Dyslexia With Learning
The Education Wars Part VII
Some of you are probably irritated that the title is not, "Learning With Dyslexia," because that better fits a more natural learning-centric focus. I permuted the words not because that's the way my dyslexia typically works, but because that does happen to me sometimes—particularly as I get tired. At those moments, I find myself reading the same sentence several times before the words untangle themselves. Yet, I think that's all just about being tired because I have observed the same thing happen among completely ordinary people who aren't dyslexic.
I'm actually not even certain if dyslexia is the correct way to describe the problems I experience, but it's the easiest terminology to grasp onto because I read at a fraction of the rate of most educated people—around 25% to 50% of the rate of an average adult, depending on the material. But there is a connection between my reading problems to sound and other senses. Loud noises that I'm not used to well enough to filter out render me closer to blind, which is to say that my dyslexia is really just an aspect of an audio-visual disorder (I think).
Again, I recognize that noises distract other people from reading, so perhaps my issues are simply a several standard deviation underperformance? I don't think so, but that's possible.
For years I've wanted to make time to draw out what I see for other people. While working on the DMED story, a team member created for me this chart that gave me an idea. It's not perfect, but pretty close to what I experience.
What I can both see-and-decode on a page that I'm reading is constrained by a smaller "box". It's not a visually defined box, but that's fine. The box gets smaller quickly in the presence of unfiltered noise, or when I get tired, and at a late hour like this (nearly 3 AM), I'm essentially "code blind" in that I cannot read (decode text) as I type. Sometimes I just close my eyes and type, but that's not as relaxing as it sounds, so I sort of sit with a picture in front of me that might as well be written in Icelandic.
I've run enough small experiments to have a sense that my box is different from most people's. And I do sometimes compensate almost completely by following text with my finger (works best with something like a dense history book).
Weirdly, I seem to have better peripheral vision than most people. So there is something like a resource tradeoff in the brain (and not likely the result of brain damage, which is reassuring).
Do not ask me about other people's dyslexia, what other forms there are, or how it happens. Keeping up with my own problems is itself a specialization, as I assume it is for anyone. I'm curious, but it's not going to rise near the top of my priority list.
Compensation and Resource Management
We all know that people with disabilities shift their energies to find different ways to perform tasks. My favorite such story is that of the blind man who developed his own form of echolocation (like bats) he calls "flash sonar":
How cool is that?!
With dyslexia, sometimes there is no need to compensate. You know how long it takes somebody to read a math or science book, or a dense article? It takes as long as it takes for them to think through the concepts and problems. Reading speed is rarely the rate limiting step in the process.
There is also no need to compensate when I tie my shoes, cook, or take out the trash.
But I do an enormous amount of compensation. My strategies have grown as I've grown older and performed more different kinds of tasks. One thing that I do is rapidly take and sort thousands of pages of notes. I estimate 17,000 pages in the past 32 months. Here is one of my several dashboards that links to scores of documents, each of which is on average several hundred pages in length:
Understand, I was a disorganized child. But somewhere along the way I began to become organized in my disorganization. Dig into my document tree, and the content is dense:
We all have personal achievements of figuring out how to function in life. This hierarchical organization of notes, links to articles and studies, graphs I've made or found important, etc., is on my very short list. But on a simpler note, while writing the opening paragraphs of this essay, I looked up at my browser tabs and felt a very mild feeling of panic over not recognizing my protonmail tab. Oh no!!
Turns out that it's second from the left. That's a brand new tab icon, and I found that out quickly because I always position my email tabs far to the left (I have 300+ tabs open across 10 browser windows; three large monitors with email always on a browser in the middle) so that I can locate them without effort. And that reminded me to slide calendar and email-system management tabs flush to the left against those email tabs. I can operate smoothly because I organize…mmmm…reasonably well.
While I have my organizational habits, I have some unusual sometimes sloppy coping habits, like beginning to read from the middle of lengthy and dense blocks of text in email. Once or twice a year, that gets me in trouble, but 99% of the time, it allows me to get to the point in 2 minutes rather than 20. I do tell those I work with that spacing email text well is a nice favor to me.
In case you're wondering, I failed the pictorial test at the top of this article. But I sometimes weirdly succeed where others fail, depending on the illusion/test. Also, I've never once lost a game of Big Boggle. Lifetime. It's like somebody designed a game exactly the size of my reading box, but I still get to apply all my weird little compensating habits, most of which I haven't explained.
Visual Cues and Queues
"The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision." -Helen Keller
Oddly, I think that dyslexia had a positive impact on my ability to create curriculum for students. It forces me to think through the interplay between words and images in an economical sort of way. Creating and allowing for enough space to distinguish between words/numbers/diagrams eases the process.
As mathematics gets a little deeper and more challenging for even good math students, I take the time to organize and visually arrange the steps for what I hope is a complete and thorough lesson the very first time.
Having spent additional pains myself working through mediocre books and articles, I spend 20% longer arranging computations.
