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“The mental function that causes dyslexia is a gift in the truest sense of the word: a natural ability, a talent. It is something special that enhances the individual.”

Ronald D. Davis, The Gift of Dyslexia

“Curing the negatives does not create the positives.” And so I thought, “That’s certainly true for dyslexia. Just curing the reading problems isn’t sufficient by itself and is often self-defeating. Why don’t we try to find the strengths?”

Rod Nicolson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Sheffield and author of Positive Dyslexia

Being Dyslexic

I attended one of the most famous schools for children with dyslexia from 1975 to 1977, The Kildonan School. It was located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania at the time (now in Amenia, New York).

Diana Hanbury King and Kurt Goldman founded the school in 1969 on a beautiful rented campus near the Delaware River in Solebury. I recall strolling through the woods on campus and going for long horseback rides, which were part of the school’s program. I enjoyed exploring the river and skating on the canal that ran parallel to it in the winter.

I was diagnosed with severe developmental dyslexia in 1972 by Dr. Carl L. Kline and his wife, Carolyn (recipients of the Samuel T. Orton Award in 1991). At the age of eight I was given the identification of being dyslexic. At age 11, I was sent to the Kildonan School, one of the only boarding schools for children (boys only at the time) with dyslexia. Fortunately, my parents were able to get financial support from my grandparents and by mortgaging their home.

I can’t remember ever seeing the strengths or gifts of having dyslexia as a young boy. I struggled with written expression due to severe dysgraphia, which was not formally diagnosed at the time as a learning disorder. Reading and spelling were extremely frustrating. Making sound-symbol associations was problematic, and recalling the pronunciation of sight words was nearly impossible. My auditory memory for information was extremely weak as well, so listening to classroom lectures or conversations was difficult. As a result, I appeared quite inattentive at times.

By the time I got to the Kildonan School in September 1975, I had received two years of private Orton-Gillingham Tutoring and was still below grade level in reading, writing and spelling due to the severity of my dyslexia. If I had a gift it was in athletics. I loved sports and excelled in most.  Did I see myself as having the visual-spatial gifts so many professionals said people with dyslexia had? No. The idea of the gift of dyslexia was not well discussed at the time.

I spent two years away from my family, who lived in Vancouver. Over that period of time, my parents divorced and my dad moved to Edmonton. My reading, writing and spelling had improved over the two years, but I still had to re-read material and look up words in order to understand what I was reading. My step-mother (my Dad remarried) also had to edit my writing samples.

It was a painful process in so many ways. My neurological weaknesses with visual-motor integration (for printing), auditory memory for information (for listening), and cognitive systems related to conceptual learning (how ideas relate to each other) were still weaknesses. This would result in years of ongoing frustration with learning, and academic failure at the postsecondary level of my studies. Throughout this period of my life, from 1975 to 1989, my dyslexia was not a gift. It was hell!

Before The Arrowsmith Program

“Though children with dyslexia experience difficulties in processing the written language, they are often bright, creative, and talented individuals. Strengths may include mechanical aptitude, artistic ability, musical gifts, and athletic prowess. The dyslexic student may also evidence advanced social skills as well as talents in computer/technology, science, and math.”

Ron Yoshimota, LDOnline 2000

How on earth I finally got my undergraduate degree in Psychology one can only surmise. There were so many factors contributing to my ability to get through my undergraduate days at the University of British Columbia (UBC), including self-determination and self-advocacy, a wonderful girlfriend (and now wife), supportive family, professors, and luck.

I failed and dropped out of university three times. Again, the idea that dyslexia was a gift was laughable to me. Dyslexia resulted in nothing but severe academic hardship. Reading was slow and laborious. Written expression tasks were maddening. Spelling was entertaining to others. My first English paper the professor gave me an F+ and F-. The F+ was for content and the F- was for grammar. Listening and note taking during lectures was exasperating.

Through blood, sweat and tears (well not so much blood) I graduated from UBC. I was then accepted at Boston University to do a graduate degree in Special Education. There is a lot more to this story, but I’m leaving it out in order to get to the main point of the article.

