Neurodiversity Wisdom Appreciates Differences, Skills, and Talents
Labels and diagnosis Helpful or Not, when Traits of Dyslexia, ADHD, or Autism Spectrum Appear
The gifts and challenges of dyslexia-like traits
Dyslexia, autism spectrum, and ADHD have some characteristics that relate to myself and some of my family members. As a child, I had difficulty reading, mispronouncing words, and struggling in areas such as math and foreign languages. With prodigious effort and over-learning, I gained improvement and a certain level of mastery. However, today I still make or insert incorrect words or cite a saying in the wrong word sequence. My wife, for years, has been my vital partner and the dedicated corrector. Growing up, I was the target of ridicule sometimes for my overzealous recitation of information. In my early grade school years, I thought that I was a pretty average kid and tried my best at the challenges put in front of me. I had difficulties when first learning to read, mispronouncing words, or injecting the wrong word.
My classmates would usually find it funny or laugh at it when I would make an error. As I got older, I occasionally said the wrong names or terms when talking. In school, I almost got beat up as I more than once called a fellow student by the incorrect name. I knew what I intended to say very well, but the wrong name or term would slip out. Fortunately, a wise teacher at the time realized my gifts and intelligence in most other areas and encouraged me by moving me from the lowest reading group to the highest reading group to enable me to work harder at some skills to be a better reader.
I almost got fired from a job when I would inadvertently call people by the wrong names. I had to use all kinds of schemes to focus on encounters to remember the correct name. When we started into math, I had difficulty with doing word problems, especially when they required any memory of sequences. I had trouble with foreign languages, as it was hard to hear and repeat unusual words or sentences without extraordinary effort. The music teacher said I was tone deaf as I had trouble singing back parts of songs, the music, or the lyrics.
When I reached thirteen, I was required to do a sacred religious ceremony that represented a child’s passage into adulthood. By the orthodoxy standard of the religious school I attended, I had to learn a long Hebrew recitation to a sacred tune and chant it back in front of the congregation. The very old and wise teacher who taught me saw how I struggled to remember and repeat the melody, words, and sequence of phrases with the proper intonations. With great wisdom and experience, the teacher had me bring a tape recorder and record his voice performing the sacred melody. I took it home, played, and practiced with it for months until I could recite the piece with perfect phrasing and melody. My teacher was very proud and told me I had only made one mistake, which was very good by his standards. I guessed when my ceremony was successful, my trial by fire, I was ready for my journey into adulthood.
The plus and minuses of names and diagnoses
Names and defining terms, such as dyslexia, have a valuable and practical side but can be negating, belittling, or problematic for a person. Labeling is part of separating oneself from all the perceived outside “others.” During the development of individuals, the characterizing and naming of traits and characteristics come from parents, siblings, peers, and early life teachers. There is also the self-labeling that results from critical comments or evaluations received from others which are taken in or interjected during identity development.
In his development into an adult, the infant seeks security, self-sufficiency, mastery, dominance, or submission to others. There is an innate drive to belong, requiring acceptance and conformity to the expectations or demands of significant others, superiors, or caregivers.
Suppose unique differences cause difficulty in early life affiliations or fitting into social units. In that case, the developing youth often takes on or gets a defining name or label. The definer or label giver is usually a significant other, peer, or healthcare provider. A descriptive name or diagnosis can be self-imposed by the person when picked up or taken on after being influenced by a significant external source.
Sometimes a label affords the person some way of navigating ridicule or self-deprecating from others who are the more uniform or conforming people in a group. It may give a special status when some skills of the different individuals can benefit the group or be incorporated into the expected work needs of the team. In more modern or developed social systems, accommodations may allow skills and abilities to flourish, supporting harmonious relationships and the group’s success.
Life can have unique challenges for the talented and creative to participate in community settings. Problems occur when developmental, genetic, physical, emotional, behavioral, or mental processing abilities become noticed as being at variance with others, resulting in adversity for the individual identified. Persons without intellectual impairment or significant disability can still have their talents and abilities stifled, ridiculed, or discriminated against while trying to work with or fit in with the neurotypical advantaged members of the group. The neurotypical person often referred to as the normal, are the average performing individuals in a group setting. The determinations are from statistical testing studies that show characteristics falling within the majority or average ranges of others.