And still, I basically cannot see much of what I'm typing as I type it. So, I even come up with my own way to lay it all out. If you ask essentially any mathematician or physicist who uses LaTeX to typeset, they will tell you that my TeXing on the left has "far more whitespace than usual." I pattern my typing to organize spacing to make bug-hunting simple, and to minimize my typos, which are perhaps doubly or triply numerous compared to average.
But here is what happens in the end: the time spent in creating new forms of organization turns into a fluid process. At the end of week one, I'm still "the slow guy" at this. At the end of the year, I churn out pages and pages and pages…that often still need the eye of an editor, but are professional textbook quality work. But the excessive gains do depend on the world standing still for me, sometimes (no, I won't ask for it to).
The Weirdness of the Productive Dyslexic
Years ago I was building a company with a business partner, and he had a hard time understanding that I was not able to read my computer screen as he talked rapidly at me. I stopped him multiple times and told him that I was dyslexic, and that I also needed a break from the screen after some time. This enraged him, and he acted like I was trying to punish him for some reason. He paced around the room declaring that there is no such thing as dyslexia—that it's a made up excuse for people who wanted more time on tests. He found catty little ways to punish me for weeks and try to make me feel dumb.
I was stunned the first day, but it was jarring to see somebody go to such lengths day after day to burn me as a witch. I still don't know where that idea came from that dyslexia is a grand conspiracy designed to…what exactly?...to rob superior students of their speed advantage on tests, slightly narrowing the grade gap?
But the episode did cause me to think back to school. In the first grade, I began the year in the lowest reading group. After a couple of months, I got moved up. A bit later, I was moved to the highest reading group. Comprehension was never a problem—just speed, which then sounds worse in group reading.
From that point, I made up for speed in enough ways that I mostly did not think about it, and nobody ever identified me as dyslexic. I was typically the first person to finish most every test in most classes. Being able to perform calculations in my head made math and science far easier. But there was exactly one time when I failed to finish a test, and it was one of the only times that would actually bother me. I took the SAT just once, in 1994, and it was the first time there was essay writing on the Verbal portion. I had no idea there was a new essay portion, and didn't read the several pages prior for understanding because I would generally read the questions asked and go back. I was asked to write an essay that basically required for me to read the story in full. I went back and read every word. Then I started writing, and six or so sentences into what was likely going to be a 25ish sentence essay, time was called. My verbal score was 710 and my total was 1510, so I figured that's where I lost all the points.
Along with the pandemic has come an interesting and sometimes frustrating social challenge. It comes in the form of,
"Wow, you get so much accomplished. Can you give my 15-page data thing [where you may or may not have to look up biomedical terminology] a quick lookover?"
Every time I read that, my heart races. I even feel a bit sad. I have said "yes" and then changed to "no" more times in the past 28 months than in all my life. I hate saying "no" and during ordinary times, I'd sacrifice the time. But…what time?
Also…and this is really important to me…THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A QUICK LOOKOVER OF A 15-PAGE DOCUMENT IN MY WORLD AND NOW I NEED TO FIND A PUPPY TO HUG!
It was the worst with Steve Kirsch. Steve is a prototype hyperproductive Type A CEO. He does his thing very well. But during the first three months I knew him, he kept sending me links with literally 100-page and 200-page documents, and he would be like, "Can you give this a proofread?" I would write back and say, "I am dyslexic, and this would take me 8 or 16 hours, and I'd feel drained and sick before I was nearly done." I got on the phone to explain dyslexia to him multiple times. I think that for some people, the problem is invisible and weird enough that it's hard to see. But all my productivity hacks that allow for me to still be productive as a dyslexic do not translate as well to other people's work.
Last week I explained dyslexia to Steve for about the tenth time in a year, and then went a little further into the explanation of the audio-visual processing disorder. He finally got it. He stopped, and asked me, "Are you vaccine injured?" I told him [honestly] that I have no idea. I don't remember not being dyslexic, and I escaped from a cult without bothering with anything like jotting down my vaccination schedule. I had whatever college required in 1995, and got conned into one flu shot six or seven years ago.
All this is basically why I'm finally writing this article—because I need to be able to point here so that the people I work with will better understand. I will work and do my part if I'm allowed to choose my own adventure. Sorry that I'm a shit proofreader. Sorry that I'm bizarrely slow at one thing and weirdly fast at another. It irritates me more than it could irritate you, but I do get that people plan for certain aspects of normalcy in some tasks that I just do not provide well. I can't wait for the world to get back to normal and I can go back to focusing on learning to do just one thing well at a time instead of ten, and learn how to hack it to fit me and for nobody to be the wiser.
I was a school nurse for 16 yrs. I concluded the students shouldn't be labelled learning disabled. The teachers should become learning enablers; working with each child's gifts.
Mathew, you have successfully identified mechanisms and systems to overcome these obstacles and accomplish many important contributions. Thank you for sharing your struggles. My admiration has increased.