Are There Advantages to Being Dyslexic?

dyslexia advantagesI’ve often written in this blog about the challenges dyslexics face, especially when learning to read and write, but today I thought I would talk about the positive side of dyslexia. Being dyslexic myself, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are positive points about dyslexia, especially when everyday activities like reading and writing are such an ongoing challenge. However, along with the challenges that dyslexics face, we also have a few strengths that are part and parcel of the deal. It’s worth considering a few of those here.

Something I’ve noticed about myself is the ability to quickly and easily recognize patterns. I can generally spot when something is out of place or doesn’t belong. I’m also a big picture thinker which has served me well in managing software projects and in troubleshooting complex problems. I never realized that I probably owe those strengths to being dyslexic until I read a recent article in Scientific American about the advantages of dyslexia.

Matthew H. Schneps is an astrophysicist with dyslexia who founded the Laboratory for Visual Learning. Its goal is to study the consequences of cognitive diversity on learning. He observes that dyslexics, though laborious readers, have the fastest rates of spotting visual representations of causal reasoning. In other words, dyslexics show a marked ability to quickly spot pattern deviations, for example, seeing the weeds among the garden’s flowers. His lab has tested both dyslexics and non-dyslexics on things like spotting black holes and memorizing blurry images resembling x-rays. Dyslexics blow the competition out of the water.

Why? There is still no definite answer, but there are a couple of possibilities.

One possibility is that dyslexics have trouble managing visual attention. While this is certainly not conducive to reading well, it can be a strength in certain situations. Schneps offers the illustration of a security guard. The most effective guard will be skilled at spotting suspicious actions or patterns that alert him to danger, in effect watching an entire scene at once. Reading, in contrast, requires tiny regimented eye movements that narrow one’s field of vision. The dyslexic—although having difficulty narrowing his field of vision for reading—would be better able to see the big picture and identify anomalies in this example.

Testing reveals that people with dyslexia can distribute their attention far more broadly than typical readers do. For example, many dyslexic people are found to have an increased ability to “pick out more words spoken by voices widely-distributed in the room” from a cacophonous background, such as a noisy cocktail party.

When test participants were charged with discerning which drawings displayed impossible images, such as “Escher-esque” drawings, versus those that did not defy logic, the dyslexic participants again trumped the non-dyslexics. They identified the visual logic flaws far more quickly than non-dyslexic test subject. The dyslexic participants saw the entire image at once, rather than “reading” the image in small fragments.

Dyslexics are becoming recognized as big picture people. Is it any wonder that many business entrepreneurs, scientists, tech talents, mathematicians, and physicists are dyslexic?

Takeaway: Every child, dyslexic or not, has strengths and weaknesses. But for the dyslexic child it’s often only the weaknesses that are noticed. Left unchallenged, this view will not only impede academic advancement but it can also leave deep emotional scars. It’s important to help the child to see his strengths as a big-picture thinker, and to work with educators to create a learning environment where such strengths will be appreciated and nurtured.


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