The family heritage
When my son, years later, was thirteen, he had the same daunting task. My son had the same genetics I had from my family and my wife’s family, so he struggled with the same language, learning, and information-processing difficulties as I had experienced. We belonged to a much more liberal and reformed congregation. The leader of the congregation, also someone with great wisdom, gave my son the choice of writing a creative story and presenting that to the community instead of having to master and recite the long and challenging Hebrew recitation. My son was talented and gifted in original creations and opted for the story.
I remember when he presented his story to the congregation, it strongly resonated with everyone with its brilliance, originality, and profound meaning. There were a few tearful eyes that day, including mind, and everyone else was amazed at the powerful impact of the story and words coming from one so young. I remember that story somewhat today.
As I remember, the story was of a child suddenly and mysteriously appearing in a classroom with colorful graffiti all over the walls. The sometimes-oppressive elderly and revered Rabbi, who often was strict and by the book in teaching his students, was shocked when he entered the disorderly and graffitied cover wall of the classroom with the unknown, otherworldly student sitting there. The serene student, vaguely reminiscent of something lost, took the hand of the elderly teacher and led him through a wall that became like a veil into brilliant light and a beautiful natural-like garden with rich colors and all forms of life. The elderly teacher had a powerful awakening and, with a deep feeling of awe and completion, died in a peaceful state of well-being.
I remember playing on the football team as a speedy half-back in high school. During one of the early season games, the coach sent me in with a play. It turned out I confused the series of numbers of the intended play and ended up giving away a secret formation the coach was saving for a future game with our big school rival. I was thoroughly shamed and yelled at, and the coach kept me on the bench for most of the remaining season.
In college, one of the required courses I needed to pass to get into medical school required the manipulation of complex and serial formulas. Fortunately, one of my older brothers, who learned similarly to me, had failed the course until he realized a workaround: over-learning and repeatedly writing everything on notepads. I followed his advice, used an excessive number of tablets of paper, and surprisingly came out with one of the highest grades in the course. Part of it was related to my talents in seeing patterns and thinking creatively to solve problems and come up with unique solutions required in organic chemistry.
Some of the unique learning characteristics I had and still have to this day would fall mainly in the realm or descriptive category of dyslexia. But not entirely, as each person has unique patterns that may cross the line into other defined learning, perceptual, and information processing formats.
The value of discovery and knowing about dyslexia traits
Estimates of dyslexia in the populations range from five to twenty percent, with the more disabling affected individuals representing a much smaller part of the population. The origins are thought to be mostly of genetic heritage. Our educational system is more structured to support children with typical learning styles, the neurotypical child. Generally, school programs are not as supportive or self-esteem-enhancing for the child with dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or autism spectrum traits.
There are many childhood signs, difficulties, and behaviors parents and teachers associate with dyslexia as learning challenges to read, write, or spell. Other presentations are:
Takes longer to complete work or tests;
Avoids reading or slow reading and makes reading errors;
Mispronouncing long, unknown, or complicated words or confusing words that sound alike;
Difficulty remembering details, such as names and dates or sequences of numbers or phrases as in poems, songs, or repeating back song tunes;
Difficulties with math problems, especially when they have to figure out mentally vs. on paper;
Difficulty memorizing and repeating or interpreting back what is read;
More difficulty than peers with coordination as with sports and physical activities;
Family history of dyslexia or other learning problems as a parent or sibling;
Underperforms what appears to be their ability and difficulty expressing what they read or know;
An increasing difficulty occurs with advancement, growing demands, and workload, with trying to keep up or succeed in tasks given;
Feels stupid or dumb even though succeeding in school;
Anxiety and problems with self-esteem and moods become more apparent, including not enjoying or avoidance of school activities;
Confusing or different labels from evaluations or screening tests, healthcare providers, or teachers;
The child is subject to ridicule or bullying from peers.
