The Positives of Dyslexia

A neurodiversity perspective.

Posted Sep 27, 2019

Dyslexia is typically framed through a medical-deficit model. Take the following definition: “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.” This is a fairly standard definition taken from a widely-cited article, and would be considered authoritative by many doctors and professionals. 

On the one hand, this definition is accurate and empirically supported in so far as dyslexia has been associated with such difficulties. However, there is also reason to think that this definition is unduly negative. For in fact, dyslexia is associated with many benefits as well as limitations.

Perhaps the general positive most widely associated with dyslexia is creativity. This became apparent to the psychologist Dr. Beverley Steffart in the late 1990s, when she was asked to look into dyslexia at the Central St Martin's College of Art and Design in London. Teachers there had been worried after noticing a high level of dyslexia among their students. What her investigation uncovered was that a staggering three quarters of students there were dyslexic.

Interestingly, while this did mean that they tended to struggle with reading and writing, Steffart herself concluded that dyslexia as such was not necessarily a bad thing. For her, dyslexia came to represent “a 'trade-off' between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing.” Based on this view, many arts students had excelled in part because of their dyslexia, rather than despite it.

Of course, this is not to say that all dyslexic students should be expected to excel in the traditional arts vocations. But there is good reason to think that all dyslexic people will have a potential niche somewhere due to their divergent thinking style. Alternatively, for instance, many dyslexic entrepreneurs have described how their divergent thinking has helped them excel in their chosen fields, while others have noted how certain sports may suit their dyslexic cognitive style.

Underlying these various tendencies are more general cognitive traits. While there has been a strong research bias towards finding only deficits historically, more recent work has found advantages. A 2004 study, for instance, measured both the quantity and originality of ideas generated by dyslexic and non-learning disabled students; it showed that dyslexic students tended to perform better than non-learning disabled students in both regards. In line with this, a more recent 2016 study found that dyslexic individuals were superior at connecting different mental fields through unusual combinations of ideas when compared with controls.

To date, the most rigorous synthesis of the positives of dyslexia can be found in the 2011 book The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock Eide and Fernette Eide. They weave together a wide range of research emphasise how dyslexia should be associated with "big picture" thinking. What they mean by this is that dyslexic people seem to be good at spotting connections and seeing the world holistically, which—while making certain tasks harder—in many ways give dyslexic individuals a competitive edge. Given this, they suggest dropping the medical-deficit model and instead propose seeing the challenges and advantages associated with dyslexia as "two sides of the same neurological coin."

To be clear, in pointing all of this out, I am not denying that dyslexia is a disability. Dyslexic individuals are disabled, and it would be wrong to overlook or deny this. However, it is also the case that much of dyslexic disability can be accounted for in light of how attitudes and structures exclude those with this cognitive style. Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that unduly negative labels can increase stigma and negatively affect self-esteem.

So while it is vital to recognise the challenges associated with dyslexia, it is nonetheless equally important to recognise it as a natural and valuable aspect of human neurological diversity—one that needs to be supported, accommodated, and valued, rather than being taken as a medical flaw that we would be better off without.

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