Creativity, Dyslexia and Me: Part One

When I started writing this post I had an idea that I would post it as part of my series about ideas from science that may be helpful to creative folks to know. However, as I was writing it I realised that my take on it was probably going to be a little more personal than I had in mind of that series, so I think it needs to stand a little away from that, although it will still be of interest to people who like those posts, I hope.

I came across the paper ‘Not all those who wander are lost: Examining the character strengths of dyslexia’ by Chathurika Kannanga, Jerome Carson, Sowmya Puttaraju and Rosie Allen when I was doing a general search for peer reviewed papers on creativity, and was immediately struck by the title. Most people will know that dyslexia is a form of learning disability, but the idea here is that alongside the problems that dyslexia can bring, there are also abilities or strengths.

Dyslexia and me

So here’s where it gets a bit personal. Up until the age of about 9 or 10, I couldn’t really read or write. I think I must have been pretty good at the performance of reading or writing because people (by which I mean teachers) didn’t seem to notice, but unfortunately for me, the products of these performances were not intelligible to anyone but myself.

Back in the 1980’s I don’t think dyslexia was a well understood thing in small country schools in the UK. My father has told me that it was at a parent’s evening, where a teacher had already told him that I was ‘doing fine’, where he encountered some of my writing that was so confusing that he determined that things definitely weren’t ‘fine’, at all.

I was lucky enough to have parents who understood that I was clever enough to be able to do these things, but some how I couldn’t, and I was luckier still that they could afford to employ a tutor to work with me on school evenings (apparently only acceptable to 9 year old me because he wore a leather coat and had an earring).

By the time I got to secondary school a year or two later, I could read and write well enough to keep up in most classes. In English however I was still considered to have a learning disability, and received the kind of ‘support’ that was effective in demonstrating to my peers there was something wrong with me, but not effective in actually helping with the problem as it focused on poor spelling.

Now we all have autocorrect in our word processing programmes, no one needs to be able to spell perfectly, but back then it was considered a big thing. So much so in fact, that any creative abilities in writing seemed to take a back seat to things like spelling, and I ended up feeling like science was a much better fit for me than the arts and humanities (our art department wasn’t exactly an embarrassment of riches either).

I wasn’t actually formally diagnosed with dyslexia until after I’d been in university for a year, and since then I’ve not done a huge amount of research into it, which is curious because it would probably have helped me understand myself better. Since that time I’ve been more and more drawn to creative projects, and have taken classes and taught myself all sorts of creative things while still keeping one foot in the sciences, and never quite settling to ‘specialise’ in anything, which probably hasn’t helped my career really. When I saw this paper I thought maybe the science on dyslexia can help me play to my strengths a bit better.

What we now know about dyslexia

According to the paper, dyslexia is a ‘visual processing defect’ with an impact on literacy skills, and there are issues in sustaining vital attention which fits quite well with my experience.

Where it is spoken about publicly, it is typically discussed or written about as a disability or a problem, and in the mind of the public probably equates to ‘people who can’t read or write well.’ The central idea of the research paper, ‘Not all those who wander are lost’ is that dyslexia is not only a problem, it is also a strength, and not just a single strength, but many.

While I had been aware of the links between creativity and dyslexia for a while, I was surprised by the raft of things cited just in the introduction of this paper that people with dyslexia are good at (by which I mean better than the average person without dyslexia). This list of things both filled in some blanks for me about my personal experience, and pointed in the direction of what I may want to read next.

Here some of the things that the paper mentioned that people with dyslexia are better at, which resonated with my own experiences (and does not at all cover everything said there):

  • Better accuracy in processing three dimensional information – this includes being able to complete tasks that involve visual spatial skills such as drawing, mechanical puzzles and building models more easily. One of the things that really stuck out for me was the suggestion that we can be alert to lots of information at once, including detecting anomalies and being sensitive to changes in the environment. I’ve noticed that I tend to be very distractible, and don’t exactly flourish in open plan offices, and tend to be pulled in quite easily to ‘things’ that are going on, so this tracks for me. I also began to think that maybe there is a story there about an agency of dyslexic spies!
  • Interconnected reasoning – we can bring together many sources of information, some of which may be unexpected and make connections between things that may not occur to people with more typical brains
  • Narrative reasoning – apparently we have better abilities to remember information that is embedded in story, and it is common for people with dyslexia to enjoy creative writing despite difficulties they may have with writing.
  • Problem solvers – people with dyslexia can be good at problem solving as they are more likely to draw on ideas from different, sometimes unconnected, places. There is a high incidence of dyslexia in entrepreneurs, which I found kind of interesting.
  • Big picture thinkers – this may also relate to the way people with dyslexia connect different sources of information in ways that people without it may not, leading them to think ‘out of the box’. As I hinted at above, in my own day job career I’ve found myself roaming around research areas (including psychology, ethics, epilepsy, learning disability, mental health and more general social sciency stuff), rather than ever truly settling on one thing, and never quite fit into the academic mold that rewards people who dive deeply into one thing. My magpie brain is constantly picking up on new things it perceives as shiny.
  • Creativity – this wasn’t a surprise for me as I’m seem unable to comfortably stick to one medium, and am constantly picking up new creative projects

Unexpected (for me) skills:

  • Empathy – in my day job I have ended up in an area that really requires good interpersonal skills. It didn’t really occur to me that these softer skills may be a dyslexic thing, and that may relate to the way that the public story of dyslexia has been about difficulties with reading and writing!
  • Networking and team building – This is also something I found surprising. In person I am quite good at working in a team and do like to talk to people and network, but I’m actually finding these things quite difficult to do in the world of remote working and zoom calls, and wonder if this relates to the whole ‘good at processing information in 3D space’ thing, because the flattening of the world through a zoom screen has had the effect of flattening me too.
  • Memory and memory recognition tasks – I’ve always felt I had a terrible memory – and I do for names and dates, but actually not really for other things. It’s more that I doubt my memory and find myself checking even when I’ve remembers correctly – my narrative recall is good, as would be predicted by this work.

I realise at this point that I’ve not really talked about what this group of researchers actually did in their own research – I think I will leave that for a part two of this post as it’s already rather long.

I hope that this has been interesting for dyslexics and non dyslexics alike. If you are a dyslexic writer like me, let me know in the comments – do any of these things match your experiences too?

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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4 thoughts on “Creativity, Dyslexia and Me: Part One

  1. I’m not a dyslexic, which is why I appreciate this post. Thanks so much for broadening my perspectives, and for inspiring me. This further proves the universal point that we’re all unique, and have our own paths to discover. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Creativity, Dyslexia and Me: Part Two | The Magpie at Midnight

  3. Pingback: WIP Sneak Peak: Location Sketch | The Magpie at Midnight

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