Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Symptoms of Dyslexia

This is part of a cluster of posts about dyslexia and ADHD.

I have two learning "disabilities" ("learning differences" is a more politically correct, and more accurate term): dyslexia, and ADHD. Some people have been surprised to learn this. I am among them. I was only diagnosed with these learning differences recently.

People have asked what makes me think I have dyslexia. Friends have legitimately doubted that I am dyslexic. In this post I list many of the signs of dyslexia that have popped up throughout my life. I'm focusing on the weaknesses here. See also my post on my math blog where I talk a lot about the strengths of dyslexia that have appeared in my life. As you read this you might think something like "sheesh! He's really down on himself." I'm not down on myself. I'm smiling as I write this. I've largely dealt with all of these shortcomings emotionally, and accepted them as an important part of who I am. I'm just listing these to answer the curiosity of others, and to give my readers a peek into my world.

Difficulties with reading as a child

The story my mom always told about my kindergarten days was that she would sit on the couch in our front room with me for hours going over letter flash cards. She might be working on only three letters at a time with me, but I couldn't get them. Over and over she would show me Q, R, and S, telling me the name of each. Then she would quiz me. Holding up the Q she would ask "what's this?" "I don't know," is all I could answer.

Somehow I eventually learned the basics of the alphabet, but I continued to have some problems with it into first grade at least. I got the short sounds of i and e mixed up. I confused b and d, and eventually had to assign them personalities to remember them (d has a bad attitude because it faces the opposite direction of it's parent D). I confused p and q. I also confused F and 5, and I still do. I blame that partially on the Jackson 5ive cartoon. On the other hand, I never did mirror writing like my dyslexic daughter used to do: sometimes she wrote left to right, with all of the letters facing the correct direction. Other times she wrote right to left, with all of the letters flipped. She never knew which she was doing.

I learned to read at an earlier age than many with severe dyslexia, but I read below my grade level probably at least through middle school. If there were different reading groups in school (and I imagine that there must have been) I was completely oblivious to them. Here's what I do remember: in fourth grade a friend asked me why I never read any long books. In fifth grade my friends were reading the Great Brain series. I wasn't ready for them until middle school. During middle school a number of books were assigned us for reading. I read very few of them. I'm not sure how I didn't fail any classes given the small number of assigned books that I actually read. It wasn't that I didn't read any books. I read some non-assigned books that I was interested in. More on this in the ADHD post.

Difficulties with memorization and computations

Arithmetic was always difficult for me, and I hated math in elementary school. In the fourth grade I remember having to stay after class with a handful of other kids who couldn't remember their multiplication tables. The extra lessons didn't work. I never did learn my multiplication tables by heart. I still don't know them. More on arithmetic in my ADHD post.

Word games, card games, and any games requiring memorization, or mental speed have always been really difficult for me. Growing up, my family used to play a multi-player speed version of solitaire. I always felt like more of a spectator than a participant. Trick-taking card games (bridge, hearts, etc.) are completely incomprehensible to me.

Continued difficulties with reading as an adult

As an adult, I'm an avid reader. Unlike many dyslexics, I can even read out loud quite well. But, I'm a slow reader. It took me a long time to realize (or admit to myself) how slow of a reader I am. I wondered for a long time why people never gave me enough time to read materials that they expected me to read.

Difficulties with Writing

My handwriting is bad. It's better now than it used to be, but it's still bad. Writing is a slow process for me, whether it's typing or hand writing. It's difficult and time consuming to translate my thoughts into words on a page. It's also challenging to avoid typographical errors. As a coping strategy I proofread anything I write probably an excessive number of times. I don't know how many times most people proofread things they write. For me everything gets at least five proofreadings. This includes emails, chat messages, social media posts. Everything. If you've seen errors in my writing, you know that it's slipped by at least five proofreadings. More important pieces of writing get many more proofreadings.

Challenges in Conversation

As I said, it's difficult to translate thoughts into words. This makes conversations challenging sometimes. I don't know if other people do this, but before saying a sentence, I almost always practice saying it in my head several times. I do this practicing even with close friends and family members. If I don't practice, then all kinds of jumbled sounds come out of my mouth. Word recall is also slow for me, which slows down my speech.

Dyslexics also have a hard time processing speech. After someone has said something to me, I often ask "what?" even though I heard them just to get a few extra seconds to process what they said. When I say "process," I mean turn the sounds into words. Here is an extreme example: when I was in graduate school, a man at the gym made some off-hand casual comment to me. I heard him, but didn't process what he had said. I asked "what?" but he had moved on and didn't reply. The sound bite of audio stuck in my head all that day. I had absolutely no idea what he had said to me, but it rattled around up there for hours. About eight hours later, the audio finally finished processing into words. In a flash I knew all of the words of the complete sentence that he had said, whereas I had known none of them for the previous eight hours.

Obviously, this slowness and hesitancy translates into a good deal of awkwardness in conversation. One coping strategy that I've employed a lot throughout my life is to just keep my mouth shut. I've always been known as the shy one, or the quiet one. It's not usually that I have nothing to say. It's not always that meekness keeps me from speaking up (though it is often that). Most commonly it's that it's difficult to get the sentences formed and practiced in real time.

In high school a friend would sometime make fun of me for speaking slowly. I also sometimes stutter.

Learning a Foreign Language

It is said that learning a foreign language is difficult or impossible for dyslexics. That may be true for many, but it wasn't for me. I served a two year* mission in Brazil for my church between high school and college. I had to learn Portuguese. I don't think I had an especially difficult time with learning the language (I might have been slower than the others, though). I do know that I took a different approach to it than my peers.

