [April]", but it was actually on the "24th of the 3rd [March]". To avoid this problem I’ll use copy and paste wherever I can, especially if that number has something to do with money.

The most embarrassing effect is my inability to retain abstract details like names. I’m not exaggerating to say that when meeting a new person I can remember their name for only a few seconds. For meetings the key here is to be prepared, if I’ve already studied the invite list I have a better chance to remember as I’m matching faces to names. In most other situations I simply hope I don’t need to use the person’s name until I’ve had time to look it up and relearn it.

Reading takes longer than average, writing takes way longer. Writing documentation, specifications etc is something I have to psych myself up for. The task this affects me the most often however is reading and replying to emails. Emails are relentless and I have to put aside a good portion of my day to deal with them. If an email did not ask me a question and therefore does not require a response, I don’t respond, this saves me a lot of stress. Otherwise I’ve developed an infamously terse email style, sometimes “Done.” is all that needs to be said.

In contrast to the one word responses, when asked a technical question that requires a detailed response, I labour over the email often writing a few drafts as I try to get the level of detail correct and convince myself what I’ve written is understandable.

My dyslexia is primarily a communication problem, my analytical reasoning is good, something to be proud of. I’m just never sure the information arrives correctly and I’m not sure the messages I deliver are understood. This is why I agonise over emails. It’s also why in face to face communication I will initially start quietly absorbing as much information as I can, re-organise that information in my own overly logical order and repeat it back out to ensure I understood it. Often because I’m not sure I said it correctly I repeat myself but with a slightly different structure.

My coping mechanism for dealing with dyslexia turns out to be a really useful skill in the business world. My job is to build applications that support business processes. This requires really understanding the process, breaking down the sometimes messy analog real world steps into logical, predictable, repeatable, programmable steps we can turn into a digital application. This comes very naturally to me, it’s the same process I use to assimilate information and I’ve been doing it my entire life.

It is not original advice to play to your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses. I strongly believe that being diagnosed with dyslexia has given me an extra advantage in life as I know with some confidence what my strengths are and where I need to take special care. I’ve used this information to pick a career path that has allowed me to excel. I know which development areas I need to focus on and have been given expert advice on how to improve.

I’m not the only person in the DEV community with dyslexia, given the nature of our work/hobby I am willing to bet it’s higher than the 10% average. Others have written on this site about how they cope with dyslexia, I’ve found their stories encouraging and their suggestions useful. I’m keen to hear your thoughts in the comments, I’m especially eager to swap coping strategies. The reality is they work for everyone, not just people diagnosed with dyslexia.

Most importantly if you are worried about a child you think might be struggling with dyslexia, there is no need to worry, dyslexia is increasingly well understood and there is a lot of help available. Search for Dyslexia Awareness Week to find events that may be happening local to you. Alternatively schools will know how to proceed. Besides they are in great company; Jamie Oliver, Keira Knightley, Richard Branson, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Jobs, Gwen Stefani and Albert Einstein are all people who didn’t let dyslexia stop them from achieving great things.

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