Don’t let dyslexia hold you back!

by Ross W

I was lucky enough to attend a school within walking distance of my home, and to start at just four years old in the Reception class.

It was thought (by my parents and my teachers) that this would give me a head start in the basic skills of reading and writing, so they were baffled by some of the peculiar spellings I adopted, such as how, when asked to give a word beginning with the letter “B” for example, I wrote, “Botatoes”: how “d”s and “b”s and “p”s, “n”s and “m”s all got muddled, and how, at seven years old, when taking a small exam, I explained to my mother that I thought I would have done very well indeed, “If I had just been able to read the questions!”

My parents were puzzled, since we are, in general – I have older and younger sisters – a reasonably intelligent family. Yet the ink-spattered, unintelligible rubbish I was turning out seemed to have more in common with the Just William style of presentation than that of a bright young boy, lucky enough to be receiving good teaching.

However little was known (or acknowledged) about dyslexia at the time, so it was accepted that I was perhaps just “not quite the ticket” and school life went on.

This was until something rather odd happened.

I had always liked chess and, in the space of a few weeks at just eight years old, I won the school Chess Championship and came top in a form maths exam. My mother mentioned this anomaly to a friend of hers (i.e. how can Ross be so thick yet achieve this?) and she immediately said “Dyslexia!”

One view my mother always held as a result of this is that the idea of dyslexia being more common in bright children (as it was then thought) is simply not true. She felt that it was just easier to spot in a bright child and that this might adversely affect many other young sufferers of perfectly good, average intelligence, where an anomaly was not especially detectable. If I had not had the good fortune to be good enough at chess and maths to shine out and get the adults around me thinking, then my dyslexia – at least all those years ago – would probably not have been identified.

However, it was. I can remember going, at eight years old, with my mother to a place in Staines (The Dyslexia Institute) and undergoing all sorts of odd tests, even including having to kick Sticklebricks across the floor (this was, it turned out, to test my cross-lateral abilities) The psychologist then spoke first with me and then with my mother to explain two things. Firstly I was indeed severely dyslexic, but secondly I actually had quite a high IQ (129).

For the first time in my school life I was being told that I was not the stupid boy I thought I was (and up until then I really did think I was thick), but actually a clever boy with a problem that could be tackled and contained, if not completely overcome. The self-confidence that this gave me was enormous. Even before I began my special tuition, the teachers at my school noticed a huge improvement in my work. My English teacher was especially encouraging, and laughed to see that the little boy who had always sat at the back of the class and said nothing, was now sitting at the front and putting his hand up!

The Dyslexia Association recommended that I had a special teacher to come into the school to help me on a weekly basis. (As you may know there are various different types of  help, from going to a school with a special dyslexia unit, having special help in a mainstream school or having private tuition outside of school.) I was in the middle group and very soon a redoubtable lady called Mrs Foster began coming to teach me on a Tuesday morning.

Initially I found it strange that every Tuesday morning, when my classmates would go to music lessons, (luckily I’m pretty tone deaf so I didn’t feel I missed much!) I would go to my extra tuition class. But in some ways it made me feel special and the best part was being rewarded with brightly coloured stickers when I did well!

Another really important aspect of support came from my parents. My mum had been great in pushing to identify my dyslexia and learnt as much as possible to understand the disability. She was open to exploring all avenues – for example getting me tested for wearing special glasses with a green tint to help overcome my pattern glare, which was unheard of at the time.

When I left junior school I had the confidence to come up with my own learning techniques – visual aids, recorded books, categorising and lots of lists! My senior school recognised dyslexia and provided me with extra time in exams. I always found it strange sitting in a different exam room from my friends – sometimes on my own! But what I came to realise is that I am special… and that doesn’t make me any less or more smart than any other young person, as my grades proved!

A crucial moment in my development came aged 18 when I described myself to a teacher as “someone who used to suffer from dyslexia.” They corrected me… I am dyslexic and always will be. It was a great shock to me. But as time went by, I began to realise I should be proud of this ‘special’ quality and identify with it. It makes me who I am and I vowed that it would never stop me achieving what I wanted… going to Bath University to gain a degree in Economics.

Even in my working life today I can have problems reading and retaining information from reports, journal papers and minutes from meetings. However, over the years I have learned skills to combat this and modern day spell checkers and grammar checkers go a long way towards helping with the problem. But the key for me has been to learn to embrace dyslexia. In fact I still study today for professional exams and even plan to return to university in the foreseeable future for post-graduate studies.

I hope that my story will give encouragement to anyone suffering from dyslexia. Don’t try to hide it and don’t be ashamed. Make sure you get the best help possible – so much is available now, whereas when I was at school the problem was far less recognised and we had to fight harder. Understand that you are bright and clever, but simply need a different way to learn and absorb things. In fact it is often said that those with dyslexia are lucky, as they learn to develop all their senses in order to best understand and retain their learning, whilst others without this condition never achieve this.