I became aware of the notion of dyslexia as a gift at Boston University. Dr. Paul J. Gerber, of the Medical College of Virginia, was studying adults with learning disabilities to understand how some found vocational success. I was intrigued by his work due to my own learning disabilities (or dyslexia).

He found that adults with learning disabilities who found vocational success had gained control in their lives through internal decisions and external manifestations. One key internal decision they made was to reframe their learning disabilities in a positive light and to see that they had strengths as well as weaknesses. It was a statement based on reality and not heavily weighted towards negative self-perception.

This got me thinking about myself as an adult with a learning disability. At the time, I was working for Dr. Loring Brinckerhoff at the Boston University Learning Support Program. This program was created to help university students with special needs, like learning disabilities, get through their postsecondary experiences. Dr. Brinckerhoff eventually became one of the most well respected academics and professionals in the field of postsecondary education and disabilities. My time with Dr. Brinckerhoff allowed me to work directly with other adults with learning disabilities, and I was able to bring this concept of reframing to their lives.

Dr. Gerber’s research shaped much of my career as a teacher, tutor and assessor of learning disabilities from 1990 to 2004. And for the next 14 years, I focused on helping children and adults with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, reframe their mindsets. The notion of dyslexia as a gift was appealing as a result. As well, dyslexia was hard-wired, a life-long disability so there was no option out of this diagnosis. Since dyslexia had a permanent underlying neurological cause, reframing was an excellent concept in helping children and adults with learning disabilities find vocational success.

For 14 years I advocated that dyslexia was a gift – that there were many successful people with dyslexia and one could use them as role models for children. I recall the statement coming out in the press that more than 50% of NASA employees had dyslexia. I was so excited to hear this fact, that I used it in many of my presentations. I also helped organize conferences for the International Dyslexia Association of British Columbia.

I recall how excited I was to get Thomas West as a keynote speaker, the author of In The Mind`s Eye. The book highlighted the remarkable neurological talents of many dyslexics in the area of visual-spatial thinking and creativity. West’s keynote was uplifting and motivating. I had a keen interest in photography and had always been told I was strong visually, so his words resonated with me. I faced children every day who were struggling in school because of their neurological weaknesses and was determined to bring new awareness into education that these children were also gifted and talented. I didn’t want them to be forgotten; I wanted them to be respected.

Promoting The Gifted Dyslexia Theory

“The brains of individuals with dyslexia aren’t defective; they’re simply different. These wiring differences often lead to special strengths in processing certain kinds of information, and these strengths typically more than make up for the better-known dyslexic challenges. . .We don’t see the reading, spelling, or other academic challenges associated with dyslexia as the result of a ‘disorder’ or a ‘disease.’ Instead, we see these challenges as arising from a different pattern of brain organization – [which predisposes] dyslexic individuals to the development of valuable skills”

Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, Dyslexic Advantage

“Learning to see the positive side can be powerful indeed. Of course, there is still a great deal of work to be done, but it can be focused on increasing strengths rather than decreasing weaknesses. It is urgent at this time to outline the kinds of things that need to be done — to take seriously, at long last, the varied talents and considerable strengths of dyslexics. The time is right. The time is late. The time is long overdue. Those on the front lines — the teachers, tutors, parents, advocates and school psychologists–those who have cared the most, those who have been able to understand when no one else did–unfortunately, they have often done less than they could have done because they have attended to only half of the job. They have too often focused on fixing the problems – and have totally ignored the development of talents. This should change — and we hope that it will change soon.

Thomas G. West, Author of In the Mind`s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein

I was asked by a former client, and now advocate for individuals with learning disabilities, to be in a calendar. The calendar promoted the gifted dyslexia campaign. This was in 2010. I accepted, but with some regret. Let me explain why.

By this time, I had spent five years working with children and young adults going through the Arrowsmith Program. I was introduced to the Arrowsmith Program in 2002 through a colleague of mine. At this time, we were conducting psycho-educational assessments and writing self-advocacy curriculums for students with learning disabilities. I was intrigued, but skeptical about the idea that the brain could change and had never heard of the term “neuroplasticity”. I believed the brain was fixed – hardwired like a computer.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young, Founder of the Arrowsmith Program, did not agree. She had developed her program in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Toronto. It did not take her too long to receive harsh criticism from established academics and various educational professionals. The notion that children with learning disabilities could improve cognitive functioning was considered outlandish, and still is in some circles of the learning disability community.

