Is Dyslexia a Gift?

In response to an earlier post and video by Dr. Russell Barkley called ADHD is Not a Gift, Katarina, a mother of a teenaged son with dyslexia, sent in a comment that I thought was so good I asked her permission to put it here (below) as a separate post .

…If it is, what’s the refund policy? (my corny sense of humor)

After watching Doctor Barkley’s video, I wanted to write about my own experiences as a parent of a son with dyslexia.

First some questions: Do you all have any suggestions on what parents should tell their kids, as this video speaks volumes?

What should a parent tell a six year versus a 12 year, etc.? How do we as parents not focus on the “ADHD is a gift” trend, etc.?

For some parents, it may help them process what is going on with their kids but in the end, the trend may be more problematic. How do we not send our kids the wrong message? It is important, I think, that successful business professionals, athletes, teachers, coaches, scientists, etc., have admitted their struggles with learning disabilities. How does a parent balance all of this out with their kids who are having some significant struggles?

In a society where the emphasis (in some circles) that ADHD is a gift, or that dyslexia is a gift, we may be missing the boat. I know what worked when we told our son about his dyslexia when he was diagnosed at 12 years of age. The truth hurts but it was the truth. We kept it age appropriate for him as it was a lot to intially process. We did emphasize his strengths as a balance to the condition of dyslexia. We also emphasized that the condition requires more effort and more school interventions to address the deficits. The diagnoses was a “ah ha” moment for him in many good ways but still a lot to digest for a 12 year old. The diagnoses was a lot for my husband and I to process as parents, but it did answer many questions.

Now two years later, he better understands the complexity of dyslexia and how it impacts his learning style. He is also understanding in some ways how he compensates. Can compensation also occur intuitively? I don’t know, but something is working for him. He did focus significantly on his ability to play certain competitive sports after the diagnoses. It worked for him. Ironically, he is enjoying reading certain topics of interests. Nevertheless, he is reading something–if only paragraphs and statistics about the top 100 football players of all time. Or, the story of Jackie Robinson or a civil rights leader or a teen novel about a football hero. A novel is hard to get through for him but AT does help. Like any person, one enjoys reading topics of interests. There is always a recognition of how and in what ways the dyslexia impacts his learning across the curriculum. He cannot avoid such. Yes, he gets appropriate support in school but advocates for less as he wants to be challenged. Assistive technology does help him but he does not solely use it as a way to access course content.

The process of reading and writing is diffcult for him but not impossible. It takes time and more strategies. He has a faith that sustains him. He will need that faith in the years to come.

Is dyslexia a gift? For my son, it has forced him to “think outside the box” as his woods teacher informed me. It has forced him to study and remember the football plays in ways that are unique for him. It is not easy. What others may see as simple concepts to learn, he is thinking about them in different ways in order to achieve success. It is because of his dyslexia that he has to take extra mental steps while rethinking, flow charting and processong more than others. This is not easy. But over time it is becoming second nature. It is an ongoing laborious mental process.

In years past, I saw the disappointed and confusing look on his face when he could not remember a play on the spot. A few years ago before the dyslexia diagnoses, a football coach told me that “your son mentally beats himself up too much when he does not understand a play. He has the strength and speed–tell him not to give up so easily.” After his diagnoses of dyslexia, he understood the deficts and started strategizing and compensating–especially in sports as well as acadmics. I do have to give much credit to a sports psychologist at a camp who taught him how to mentally view sports beyond the physical act of playing. That psychologist was a blessing for him. My son shifted his thinking. That shift resulted in a new type of athlete and student. This is his reality. That reality he does not take for granted. He works harder than most athletes his age as he cannot let up. If he does not take that extra time and more to process a new play or move, he may slip up. That is what gives him the advantage. He does not win all the time–but he knows how to stay in the game mentally and physically.

He has learned to do the same with his academics. It is an ongoing struggle. The truth is the truth–it is a struggle and such is the reality of dyslexia. I cannot imagine how a 14 year old must deal with the condition of dyslexia. He counts his blessings. Each child is unique. Each child has their own learning profile. The dyslexia still, at times, is a hard pill to swallow. There is a lot of self regulation for dyslexics as one does not want to be ridiculed by classmates or fellow athletes. He still gets a tease or so from schoolmates. Each tease forces him to rethink how he may be saying a word incorrectly, his handwriting, his speech, not fully ariculating his thoughts, etc,. There is a lot of self-regulation. It is an ongoing process. My son is now, as we moved to a new school district, around some very competitive scholastic athletes. He now has to rethink things in different ways to stay competitive. Academically, he will find new strategies to keep up. He knows he will not be at the “top” of his class but he will be on the “bottom”.

Is dyslexia a gift–no it is not. We can teach our kids to honestly view it for what it is and not dismiss who they are. We chose to teach our son about the complexities of his dyslexia over time so he can gain a better understanding of how he learns. We are still working with him on such. We can help our kids understand their strengths and well as their deficits. They, in turn, can help younger kids who are dyslexic understand a very complex condition. I am thankful for my child. This is my story of how we deal with this. It is not a guide for other parents just a perspective. I respect that we all have our personal journeys and so do our kids.

