September 28, 2016

The ‘Gift’ of Dyslexia

When one of her children struggles with reading, Beth Danaj-Burke knows her options for assistance. The teachers, websites and resources available are vast for the Petoskey-area mother of five children, three of whom have dyslexia.

“It’s a different world from when I was growing up, when they still thought dyslexia was simply writing backwards and phonetically,” Danaj-Burke, 51, explains. A dyslexic herself, she often wrangles with everyday tasks.

“A personalized thank-you note can be horrible,” she says. “I miswrote checks for years before online banking. For the longest time I couldn’t read digital clocks, and because of my lack of spacial perception, I’ve run into more mailboxes, fire hydrants and light posts than I can count.”

One of the most common language-based learning disabilities, dyslexia affects between 5 percent and 17 percent of the population.

“While dyslexia reaches all nationalities and regions of the world, English is a particularly difficult language to learn, so we have a high percentage of dyslexics in our country,” says Cheryl Schlosser, director for the Abrams Teaching Lab, at the Lansing Center for the Michigan Dyslexic Institute. Schlosser says that people with dyslexia have difficulty with words that are seen, heard and spoken.

“Oftentimes dyslexics have word retrieval or sequencing issues,” she adds. “For example, they can’t keep the days of the week in order, or follow simple directions. They have a hard time keeping things in and retrieving things from their long-term memories. It’s like you have a file cabinet full of information and you’ve dumped it on the floor. The information is there, you just can’t find it.”

Danaj-Burke says she can relate. “Like many people with dyslexia, I can’t say a word out loud, but I can spell it,” she says. “Raising my hand to answer a question in a class or meeting is so discouraging because I need to work it out on paper first. Something gets stuck between my brain and mouth, and my hand needs to be involved to context the two. It makes people think you’re not intelligent when you have to go through a process simply to answer a question.”

New research is finding potential chromosomal links to dyslexia, and advances in neuroimaging have helped compare the asymmetry of the dyslexic brain with that of a non-dyslexic. What’s emerging from field studies is equally exciting: people with dyslexia think in different, often gifted ways.

“I tell the students at our Center that they have creative minds, and that they think outside the box,” says Schlosser. “Dyslexics tend to be great problem solvers—it’s the way their brains are wired, and it helps them see things differently.”

People with dyslexia, she says, see a big picture over its small details. The dyslexic community often compares this to a car, with its many pieces—motor, tires, gas tank—being the fine details. “Someone with dyslexia is going to know more about the concept of locomotion,” says Danaj-Burke.

Books such as “The Dyslexic Advantage” (Eide & Eide, Hudson Street Press, 2011) and “The Gift of Dyslexia” (Davis, Perigee Trade, 2010) promote the ways in which people with dyslexia excel. Schlosser says that parents and loved ones can encourage their children and others with dyslexia to reach their potential by thinking in different ways.

“Don’t ask them what they’re thinking,” she says. “Rather, ask them to show what they’re thinking, by drawing or modeling. I had one student last week grab a handful of screws, paperclips and washers, and before we knew it he’d made a motorcycle.”

Danaj-Burke says her 4.0 GPA in the many college courses she enjoys taking comes from her ability to take oral tests, and to work creatively with her instructors. “My last class was art history, if you can believe it, and my instructor allowed me to write phonetically. This type of cooperation works beautifully for everyone involved.”

To learn more about the advantages of dyslexia or to discuss methods of learning with professionals, call the Michigan Dyslexic Institute at 517-485-4000, or refer to the resources guide on this page.

Common Symptoms of Dyslexia

  • Difficulty understanding individual sounds in words
  • Difficulty remembering words
  • Spoken-language difficulties, with good comprehension of oral language
  • Reversal of letters and numerical sequences
  • Flipping letters and numbers and/or writing them backwards past age 7 or 8
  • Not seeing or acknowledging punctuation in written text
  • Difficulty reading different styles of type
  • Omission of words while reading
  • Difficulty writing
  • Confusion about directions in space or time
  • Inconsistencies between potential and performance
  • Difficulty telling time

Source: DyslexiaHelp, The University of Michigan

Resources: Books

  • “The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain,” Brock L. Eide, M.D., M.A.; Fernette F. Eide, M.D.
  • “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” Maryanne Wolf
  • “The Gift of Dyslexia,” Ronald Dell Davis

Resources: Websites

Resources: Apps

  • Alphabet Zoo
  • Cool Reader
  • American Speller
  • Dyslexic Like Me
  • AppWriter
  • Prizmo
  • Blio