In adults, dyslexia may appear with some of the same difficulties or challenges as seen in children or young adults that haven’t had remediations or interventions when younger, such as challenges with reading, writing, or speaking. Other possible presentations are:
Rarely reads for pleasure or does public speaking, reading, or writing when not required for work or school;
Avoids or struggles with reading out loud;
Difficulty understanding jokes, puns, turns of phrase, sarcasm, or stories when not enough context is given;
Difficulty with tasks that require memorization or repetition or summarizing things read;
Problems with retaining series of numbers, information, or instructions and making errors when recalling them;
Disorganization and time management issues;
Taking longer to complete a task, or at least longer than the expected time required;
Problems with focusing on one task;
Overreacting to mistakes;
Easily affected by stress or time pressure;
Over-controlling with imposing strict rules on oneself to the point of appearing obsessional;
Maybe a better visual or hands-on learner;
Difficulties with math and calculations;
Underperforms at work or in a school for unclear reasons and has never been tested;
Has dyslexic children, grandchildren, or other family members and recognize similar features in themselves;
Has difficulty with anxiety, worry, moods, low self-esteem, irritability, anger eruptions, or obsessiveness.
Masking and fear of discovering
In part of a neurology rotation in medical school, I feared the discovery of my felt inadequacies because of my different way of retrieving and processing information. I understood little about it then and thought it was a vulnerability I had, with maybe some intelligence problem or not being smart enough. I had no name or label for it, but I often felt I was not as intelligent or able as the others.
The fear of being discovered peaked when a rigorous neurology teacher called on us to take part in mental status exams. Discovery at that time would have probably been helpful for me to get some understanding and help with my dyslexia traits. But I feared there might be consequences for me in the school I was attending. You would have to recall strings of numbers and serial items or repeat things backward. I avoided the bullet by staying in the back of the group. As I got a little surer of myself and perhaps bolder, I timidly presented a neurology grand round in front of the head of the department. It was funny as he got tired of listening to my long precocious recitation and told me to shorten it so we could finish.
In my family, genetic traits like the autism spectrum, dyslexia, and ADHD were familiar; I was not too noticed, especially as I was capable and generally did well in school. I remember my mother’s difficulty with names and processing information, but she was very intuitive and always had a larger perspective on life and spiritual matters. I know she could write what was in her thoughts as she would send me ten to fifteen-page letters while I was away at school telling me everything happening.
As I was the youngest of four, my mother, when trying to find me, would go through all my brothers’ names before connecting with mine. My older brother, with significant autism spectrum or dyslexic traits, would always be most criticized for doing poorly in school, misunderstanding the information he had read, and incorrectly repeating it. Several family members were exceptional as developers of businesses, scientists, and academics but displayed some of the autism spectrum or dyslexia characteristics. Some members had significant struggles in their life, academic, and work settings because of their unique ways of processing information and language.
I do not, with my personal examples, want to diminish the difficulties, pain, and suffering that occur in the many where the severity of these difficulties may be overwhelming and disabling, even where there are no intellectual problems or deficits. In many of these diagnosed or labeled conditions, there can be the silver lining of benefits that come with the unique learning, thinking, and information processing that makes the person exceptionally talented to excel in an optimal work setting or conditions.
The value of seeing differences as neurodiversity
Neurodiversity, in a more modern application, describes the unique and multivariate differences in all people. Looking at all individuals, we can see vast differences in the brain and mental functioning with the processing, retrieval, and abstraction of incoming information. Variability appears in ideas and concept formation, adaptability to change, and accomplishing tasks.
Neuroscientists and researchers have given different labels according to the principal defining characteristics of unique individuals, compared to the more common or average functioning individuals—defined by neuroscience testing and statistics as neurotypical or normal. The neurodiverse descriptor, in the past, has been applied to different identified groups, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, and dyspraxia. The former application and usage of such terms have separated people into minority grouping.
The intention was to separate individuals with traits and characteristics that were disabling and significantly compromising for the affected individuals to get the attention needed for research and support. Unfortunately, the names and labels have encompassed people in categories associated with mental disorders and pathologic diseases. Underplayed is the worth and value of people with unique differences, talents, and abilities.
ADHD is similar to dyslexia and its traits and has been described as an exploratory cognitive specialization learning style, as is dyslexia. It’s challenging to separate ADHD from dyslexia because of some of their commonality. The same holds in separating autism spectrum disorder into its separate category. As there is such a crossover and variation in presentation and neurocognitive mental/brain functioning between categories and diagnostic types, it would be more helpful to see these categorizations in terms of a spectrum or neurodiversity.
