I am a writer. I am a linguist. I am dyslexic.

The first two go hand in hand, but the third may seem paradoxical. I do not think so. To be a writer one must be creative, incisive and observant, have an inquiring mind. A compelling story hinges on pace and plot, vivid images and insight. Perfect spelling can come later. I am a ‘compensated dyslexic’, which means my natural cognitive strengths have compensated for the cluster of cognitive weaknesses that characterise dyslexia.

People who meet me can hardly believe I am dyslexic. Such is the lack of understanding that they think dyslexics merely jumble their letters and are poor readers. As far as they know, I am a very good speller and I love reading, therefore I couldn’t possibly be dyslexic. Yet my dyslexia is real and is something I have struggled with throughout my life, from the frustration of learning my times tables and how to spell to the despair of lengthy university booklists that would take me years to read, and the lifeless French and Spanish grammar exercises that held little meaning, because I think in pictures and I feel words.

It is difficult to explain. The Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand and the Cookie Munchers Charitable Trust, which helps dyslexic children to discover their gifts, say dyslexics think in a rich tapestry of images, rather than in words. Ron Davis, the author of The Gift of Dyslexia, explains that dyslexics are visual, multi-dimensional thinkers, using all the senses to think and learn, which is much quicker than verbal thinking. Because of this we are excellent at hands-on or experiential learning but we sometimes find it hard to understand letters, numbers, symbols and written words, which cannot be experienced by all the senses.This means that it can be difficult to put ideas across, going through a translation process to put them into words. I often find myself wishing I could simply beam the image of an idea directly to the recipient, especially when I experience a snowstorm of these rich and involved images as my thoughts fly thick and fast.

The World Health Organisation defines dyslexia as “an unexplained difference between adequate spoken language and severe reading and spelling difficulties despite normal intelligence and opportunities for schooling”. It is a biological hiccup, if you will, which means that around 5 to 7 percent of otherwise normally functioning and intelligent people have reading and writing difficulties, ranging from mild to severe. Because of the lack of understanding of dyslexia, many otherwise bright children become frustrated and humiliated at school, held back by a style of learning that is not conducive to their needs. But like many dyslexics, once I have learned something through experience it becomes instinctive and I can use the knowledge intuitively, without thinking about how.

When I came to New Zealand from England I was surprised by the lack of understanding and the negative view of dyslexia. There seems to be an aversion to labelling people here and, until recently, the Ministry of Education refused to even recognise the condition. But last week’s announcement that it will embrace the term dyslexia and that funding will follow brings increased hope to the estimated 70,000 New Zealand children who have the condition. I firmly believe the dyslexic label, when applied correctly, will be a help and a relief. That is how I felt when my dyslexia was eventually recognised. Throughout my schooling there had been a discrepancy between my intelligence and my inability to perform certain tasks.

Erratic spelling and a plodding reading speed plagued me for years but it wasn’t until my fourth and final year of university that my dyslexia began to be truly reflected in my grades. Typical of dyslexia, it was the discrepancy between verbal and written communication in my French assignments that alerted my professor. This difference in verbal and written communication levels is the definition of dyslexia.

As a compensated dyslexic, I have developed coping mechanisms that allow me to hide or compensate for my weaknesses, such as a slower reading speed, poor working memory and problems decoding visuo-symbolic information. I know I learn experientially, or by doing, and that my mind works with pictures so, for example, I will make pictures from words by arranging my ideas on a subject into a mind-map, which feels more like a picture to me and lets me see all the permutations on one piece of paper.

This still may not answer why I can be a writer and fluent in French and Spanish, so let me try to explain. Auckland University psychologist Dr Karen Waldie says “reading and writing are totally dissociable from oral communication”. It’s not as if our brains have evolved to write, but they have evolved to speak. My natural flair for verbal communication extends to other languages. Learning grammar is like committing a melody to memory – I intuitively know when the grammar sounds right. The part I find so difficult is explaining why it is correct.

My wide verbal vocabulary and good memory mean I am able to recognise words as shapes or pictures and commit these to memory. There is still much research to be done on dyslexia and each case is unique. While the experiences I have illustrated here are my own, the premise is common to most dyslexics. We are multi-sensory picture thinkers who learn experientially. And we like our label.

Recognition and diagnosis of a disorder leads to better understanding and remediation and, with new support and funding from the Ministry of Education, dyslexic children will have a better chance to discover their creative gifts.

-Clare Coulson. Reproduced for education purposes.