October is Dyslexia Awareness month so this article will help you understand what it might be like to be a person with dyslexia. I used the words “might be like” because one of the first thing to understand is that dyslexia is different for each person. Everyone is an individual and the brain is a unique as a person’s fingerprints; no two are alike!
Let me explain in a simple way how the brain processes language.
This is the NON-DYSLEXIC brain working. When the person sees the words on the page they quickly go to the language center of their brain. In the non-dyslexic language center the information (letters, sounds, numbers, colors...) are all stored in an orderly sequential way so that each piece is easy to retrieve. Having an organized language center makes learning, especially learning to read fairly easy.
The language center of a person with dyslexia is very different.
Here the person sees the words on the page and goes up to their language center of their brain to find the corresponding letters and sounds. When they get to their language center, it is not organized. Depending on how dyslexic they are, their language center can range from having only a few things out of place to major chaos. If the person also has ADD/ADHD there may be even more difficulties. A person with dyslexia doesn't often come back quickly with information because they are sorting through all the mess in their language center to find just the right words, letters, sounds, numbers... This can be seen when a student has low reading fluency and/or difficulties with Rapid Automatic Naming (RAN). Since the language center is disorganized the person often struggles with sounding words out and may read the words incorrectly. A great deal of time they will just guess a word based on beginning letters and the shape of the word because it is very time consuming searching all over their language center for just the right match.
Hopefully this gives you an idea of what it might be like for a person with dyslexia. If you look up on the internet what it is like to be a person with dyslexia you may come across some activities that "simulate" dyslexia. I'm not a fan of these "simulations" (explained below) but what I hope you get from these is an understanding of the frustration and feelings of learned helplessness (important topic to understand) that comes from being a person with dyslexia.
So, why am I not a fan of some of these simulations? Well, for a few reasons. As I pointed out before, every person with dyslexia is different and often these "simulations" give the impression that these experiences are universal and they feed into many myths.
The first one I don't like is the one where the people have to read from a paper where the letters are backward, squiggly, or missing parts. The point is to demonstrate how hard a person with dyslexia has to work in order to read. The problem with this simulation is the way the letters are presented. For the most part, people with dyslexia do NOT see things differently. It is NOT a vision problem. True, there are some people who also have difficulty with convergence or have eye problems but this is NOT dyslexia. A better way to present this activity is to try to read something in a foreign language that you do not understand, especially out-loud. These are real words and in order to read them you have to know the phonetic codes that go with each letter and foreign language. Try this:
The other simulation I'm not fond of is the "mirror writing." Again, this is to show how frustrating it is for the person with dyslexia to share their thoughts on paper but it also adds to the myth that people with dyslexia have difficulty with their vision. Also, not everyone with dyslexia also has dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is often common in people with dyslexia but some people with dyslexia are great at writing (penmanship & written expression). Most people don't even know about dysgraphia which is similar to dyslexia. See, in writing there are also a lot of steps the brain has to go through to process the language and tell the hand how to form the letters, space the letters, spell the words, formulate the sentence, and express thoughts. Some people may be dysgraphic and not dyslexic - remember everyone is unique. Doing the mirror activity can be very confusing for people. A better way to simulate the difficulties with writing for some people with dyslexia is to have people listen to a few sentences in different foreign languages (ones they do not know) and have them write down what they are hearing. Remember that most adults have learned to adjust to the most non-phonetic language, English so for some people this task may be fairly easy. So to add to the challenge have participants write with their non-dominant hand and go quickly so there is no time to sit around an think. It is also good to have the sentences to be dictated by someone who fluently speaks that language.
Thanks for still reading this post. I know it is long and I made it that way on purpose. People with dyslexia don't like to read because it over works their brain. This is called cognitive overload. When students are in school all day they will experience cognitive overload. These students are working 2, 3, and sometimes even 4 times harder than their non-dyslexic peers but it is not often obvious. So only when a non-dyslexic person (parent or teacher) understands this then changes can be made to the way the person with dyslexia is viewed and treated. I hope you now have a better understanding of what it might be like to be a person with dyslexia.
Finally, the very best way to know what it is like for a person with dyslexia is to ASK them! Have them explain what it is like for them in school or work. They will have the most accurate insight into what it is like to be a person with dyslexia.