The Upside of Dyslexia

Claiming that dyslexia or ADHD comes with upsides or advantages may come across as patronizing or inauthentic.

The SMARTS curriculum was designed to teach students with learning and attention differences, such as dyslexia and ADHD, executive function strategies for common academic challenges (e.g., note-taking or studying for a test). Metacognition, or self-awareness, is central to our approach. After all, every student is a blend of strengths and challenges. When working with students who have  diagnosed learning differences, it can be hard to help them identify their strengths.

I’ve read many articles and books that talk about how people with dyslexia often seem to have “gifts” or talents in areas other than reading and writing—particularly in creative endeavors. As a dyslexic, I think this idea has some validity. I have always been attracted to creative fields and have shown greater artistic aptitude than one might expect. And I know that many other people with dyslexia share this experience.

However, claiming that dyslexia is a “gift” has never sat right with me. It minimizes the real struggle dyslexics face by having deficits in reading. Learning to read is tremendously difficult for people with dyslexia—in addition, they often struggle with language skills as well as time management and other aspects of executive function. Dyslexics come to rely on strategies and accommodations to keep up with their peers, who appear to read effortlessly. It seems like wanting dyslexia to have an upside might be wishful thinking at best.

People with dyslexia do have advantages over the general population in visual/spatial areas. Specifically, dyslexics are more aware of objects at the periphery of their vision. Being aware of the center of your vision is useful in reading, but being aware of the periphery makes one better able to take in the big picture. (Is this why I can’t seem to see my keys when they’re right in front of me? More study seems needed.)

Even as we explore the gifts of dyslexia, it is important to be realistic and acknowledge the ever-present challenges as well. In The Upside of Dyslexia, Annie Murphy Paul says it well:

Whatever special abilities dyslexia may bestow, difficulty with reading still imposes a handicap. Glib talk about appreciating dyslexia as a “gift” is unhelpful at best and patronizing at worst. But identifying the distinctive aptitudes of those with dyslexia will permit us to understand this condition more completely, and perhaps orient their education in a direction that not only remediates weaknesses, but builds on strengths.

What you do think? Are there benefits to having dyslexia? I would love to hear about your own experiences or those of your students in the comments!