From Katarina, a concerned mom.

So, what do you think?

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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14 Responses to Is Dyslexia a Gift?

  1. Davis Graham says:

    Are ADHD and Dyslexia synonymous?
    Ron Davis states in his book;The Gift of Dyslexia”;Chapter 10:
    ” There is a genuine medical disorder called ADD that prevents a person from maintaining attention. It would certainly hinder performance in school if it were the real problem. For parents whose child is being forced to take medications, I recommend a trip to the library. Look up the condition in The Merck Manual or DSM-IV, the standard diagnostic guides used by physicians. See whether it actually describes your child.”
    …. “Sometimes the ADD problem is accompanied by a second condition called hyperactivity. Both are rooted in the developmental differences of dyslexic children during early childhood.”.. he goes on to say, “Attention vs. Concentration It is natural and easy for dyslexic children to pay attention, but difficult for them to concentrate. There is a tremendous difference between the two.”
    … then… “Boredom also plays a role, because boredom often happens to someone whose mind is working between 400 and 2,000 times faster than the minds of the people around them. A dyslexic child who is bored will do one of two things. Either the child will disorient into creative imagination (daydreaming), or will shift his attention to something that is interesting (distractibility or inattention).
    So, I’m not sure how we went from ADHD to Dyslexia so quickly, although it is a fine line, and with this said, The Dyslexic Advantage by by Brock L. Eide, Fernette F Eide, M.D. gives the characteristics of my Gift of Dyslexia and I recommend all parents who are struggling with navigating their children to read this book, then reproach your concept of gift or not. Reading it has been like having my life explained and now I understand the Gifts of my minds processing capabilities. And so to me it is a gift. After failing out of College twice I sat down with a “caring heart” adviser, who after telling her all my struggles she asked me “what do you need?”. It was the first time anyone ever asked me this question instead of telling me. 3 Semesters later I graduated from University of South Florida with a 3.0 GPA, studying 40 to 50% less. Did life get better no, but today I thrive with the Gift of Dyslexia. View my blog and my bio: and

    • Sanford says:

      Thanks for your comments. Your question, “Are ADHD and Dyslexia synonymous?” I guess that’s a rhetorical question.

      The ADHD video by Dr. Barkley took on the pre disposal of some, to look at ADHD as a gift somehow. Of course he states, and I agree, that it doesn’t mean you can’t have gifts along with a struggle with attention. I think the same holds true with dyslexia. While I have seen many many people with dyslexia possess superior spatial and three-dimensional reasoning skills (at least relative to my own), I’ve met enough folks with dyslexia who do not have the same talents. And for me, that calls into question the automatic description of dyslexia as encompassing those said talents as part of the condition. I have no doubt that dyslexia is a variation of the human condition and people with it shouldn’t be marginalized in any way.

      I understand the very appropriate need to uncouple dyslexia from intelligence and it works in both directions. I applaud Drs. Eide, and Drs. Shaywitz of Yale for their efforts to publicize the reality that you can have cognitive gifts alongside the struggle to automatically access print on page (or screen). I think the point is also that it (dyslexia), is a real condition that involves real struggle, and it not only takes hard work, it takes the right type of work (instruction, self and school-based). It is as much a teaching problem as a neurological variation that leads to dysfluency in reading and spelling.

      Asking you what you need, as your advisor did, was a wise and compassionate and respectful approach and question.

  2. Dyslexia says:

    Of-course Dyslexia is not a gift but it is a curse for a human being. Dyslexia is not just an individual problem but it is a family problem. Parents should cope up with their children having Dyslexia. If a child is having a problem in learning then it impacts the entire family members. Although there is no exact solution to this problem but it can be cured if parents provide extra support and care to their child. It is tough and scared too but it can give enthusiasm and encourage the children having disabilities.

  3. Sanford says:

    I appreciate your sentiment that this can cause real family riffs and challenges.

    Why do you feel as strongly to say it’s a curse?

    As far as I know, it can’t be cured, either, just managed.

  4. Davis Graham says:

    Dear Sanford, Thank you so much for moderating your blog effectively. My life has truly been changed by and other text-to-speech software programs. The latest being in the iOS 6 update to all idevices that support the update. it can be found in the Accessibility features in the general menu. Today I read at 340 to 510 words per minute with 90 plus percent comprehension And since becoming a Bookshare member; which is free for all US students with qualifying disabilities I have read at least 100 books. Today my confidence level and myself can be seen by others. Where does this confidence come from it comes from not having to depend on others information processing when it comes to the printed word. So today if I have a book I want to read . I no longer handed off to somebody else and say, “Read this”. today I can look up a book on, download the Wall Street Journal… And the list goes on and I can read it. Yes it was a long road and getting to where I am today with a lot of failures and hurts. But today I am a new person when it comes to the printed word. I no longer sink back to failures of the past, but look forward with eagerness to explore the journeys in the printed word, , which were once hidden.

  5. Sanford says:

    Thanks Davis, is an organization that is coming into my view more and more lately. In fact, I just finished certifying a student with a learning disability so that he could access their digital print support.

