13 December 2017

A Different Way of Thinking

raIt started in first grade, really. I thought school was a game. When my teacher wrote something on the dusty black chalkboard, I liked to see how much I could copy without looking down at my paper. Of course, my words slopped off the page, but after a while, I could go whole sentences without looking at what I was writing and stay relatively within the lines. After school I scribbled countless letters to my grandparents. My mum tried to read my letters before mailing them, but to her they appeared to be written in some kind of first grader code and that was before text messaging. She asked me to translate, which I did quickly, unsure why she couldn’t read my letter when she had just read my twin sister’s letter without any trouble at all.

After my eager translation my mum would take out a piece of paper, write down what I had wanted to say, and then I would have the pleasure of sitting at the end of our long dining room table with a stubby pencil slowly copying each letter while the rest of my siblings played outside. Even then there were mistakes in the words I copied. My writing was full of backwards “b”s, upside-down “m”s, and letters that somehow switched places between the time I looked at them and the time I wrote them down.

Not long after I started school, my dad attended a conference where one of the speakers spoke on learning disabilities. The symptoms of dyslexia fitted with many of my quirky reading and writing tendencies. Later, my mum read that one way to help a dyslexic learner is with a strict application of phonics. I remember standing against the concrete wall of our kitchen, watching my mum knead bread as we did phonetic exercisesba, be,bi,bo,bu- over and over and over. The whole time I was thinking about how I would rather be outside in the sunshine climbing the loquat tree in our backyard.

School was never easy for me. Pictureless pages muddled in my mind and with maths I was constantly flipping my numbers. My grades were good, but I had to work hard for them while my siblings seemed to skate through their classes without the daily struggle that I faced especially when it came to timed tests or arithmetic problems.

I learned to hide my reading disability afraid of what people would think of me if they found out that I learned differently from what they did. When asked to read in a group I skipped ahead and read my part over and over until I had it nearly memorised so that I would make minimal mistakes when my turn came. But even with my careful cover-ups I still felt dumb when I misspelled words and wrote down wrong answers.

It was not until high school and college that I began to appreciate the good aspects of how God created my brain to process information. Through the book The Gift of Dyslexia I learned that a dyslexic’s brain processes information rapidly because dyslexics think in images instead of words. This causes their brains to process material at a much faster rate than someone who thinks in words as opposed to pictures. The book explained that dyslexics are visual, multidimensional thinkers. This makes them intuitive, creative, and good at hands-on learning, but the problem comes when concepts are not easily visualised, which is why many dyslexics have trouble with letters, numbers and symbols. A dyslexic’s mind will look at something from several different angles without the person even realising what is happening, which is why letters and numbers tend to get reversed in writing.

Many dyslexics are talented in art, music, acting and even writing because they think creatively which helps them excel in certain careers. Ansel Adams, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie, Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison are all said to have had dyslexia or dyslexic tendencies. Men and women who are remembered for their accomplishments not their disability.

Learning disabilities are a very real problem affecting a significant portion of the population. Full Potentials, an organisation that specialises in helping people with learning disabilities, has reported that twenty percent of the population is visual-spatial which is characterised by thinking in pictures. Of that twenty percent, an estimated sixtyfive percent of visual-spatial thinkers suffer from enough confusion that they are labelled learning disabled.

That nagging thought of feeling stupid is hard on the self esteem. It is not easy being different, and it is not easy learning differently from most people and making many many mistakes along the way, but I have come to embrace the way God designed my brain. Different does not necessarily mean bad. The very thing that makes me think differently is what God has used the most in my life. I see things from angles that other people do not always see, and my dyslexia actually helps me create something new and see pictures in my mind when I write.

Dealing with dyslexia has taught me to be intentional about giving other people space to process and learn in a way that works best for them. Like when helping teach Sunday school one particular first grader always had trouble sitting still. Throughout the class he was constantly swinging his feet underneath the metal folding chair and zipping his orange jacket up so far that it covered his face. In him I saw myself at that age. The other teachers saw a behaviour problem. “He just won’t sit still!” But, I saw a mind, processing information so fast that he has to do something with his extra energy. When he refused to read out loud, I think it was because he knew he would make mistakes and did not want the other children laughing at him. I used to sit next to him and let him swing his little feet while he listened to the story. I tried to encourage him when I could, and often with the right amount of encouragement he could answer every question correctly. A different way of thinking: some see it as a disability; other people see it as a gift. God sees His creation, a child made in his own image, fearfully and wonderfully made.

WORDS Ruth Uehle