Our brain’s mental apparatus is built to abstract a bunch of data into a workable unit to accomplish a specific goal or critical operations for achieving things such as problem-solving and task performance. The brain’s left hemisphere works to create more precise designations and names from the amorphous perceptions and data from the brain’s right hemisphere. Reducing a broader contextual array of information into more discrete abstractions by the left brain creates a workable block of material for practical applications and actions.
It is interesting to look at dyslexia as a diagnostic category used in the neurosciences, psychology, and medicine that emphasizes the disease model with the difficulties, disadvantages, and adversity for persons identified with symptoms or abnormalities. When investigated in greater depth, there has been a strong association between those with dyslexic characteristics with creativity, open-mindedness, and unique problem-solving abilities. These strengths and skills have been essential for the survival and evolution of humankind and in the success of organizations, businesses, research, and advances in science and technology.
I must insert a disclaimer here, as I associate with some dyslexic attributes to a certain extent; I may be biased, but I acknowledge the benefits, disadvantages, and related struggles of anyone with these identified challenges. People with dyslexic characteristics are frequently present in successful entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, healthcare professionals, architects, and engineers. The person with these unique attributes can often see beyond details to the bigger picture or patterns and develop novel solutions.
My unique ability to grasp, see patterns, and put together perceptual information and ideas allowed significant benefit in being good at problem-solving and putting together programs, and advising others. My wife has been my bedrock and a perfect complementary match for me as she is very observant and is quick to correct me when I slip with a wrong word, improper sequencing of a cliché or saying, or mispronunciations. Though I’m sure she gets frustrated as I often have a brain that can do some deep thinking and problems solving but frequently will inadvertently make similar mistakes.
As a medical student, I often did as most students identify with whatever new teaching about a condition or disease and believe that we were affected. Eventually, with knowledge and discernment, there was a better understanding of the degree and severity of illnesses and the resulting impact on individual lives, capabilities, and functionality. The realization came that any symptom, trait, or attribute of any classified disease or condition may appear in anyone, including ourselves, with slight impairment to difficulties with significant disease. In the brain and mental processing of information and cognitive functioning, there were infinite variations in neuro configurations from person to person and, therefore, the possibility of a range of no impairment to some disadvantage to major disabling problems.
Seeing Dyslexia as a Unique Cognitive Strength, Rather Than a Disorder
Besides the difficulties presented here and elsewhere, there needs to be equal attention to the unique strengths and abilities of persons with dyslexia attributes and traits. Children with different learning and information processing abilities need equal respect and support, as occurs with the more typically functioning children in educational and training programs.
If schools have tutoring, special education, or courses designed to be helpful, at least in the past, the orientation was to fix the child or teach skills so that he would be like everyone else. Rather than efforts to help a child’s natural ways of learning and processing information, teaching acceptance and workarounds to achieve the same learning goals would be supportive and not damage self-esteem and suppress natural abilities and talents.
The purpose of outdated programs was to correct the child’s difficulties so he could be more like the other children. There was little acceptance that actual and legitimate learning differences existed and that those unique differences in learning and expression needed to be supported and guided. Each child requires integration into the learning environment with their peers to avoid further stigmatization because of natural differences.
There is an essential need for children to have early recognition and intervention when signs of dyslexia appear during the years when language and communication skills are developing. Adults can also benefit from some of the support and help available to understand and get assistance when needed when dyslexia is discovered later in life. It is helpful to be aware of signs and symptoms that may alert you to dyslexia presence at any life stage. More specific screening tests and resources are available from healthcare professionals specializing in evaluations and interventions as available from education programs, school psychologists, and speech or reading specialists in the community and schools.
Appreciating and nurturing the abilities and talents of individuals with dyslexic characteristics
Dr. Helen Taylor, a research scientist at the Universities of Cambridge and Strathclyde, and Martin David Vestergaard, a neuroscientist at Cambridge, studied dyslexia and developed a theory of Complementary Cognition. The model leads us away from the disease model and “explains how humans evolved to specialize neurocognitively in different but complementary ways of searching for information that works together as a complex adaptive system.”,
1. If you think you might have dyslexia advantages or disadvantages? Find resources in your community or search online to get evaluated. See the online test at Dyslexic Advantage. Do you think you might have dyslexia?
