What you need to know if you care about someone with dyslexia

If you are lucky enough to know and care about someone with dyslexia, the following may be of help in understanding them and helping them to understand themselves.

They may not be great at remembering things

This isn’t because they don’t care but because that magical dyslexic brain tends to hold everything in mind all at the same time. Imagine a head full of bubbles, with each bubble containing lots of exciting, creative thoughts. This means that it is difficult for them to prioritise things, and some things get forgotten.

A simple way of keeping track of life and events is to make sure things get written down – post-its, diary, journal. The very act of writing or drawing something helps to imprint on the memory that something needs to be done – even if they can’t quite remember what it is – but then they know where to look to find out.

They can get easily overwhelmed

It takes about five times more energy to be a dyslexic person living in a predominantly linear world (search for Dean Bragonier). Dyslexic people tend to compare themselves to what they think of as ‘normal’, but being dyslexic means that you are processing the world in a fundamentally different way. Different, not wrong, and most neuro-typical people can’t begin to do the things that dyslexic people find easy. Usually being photo-realistic thinkers, it means that they are processing trillions of bits of visual data to make sense of what they are seeing and sensing. This also allows them to make connections that a linear thinker would be oblivious of.

They might find it hard to find the right words

That visual brain can sometimes have difficulty in tracking a specific word because they are seeing the story running like a film in their head. So, they may describe the colour, shape, or landmark of something they are trying to remember rather than being able to locate the actual word. Remembering road names is a perfect example of this. They may not remember the name, but they will be able to describe everything else in minute detail.

They may be sensitive to light, sound, temperature, and texture

The senses of a dyslexic person are highly tuned. Everything tends to come in at the same velocity (sight, sound, temperature, texture) and there is likely to to be little filter on incoming stimuli. Don’t be surprised if your dyslexic darling finds it hard to concentrate on what you are saying when the television is on, or there is lots of cross conversation.

Everything they hear gets unconsciously linked to what they already know about the subject matter. This is their way of making sense of the world, but it takes a fair bit of processing to get there because of the mass of data they are processing. They have to concentrate really hard, and while this is going on other things get missed. It’s not that they are not listening to you, just that they are trying really hard not to listen to absolutely everything and anything.

A difficult work scenario for a dyslexic person would be an open plan office where you have to hotdesk, with loads of interruptions, lots of noise, and an AC at the wrong temperature. Noise-reducing earphones will help, but if the person themselves doesn’t realise they are super sensitive, they may feel like they are heading for a meltdown, as it will put their nervous system on ‘high alert’. When they ask you to not interrupt them, they are actually looking after themselves.

They find change difficult

Dyslexic people are, on the whole, very bright with an average or above-average IQ (An Spld – specific learning difference – is not intelligence-related). That bright brain has enabled them to develop lots of higher-level thinking strategies for situations that they have found difficult to understand. Unfortunately, when change happens, those strategies no longer work, and they have to think up new ones; that takes time and energy.

So, if at all possible, they will resist change, and this can feel quite controlling to the person trying to get them to change. It can take a few goes at something for them to know what they are doing or where they are going, but once they do – they fly. Let them ask about something as many times as they need. This highly-tuned, intuitive creature can pick up on body language and micro-expressions very easily. The first sniff of being laughed at or someone getting irritated with the length of time it is taking to understand something will have them shutting down and withdrawing – probably in a state of anxiety.

They can be disorganised, a bit over-organised, or a bit of both

It seems strange doesn’t it, but they can be both all at the same time. They will have a pretty good idea where something is in their own space, but not have a clue where to look for something if they don’t know or didn’t decide on its home. Equally, one of the best strategies for dyslexic people to keep calm and centered is to make sure they put their things back in the same place. It takes self-discipline but saves a lot of friction when something goes missing. A word of warning – do not remove their things without their permission. They have created a safe structure so that they don’t get over anxious and not finding something where they ‘know’ they put it can send their nervous system into overdrive.

A nervous system on overdrive

Sadly, many dyslexic people have had a pretty hard time throughout their educational years, and their nervous system may be primed towards anxiety-related responses (fight or flight). A nervous system in flight or fight response is not one that can engage with learning or feel safe from threat. The best way to help is to allow them to develop a window of tolerance – a place where they get to know what it feels like to be safe and calm, not on alert and wary. Many of us take this place of calm for granted, but someone who has spent a lifetime with a focus on deficit is someone who may find it very hard to feel relaxed and centered.

A note on environment

Because of their general sensitivity, dyslexic people need to be very careful about the environment they live and work in. As said before, the worst scenario is somewhere open-plan where they can get really distracted by what’s going on around them. Being constantly interrupted will mean they lose their train of thought and have to start a task again and again from the beginning – or never finish.

Noise can make them super sensitive and jumpy, and if it’s too hot or too cold – beware. They will do their very best to make it just right. You may find them sneaking off for a bit of peace and quiet if they feel they are getting a bit overwhelmed, which is exactly what they should do and be allowed to do.

Just a few of their strengths…

These wonderful, creative, idiosyncratic, truly individual and unique creatures come with amazing strengths that they are often unaware of or dismiss because they don’t feel they meet society’s perceived values. You may not be able to get a degree for these attributes, but it makes for being a great human being.

  • creative
  • intuitive
  • innovative
  • persistent
  • observant
  • imaginative
  • empathetic
  • communicative
  • critical, lateral, and big-picture thinker
  • strong reasoning skills
  • brilliant at oral comprehension

The person you have in your life may have had a rocky road, especially through education, and may come with some unresolved issues that have impacted on their confidence and self-belief. However, those same experiences have often helped to craft them into the loyal, intuitive and sensitive person you have in your life. Focus on their strengths. Let them know what they do right. Listen to them to understand not to reply.

So often they have already experienced a lifetime of focus on their deficits. We would take care to put a plant in the right spot in the garden so that it could flourish and get all its needs met – let’s do that with our beloved dyslexic people. Simply love them for who they are – they definitely don’t need fixing, and a little understanding can go a long, long way.