But parents came forward and asked me to meet with Barbara in Vancouver. I did so, and was further intrigued, but did not fully appreciate the nature of her work. Barbara’s concepts of treatment for learning disabilities were nowhere in the ballpark of what I considered valid intervention approaches. The divide between our ways of thinking was huge. I also aligned myself with the reasoning that there was nothing wrong with having a learning disability. I even thought it came with talents.

Fortunately, parents who are desperate to find help for their children can bridge paradigms and differences in opinion. They search for additional answers when one approach doesn’t work. Some decided to move to Toronto, so their children could attend Barbara’s school, the Arrowsmith School. I asked these parents to keep me updated because I was intrigued.

My team performed their children’s updated psycho-educational assessments and noticed cognitive (neurological) changes that we had never observed before after a treatment approach for learning disabilities.

Improved cognitive capacities were not a regular finding in updated psycho-educational assessments. My intrigue moved to fascination, and later to my adoption of the Arrowsmith Program at my school, the Eaton Arrowsmith School located on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus.

For years prior to adopting the Arrowsmith Program I told clients it was good to have dyslexia or a learning disability. I would say, “Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.” I told them about famous business people, movie stars, politicians and even writers who had learning disabilities like dyslexia. This mindset was built on the fact that there was no way to improve the neurological weaknesses underlying dyslexia. I told clients that their neurological weaknesses gave them certain strengths that, without dyslexia, they would not have.

To be honest, however, I recall many assessments where I would look at the data and find no cognitive strengths. There were no visual-spatial strengths in many of my clients with dyslexia.  Like most individuals, some were good at art, sports or had well-developed social skills. Others showed remarkable visual-spatial abilities, some in the gifted range, but that was not common. Giftedness is a rare diagnosis in the learning disability or dyslexia population just as it is in the general population. Still, I would tell the child that they had talents, and would search and search to find one with them. I knew about the research on adults with learning disabilities who had vocational success, and I was determined to help children reframe their mindsets.

Being in my former client’s calendar as a successful dyslexic, being aware that most dyslexics are not gifted, knowing that many dyslexics are struggling to be employed or attain a high school education due to untreated severe cognitive weaknesses, and realizing that just accepting your dyslexia is not the only way of understanding intervention possibilities, gave me regret.

What Research Really Says

“Although it has been claimed that with dyslexia comes visual-spatial gifts, the evidence relevant to this claim is mixed. Whereas individuals with visual-spatial gifts have a disproportionate incidence of reading deficits, including dyslexia, individuals with dyslexia do not consistently show superior visual-spatial abilities.”

Catya von Károlyi and Ellen Winner, authors of “Dyslexia and Visual Spatial Talents: Are they Connected?” in Volume 25 of the series Neuropsychology and Cognition

“Our studies thus far do not support the popular (and comforting) view of dyslexia as a deficit associated with compensatory visual-spatial talents.”

Ellen Winner, Catya von Karolyi, and Daphna Malinsky, “Dyslexia and Visual-Spatial Talents: No Clear Link”

Research on the claim that dyslexics have visual-spatial gifts is mixed. As the quotes above note, some studies show no clear association between dyslexia and visual-spatial talents. In fact, the statistic that over 50% of NASA employees are dyslexic is not true, even though this statistic is still promoted by those who advocate the gifted dyslexic paradigm. NASA confirmed the error on Twitter in 2012. Its Twitter Account, @NASApeople, stated, “@k_5remediation Not True! But, they are super smart.”

Mary-Margaret Scholtens, Director of the Alternative Programs Providing Learning Experiences (APPLE) Group, was the originator of this erroneous fact. The APPLE Group, Inc. equips parents, teachers and the community to effectively serve children who learn differently through a proven suite of multi-sensory strategies. It focuses on working with children with dyslexia through the Orton-Gillingham Program – the same program that helped me improve my reading, writing and spelling skills in the mid 70’s.

