Student colors in picture of dyslexia, resists social stigma

In “I Spy” books, the big picture can be divided into many smaller images in order to solve the puzzle. Non-dyslexic people can apply this strategy to make sense of unfamiliar strings of letters, but dyslexic people process words in a diferent way. Courtesy of Vanessa via Flikr

When I was younger I loved to read those “I Spy” books. Each page had a puzzle to solve, requiring a careful eye to uncover different objects scattered in the photos. For me, seeing the picture and breaking it up is easy. I can see the big picture, then break it into smaller pictures so I can comprehend it all. I believe it is very similar to how most people read, especially when they get to a word they don’t know. They see the word, then break it up into smaller pieces, then sound it out. It’s easy for them to visualize with words because they have verbal thoughts. Now imagine trying to break up a word when you don’t have verbal thoughts; when you think in pictures, not letters.

How do you explain to someone who is not dyslexic what dyslexia is like? You have to use words—something a dyslexic already struggles with—to explain how you face difficulties with language. How does someone having an asthma attack explain how it’s hard to breathe?

One of the clinical definitions of dyslexia is “a neurological learning disability” (International Dyslexia Association, “How to Explain Dyslexia to People you Meet,” 2016). Dyslexics process information differently. It takes a little longer to process new information and figure out how to use it. Non-dyslexics have verbal thoughts (thinking in words). When one has dyslexia, they think in pictures. For example, when comprehending a reading, a mental picture comes to mind, resulting in skipped-over words or added words that magically appear. The next word in that sentence might be “puppy,” but a dyslexic could read “dog.” They see a fully grown, small dog in their minds, meaning “puppy” to them, even though to others it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing. The process is quick, firing off in the subconscious mind, leaving dyslexics unaware of it happening (DavisDyslexia, “Dyslexia, The Big Picture,” 2001).

I am dyslexic. I am not ashamed of this fact. I am proud to be dyslexic. I don’t see it as a disability. It is who I am. Most of the time people don’t notice that I am dyslexic. Most of the time I don’t feel dyslexic. Being dyslexic is knowing it takes you three hours to read a page and by the time you’re done reading it, you go back to reread it because you didn’t even comprehend it. You know how to deal with this on your own. You just give yourself more time to do the reading. You also know that it makes you a harder worker, and you are proud of this fact.

People make you feel dyslexic and they make you feel like it is a disability. Feeling dyslexic is seeing people look at you like you are dumb, and not understanding that you don’t know how to spell or read the word “information” (yes, I did have to use spell check there) because sounding words out is not something that comes easily to you. You struggle with making the connection between the sound a word makes and the letters associated with it. Yes, letters move around inside words, and yes, your eyes skip lines, but that is not the entire picture. Others don’t understand their simple confused look when you ask “what does ‘vernacular’ mean?” or “how do you spell intelligence?” only makes you feel embarrassed and dumb.

I recently asked my best friend from high school if she was experiencing this same issue of feeling dyslexic at her college. Luckily for both of us, our professors are pretty un
derstanding about our circumstances when it comes to words. They should be. Teachers are there to help you with something you don’t understand. Yet in our experiences, some did not understand that it is really hard for us to spell correctly or structure a paper linearly. Classmates have judged her, too. Recently, she asked one of her classmates how to divide a pound in half. The classmate laughed at her and replied, “You don’t know how to split a pound?” She told me that she ignores these comments when they come from kids our age—they just don’t get it.

Learning in a school where so many people express their intelligence through their speech, I am in a constant battle with the large words people say and defining the words in the context of a conversation, then feeling stupid when I make an argument us
ing smaller words that I’m actually capable of voicing. You’ve probably experienced that feeling of seeing what you want to say in your head, but not having the words to express it. Now imagine experiencing this every day in almost every conversation you have. Even now as I am writing this article, I can’t fully voice what I am trying to say. I see it in my head, and I feel it in my body, but I don’t have the words to express it.

When my best friend and I communicate, we don’t use descriptions to fully express what we are trying to say. Just saying “that thing” and using a hand motion to show the shape of it is enough for both of us to understand the object we are talking about. Because we both think in pictures, we are able to communicate with fewer words. When we talk, we don’t feel dyslexic, we just are.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Emma for your description of how dyslexia feels. My son has dyslexia and it really helps me understand. The brain works in miraculous ways that we are only beginning to understand. I truly believe differences in the way we think make us special and able to add to the world in unique ways.

    Elizabeth ziegler

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