Basically, I learned Portuguese the same way I learned English: language processing for dyslexics is a conscious mental process of breaking spoken sounds into constituent phonemes, and processing them into meaningful words. That's how I approached Portuguese. I realized that the phonemes of Portuguese were completely different from the phonemes of English. I knew that I had to learn to recognize and process those phonemes when I heard them, and that I had to be able to produce them with my mouth. I didn't worry too much about vocabulary or grammar. I knew I'd pick up enough vocabulary to get by. The grammar was largely conceptual and intuitive.

Probably about the first half of my time in Brazil (the first nine months or so) I was largely just listening. I was trying to hear the phonemes. The second half of my time there, I was trying to get better at producing the phonemes. I discovered that the best way to learn to produce the sounds was by watching the behavior of the tongues in the mouths of native speakers as they spoke. I started carefully watching the tongues that I was able to see: little children who had lost their front teeth, old men whose teeth had all rotted out, women as they sang open-mouthed. I don't know if anyone noticed me staring at their mouths, or if they thought it was creepy. I mimicked the tongue movements of women singing so well that friends told me I had to stop pronouncing things that way, or people would think I was gay**.

It was difficult, and I had to work at it, but I learned to speak Portuguese. I was determined throughout my stay in Brazil to continue to improve my language ability. I tried hard to make my spoken Portuguese of my 18th month in Brazil better than my spoken Portuguese of my 17th month, and I did. By the end of my mission people could still tell I wasn't a native Brazilian, but I was sometimes mistaken for being from Portugal. Contrastingly, I think that many of my peers never realized that the phonemes of Portuguese are different from the phonemes of English.

I also learned to understand spoken and written Portuguese. Unfortunately, I never learned to write Portuguese well. After I came home and wrote some letters back to my Brazilian friends, I received replies saying they couldn't understand my writing.

Difficulties Learning and Performing Repetitive Physical and Clerical Tasks

Learning rote physical and mental tasks is difficult for dyslexics. As a youth I remember a number of church-youth-group and school activities that included a dance tutorial of some kind or another. At each step of learning the dance the teachers moved on to the next step long before I was comfortable with the previous one. The tutorials were essentially useless to me. My coping strategy has been 1) to avoid dancing and 2) when forced into dancing to make up my own erratic, high-energy dance moves, deliberately flouting the style of dance of the group.

I tried to play Dance Dance Revolution once…um…bad idea.

In high school I worked at a telephone survey call center, and before college I worked in a cheese packaging plant. I really tried hard at both of those jobs, but I couldn't keep up at the simple rote tasks required of me.

After an upsetting event like a car crash, my ability to reliably copy down information such as a license plate number, a name, or a phone number completely vanishes. I found this out the hard way.

Challenges with Hand-eye Coordination

Like many dyslexics, I have bad hand-eye coordination. I'm bad at sports when catching, throwing, or hitting balls is involved. I don't have the necessary accuracy. I'm bad at video games. I'm bad at marksmanship. Shaking people's hands can be awkward because often when I reach for their hand, I miss it!

Struggling with the Concept of Time

Time can be difficult for dyslexics. I will often shift appointments, holidays, and other events one or two hours, days, or weeks either forward or back. If you schedule something with me, I might be an hour late, or a week early, thinking I'm right on time. There is a completely different set of reasons that I'm sometimes late related to ADHD. Look for that in my ADHD posts. My wife said when we were first married "I don't understand how time works in your mind."

Diagnosis

I guess that throughout school I did well enough that nobody thought to screen me for dyslexia. I never suspected that I was dyslexic. When my wife was homeschooling my struggling daughter, she read up on dyslexia. My wife concluded that not only did my daughter have it, but so did I. I was skeptical, until she finally got me to read up on the symptoms. When I learned what dyslexia really is, I was sure that I was dyslexic.
*In truth, only 18 months of the two years were spent in Brazil.
**At the time I thought there was something wrong with being gay. I don't any more.

5 comments:

Jamie said...

Aaaand...guess what I forgot to talk about: memory (what irony). I have something in this post about memorization, but there's lots more to say regarding memory. I'll write another post on that soon.

Charles G said...

Thanks for writing this. I was referred here by a friend after discussions on Dyslexia and ADHD and found your story here and at another site very interesting. I've been having conversations about these two areas pretty recently because I have been told a number of times that I probably have one or both of these characteristics. However, I'd say that in undergrad and grad school - once I kinda realized that I thought and processed things differently - I began to be able to do things more to my own learning style. So, today as I engage in these conversations, I'm forced to wonder what's the point of being officially diagnosed if I am in fact dyslexic and/or have ADHD? For example, did you ever think you may have been dyslexic when you were younger? Were you resistant to the diagnosis (not the conclusion but the point of the diagnosis)?

I was having this conversation over social media with someone in the field, but there seemed to be such a negative stigma associated with it. For example, when I said that I had 'problems' reading, it was immediately assumed that I was couldn't read. But having finished my PhD, I've really spent a lot of time figuring out how my mind works - how to take notes in class so that I can understand them, how to read a journal paper, how to read a novel, time management issues, losing things, etc. I know that I'll face new challenges every day that will be different than those of the past. But I'm also confident that just like the challenges of the past, that I'll rise to the challenge.

Jamie said...

Charles G,
I never suspected I was dyslexic as a kid. Like you, I've spent a lot of time figuring out how my mind works, and how it's different from other people's. I've come up with lots of strategies to cope with life.

As for being diagnosed, I can only speak from personal experience, but the ADHD diagnosis means that I now have a prescription for medication, which helps me quite a bit. I haven't been diagnosed with dyslexia officially.

Best of luck in your future endeavors!

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