I am not saying there are no gifted dyslexics. My argument is that there is no research to prove all people with dyslexia are gifted. There are dyslexics in fields or careers that require strengths in visual-spatial ability, but this is not the norm for the population of dyslexics. Yes, there are successful entrepreneurs who are dyslexic, but is this common or just due to the fact that we want to find them and celebrate their achievements?

I understand the reasoning behind the positive or gifted dyslexia paradigm. Give children hope and empower them with a belief in themselves. All good, but this line of reasoning has consequences. One major consequence is people believing that neurological deficits shouldn’t be addressed if dyslexia is a good diagnosis. Why change the brain of individuals with dyslexia if gifts and positives abound? This question was actually posted on a Vancouver Sun blog about the Arrowsmith Program. The comment stated, “Why change me. I like being dyslexic and gifts it comes with.”

It is clear that one dyslexic is very different from another. Yes, there is the underlying reading disorder, usually impacting spelling and written expression (expressive and receptive language).  When I say there is a lot of variation in dyslexia, what I mean is in relation to a broad range of cognitive functions that support reasoning, executive functioning, social awareness, memory, and more.

The general population and the field of learning disabilities has little to say in terms of understanding intervention methods that do not involve compensation or bypass strategies. For example, how can we help a child who struggles to understand concepts, or who finds listening and recalling classroom discussions and lectures difficult?

Programs like Orton-Gillingham can help with reading, spelling and writing development, but how about the non-responders or those who have multiple cognitive weaknesses? What do we do for those who do not improve significantly using Orton-Gillingham? Cognitive intervention programs likes the Arrowsmith Program can be supportive of these non-responders and even help them respond more quickly.

The gifted dyslexia paradigm has shaped the line of thinking of many educators, schools for children with dyslexia, parents, and people with this diagnosis. It has helped these individuals find hope, see strengths in themselves and move forward. Nevertheless, it is also resulting in apprehension about the idea of improving the brain of those who have dyslexia, or learning disabilities in general. I have had parents who have actually asked, “Will the Arrowsmith Program eliminate the strengths my child has in his learning profile?”

Improving Neurological Causes of Dyslexia Is Possible and Important

“It is possible to treat learning disabilities by identifying and strengthening cognitive functions.”

Barbara Arrowsmith Young, founder of the Arrowsmith Program

Is there another way to look at dyslexia that takes into account that some individuals have gifts, but many don’t and are suffering due to their neurological weaknesses? It is critical to not outright accept the gifted dyslexia paradigm without deep review and contemplation. If we do this, we see that the paradigm is not entirely true and should be challenged. This then opens the mind to determining ways we can address the underlying cognitive weaknesses that result in significant learning and social challenges documented in many decades of research.

Prior to awareness about neuroplasticity and cognitive intervention, dyslexia was considered a life-long disability. Children and adults with dyslexia therefore needed to reframe their self-perception of disability, focus on their strengths, accept their neurological weaknesses, and be realistic about academic attainment and vocational choices (can I do a degree in Mathematics and become a high school math teacher due to my Dyscalculia?).

Neuroplasticity and cognitive intervention, such as the Arrowsmith Program, has dramatically reconfigured this previous paradigm. Now the paradigm should be, if the child or adult improves the underlying neurological weaknesses of his or her dyslexia or learning disabilities, what academic journey and vocational options are possible that were not before? Do I need to be dyslexic for the rest of my life?

This is what I am seeing as I work with families and their children at Eaton Arrowsmith schools in Vancouver, BC, and Redmond, Washington. Children and adults improve neurological capacities that, in turn, provide new opportunities for learning that were never before imagined.

It is extremely challenging to change a paradigm. I know because I was once in the previous paradigm of life-long dyslexia. I lived it. I breathed it. I was it. Now I watch my professional colleagues, whether at the academic university level, or running schools for dyslexia, or testing for learning disabilities, consider cognitive intervention and the impact it can have on the lives of those with learning challenges whether academic or social.

Some can’t change, and write articles on famous dyslexics, or write-up assessments on how one can use learning strategies and compensations to bypass neurological deficits. It is frustrating to observe, as I know what is possible with brain change. Neurological weaknesses are not always for life. Once we embrace that paradigm in education, the lives of individuals with dyslexia and other learning disabilities will benefit greatly.