Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Yes, we are all individuals - Nicola Morgan

This week is Dyslexia Awareness Week. Dyslexia and I have some history. Several bits.

When I was an English teacher, I found myself in a school with an exceptionally high proportion of pupils with various reasons for finding reading and writing difficult. In a sense they were all dyslexic, though only some of them had Dyslexia. Later, I did an RSA Diploma in teaching children and adults with "specific learning difficulties" (SpLD), which was the then phrase for Dyslexia in all its forms. I then spent the next 16 years teaching such children and adults.

While doing that Diploma, I discovered that I am, on many assessment criteria, dyslexic. Quite patently, I'm not dyslexic, as my spelling, reading, writing, comprehension etc are far from problematic. However, I measure as dyslexic (and somewhat dyspraxic) because: I am inexorably hopeless at left/right tasks; I am strongly crossed-lateral (right-handed but left-eyed); I cannot remember or perform sequences of various sorts; absolutely cannot recite my times tables beyond 5x; my coordination is poor - I am very bad coming down stairs, my typing is riddled with reversals, I cannot learn the simplest dance routines, and my attempts to learn musical instruments have been dismally hampered by my inability to become automatic and coordinated. I also recognise that my hilarious (to others) inability to talk while doing anything with my hands, such as make a cup of coffee, is a function of how my brain works (or doesn't work).

Despite being a so-called SpLD specialist, I failed to realise that my younger daughter had a specific difficulty until she took herself to the learning support teacher in her final year of school. (The guilt!) She turned out to have a "dyslexic-type" deficit, though she has different manifestations from me - for a start she is a brilliant musician and very well-coordinated. Her problem was essentially an information processing one, which had few outward symptoms, and which she disguised brilliantly and now has strategies for. She had been going around thinking she was "thick", despite the fact that I told her over and over again that she very obviously wasn't, pointing out that there were clever things she could do far better than other people.

During my training, one of the things I started to investigate was the human brain, the ways in which our brains are the same and the ways in which they are different, how weaknesses are often mirrored by strengths. I ended up writing two books on the brain, both for young people and families. The better known one is Blame My Brain - the Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed. But it's the other one that's relevant here: Know Your Brain. It seeks to show young people that there are many types of intelligence, that the ones most valued at school (literacy and numeracy) are not necessarily the best and are not necessarily the ones that determine your later success.

And that is what informs my thinking on this subject and why, although I'm proud to be one of Sir Jackie Stewart's Ambassadors for Dyslexia Scotland, I want people to understand that Dyslexia is only one set of conditions. There are many other people struggling to succeed on specific tasks and being laughed at or disrespected for their inability to do whatever it is.

Dyslexia is a useful word. Even if you don't know the definition, you kind of know sufficiently what it denotes. Going through school with undiagnosed or unmediated dyslexia is horrendous - and I've had many pupils whose self-esteem I've somehow had to try to rebuild. It's a scandal that there's no compulsory part of the teacher training curriculum in Scotland (I don't know about England and Wales) to make sure new teachers know how to identify and deal with the pupils they will inevitably come across.

There isn't a word for the things I (and many others) can't do, and the fact that on assessment criteria I'm dyslexic is irrelevant because I can't go around saying I am, as it would be ridiculous and unfair to those genuinely afflicted. What I have just feels like clumsiness; it feels like a brain failure; it sometimes makes me feel thick.

It also makes me fascinated by the human brain. One thing I believe is that it can't be brilliant at everything. The maths genius will lack something, perhaps artistic talent or leadership qualities; or the musical prodigy will lack something else, perhaps sporting skill or the ability to understand people and work well in a team; the lateral thinker may lack logic and the logician be too rigid to be creative. Even an apparent polymath will have some area of weakness. Show me someone who is genuinely brilliant at every one of the many intelligences.

Many dyslexic people have great creative or other skills - but many don't, and we should not assume that one thing produces the other. The differences between human brains are enormous and to be marvelled at, investigated and, most of all, celebrated. I wrote Know Your Brain because I wanted children and young people to understand their own strengths and to value them equally, artistic, creative, logical, literary, musical, spatial, courageous, whatever. I wanted children (and adults) to value different areas of cleverness properly and not set highest store by coming top in school tests and "academic" exams.

So, I can't walk down stairs smoothly, or make you coffee while talking; I am likely to give you the wrong directions (or, in fact, no directions) for getting to my house; I can't tell you a story in the right order; and you really wouldn't like to listen to me play the oboe. But I can write passably well and I can understand something about people's brains.

I'll cope with that.

I want all dyslexic people to value their own talents in Dyslexia Awareness Week. Actually, I want everyone to understand what their brains find difficult and what they find easier. Please share!

Important info: If your child's teacher would like a free, online, simple assessment for dyslexia, please send them towards Dyslexia Scotland's fabulous Addressing Dyslexia Toolkit. Available for all teachers everywhere, not just Scotland! FREEEEEEEEE!


Lynne Garner said...

A very interesting post - thanks for sharing your experiences.

catdownunder said...

I won't list all the things I have problems with - but I will say I sympathise madly!

Stephanie McGregor said...

Being dyslexic is frustrating to say the least. As a child, if you are told by adults that you are stupid, slow, lazy, not trying, a failure, etc and this poison is not counteracted, you will believe you are exactly what they say you are. It effects every area of your life (dyslexia and a scewed perception of your abilities). Sadly, in this day and age, there are children still walking around dealing with this that have not been diagnosed yet. Putting the word out anout dyslexia and other learning disabilities will bring anout change in the lives of some of the most vonerable children in the school system, which can only be a good thing! I'm still struggling with dyslexia, but having a support system of people willing to help (bless my husband who has to edit all my writing before anyone else can see it) make me feel like I can succeed. Even just the fact that people now understand that I REALLY AM TRYING is worth more than gold. Thank you, Nicola, for all you do!!

Penny Dolan said...

A very useful post, full of very useful information & links. Maybe it's a good week to re-read my copies of your two "brain books".

Carol Bloomfield said...

Very interesting post, and I have just reserved a copy of your book from my local library. Thanks

Nicola Morgan said...

Thank you, Carol! And thanks, everyone else. And for lots of comments on Twitter.

bookwitch said...

Don't worry. I can find my own way to your house, and I won't require coffee.

Andrew Strong said...

A brilliant post. Forty percent of the pupils in the school in which I'm head are diagnosed with dyslexia. UK governments need to invest in training teachers, and those who train them, in understanding the problems dyslexics confront every day of their lives. I despair.