2. If you suspect that you might have dyslexia difficulties, seek help, as all can benefit. Educational programs specific to age can be very beneficial and improve skills and abilities. Check with your healthcare provider, community resources, or educational institutions to identify other potential problems. There may be the need to seek or get a referral to a clinical or educational psychologist in the community who does testing, a speech pathologist, neurologist, audiologist, hearing specialist, eye doctor, or learning disabilities specialist.
3. Be equally aware of exceptional talents, problem-solving skills, and unique abilities that you or your children may have, as you would for difficulties, so necessary encouragement and support are provided. A person can be targeted, bullied, or discriminated against when they are not in conformity with the larger group, even with unique talents to share with the group.
4. Be aware of other difficulties that may co-occur or be associated with other illnesses. Some of these may include attention deficit disorder (ADHD), problems with coordination (dyspraxia), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), short-term or working memory problems or organization issues, trauma, abuse, parental neglect issues, low self-esteem, mood or emotional issues (depression or anxiety), victimization by bullying or discrimination.
5. If you or a child has dyslexia challenges, look to holistic approaches that enhance natural ways to ease stress and anxiety or overly reactive, rigid, or obsessive thinking or behavior. The programs to consider might include yoga, exercise, music, dance, movement programs, and more natural programs with diverse settings and activities—all support better integration of body, mind, and spirit.
6. Aids for dyslexia, when identified, might include help in:
Improving reading skills;
Occupational therapy to help improve skills in a workplace setting;
Getting accommodations so there will be no disadvantage in school or the workplace, as with untimed tests, and having note-takers;
Have instructions be given orally or with visual aids;
Added tutoring or coaching for subjects or tasks that are challenging to learn or remember;
Recordings of class material or meetings to review again, learn, and retain critical information;
Use new technology, such as speech to texts apps if difficulties with writing out or typing things, and organization, calendar, or note apps.
Shan Parks is a writer and editor and assists Dr. Parks with some of his writing and editing
See Justin Garson, Ph.D., article https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-biology-human-nature/202207/seeing-dyslexia-unique-cognitive-strength-rather-disorder; Justin Garson, Ph.D., is a philosopher and author of Madness: A Philosophical Exploration (Oxford, 2022) and The Biological Mind: A Philosophical Introduction, Second Edition (Routledge, 2022: About the author and his books https://www.amazon.com/Madness-Philosophical-Exploration-Justin-Garson-ebook/dp/B09RBBS4HT/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3HHRHSRNDS4JR&keywords=justin%20garson&qid=1647962426&sprefix=justin%20garson%20%2Caps%2C100&sr=8-1
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western, by Dr. Iain Gilchrist, is available at Amazon and most bookstores; at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07NS35S76/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i1
http://dyslexia.yale.edu/dyslexia/signs-of-dyslexia/ see Sally Shaywitz’s book, Overcoming Dyslexia, pp. 125- 127 in her book: https://www.amazon.com/Overcoming-Dyslexia-Complete-Science-Based-Problems/dp/0679781595
You can learn more about dyslexia and projects spearheaded by people with dyslexia in the resources section of Helen Taylor’s Web site. https://complementarycognition.co.uk/complementary-projects/ Complementary Projects are a movement made up of people from many fields to transform views around dyslexia.
Dyslexic Advantage is a landmark book about dyslexic strengths first published in 2011 by Drs. Brock & Fernette Eide. https://www.amazon.com/Dyslexic-Advantage-Revised-Updated-Unlocking/dp/0593472233/ref=asc_df_0593472233?tag=bngsmtphsnus-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=80470624769053&hvnetw=s&hvqmt=e&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=&hvtargid=pla-4584070160682687&psc=1
See related Mind Wise posts: Unlocking Artistry and Creativity
Unmasking Neurodiversity to Discover Hidden Talent, and the Authentic Self
Thanks for sharing your story. Excellent article. I learned a lot from it!