    While not for everyone, the capacity for devices to read text, highlight words or phrases while doing so is increasingly leveling the playing field in terms of easier access to content and information. What I like about is that distinguished I believe from the Learning Ally (formerly known as RFBD), is its ability to download magazines and some newspapers.

    Of course there are an increasing number of ways to accomplish these things such as using an iPad’s accessibility feature or enabling a web browser like Safari to read web pages.

    I have high school students who are using digital textbooks on their iPad and it’s really alleviating extra burden around time needed for some assignments. It also appears to be aiding in actual improvement in fluency and definitely confidence, in one particular girl I work with. By being under less strain because of the decrease in the amount of time homework takes, she’s trying more independent reading, even without the text reader. That’s huge.

  6. John Hayes says:

    Dyslexia for a few might be considered a gift if their interests involve some of the few areas that dyslexia thought processing is helpful and their dyslexia is on the lower end of the spectrum.

    As a general statement that implies that dyslexia is a gift for all dyslexics and the gift is so beneficial as to be more valuable than the difficulties experienced, that is pure fantasy.

    First of all what are the possibilities of this gift for all dyslexics when dyslexia exists along a spectrum from mild to severe. Is it the same for everyone ? Then the mildly dyslexic who have minor dyslexia problems should enjoy a large benefit compared to the severe benefit. Does the gift increase as dyslexia becomes more severe ? Now the mildly dyslexic must only have a small gift and the gift must be huge to compensate for the problems caused by severe dyslexia.

    Dyslexia in general makes school harder and increases the chance of failure or dropping out. For those dyslexics who are generally not going to be able to get a higher level job where original thought is valued there is no practical value to any gift and they are stuck with poor reading skills that disadvantage their lives.

    Any objective look at the concept of dyslexia as a gift will find that for a large majority of dyslexics it is just not true. That’s not to say that the dyslexic difficulties experienced by some individuals doesn’t shift their attention into areas that are nor adversely affected by their dyslexia allowing them to gain different skill sets than usual that can build on and may help them be successful on unique ways. Without being dyslexic those individuals likely would still have been successful but in a more normal way . I say that if successful dyslexics with the gift would have still been successful with out the gift or dyslexia then the value of that gift really is marginal at best.

    In order for the gift of dyslexia to be really outstanding there have to be many examples of successful dyslexics that you can look at and believe that those people really would not have been successful had they not been dyslexic. While some dyslexics may actually be successful in a unique way due to their dyslexia the idea that they wouldn’t be successful if they were not dyslexic doesn’t seem to be reasonable. They would likely just be successful in a more normal way with more normal skills.

    In general I just do not see that dyslexics as a group have much of an advantage or increased success rate over those without dyslexia . That there are some exceptional dyslexic individuals doesn’t prove that any gift exists.

  7. Richard says:

    That is an incredible piece of thinking and writing John and I agree with you 100%.

    Just to add my 2 cents:

    The hidden variable here is motivation. If one has an “odd” learning style and one isn’t motivated and secure enough to go one’s own way, life can be pretty miserable, especially in school. Dyslexia is no gift if it makes you feel stupid, depresses you, and takes the wind out of your sails. However, when you couple the “odd” learning style with the motivation to use it to one’s advantage, sometimes the outcome can be good if not great. This, I believe, is where all the famous examples come from and what many of them have in common (actors, artists, etc.).

    I think you’ve hit the bullseye with the idea that to tell all people with dyslexia that they have a “gift” is a mistake. However, the idea of attempting to “leverage” the odd learning style, to make something good and interesting out of it isn’t a bad idea. It’s just that the way it’s done is problematic for all the reasons you list.

    Better to focus on helping people have a variety of experiences (outside of school) that show them that they can be smart and dyslexic at the same time. Once they see that separation they’ll retain a bit more motivation to work through getting some basic literacy skills and try on various things to fit their learning style without being so worried about failure.

    Thanks for your comment John and keep the great thinking and writing going, you have a gift, or, better, you have a clear vision and you express it well.

  8. Sanford says:

    John and Richard,
    I’m in line with both of you. The point you make about the holes in the logic of describing something with such a range of severity to mildness, is sound.

    In line with Richard’s emphasis on motivation, a great discussion point is how to encourage motivation in kids who struggle with certain academic tasks.

    Richard’s idea and I think personal experience bears out the value of encouraging opportunities for kids to experience success in other areas. One step at a time. Build confidence in one’s sense of self-efficacy (belief that you can get stuff done) before plowing into literacy demands too much. For me, learning to drive my wife’s Boston Whaler boat in Alaska did more for my confidence about mechanical things than anything else.

    The other piece I would add to the dangers of calling dyslexia or any other similar condition a gift is that those things are usually said with more a sense of hope and wish than reality. My experience with kids is that they smell out the tentativeness of those statements and that can lead to a suspicion about “what and why are they covering up.” It’s like the nurse who comes into the patient’s room and says, “My, aren’t we looking rosy this morning.” Despite the invented cheeriness, the person may feel like crap. It’s a way of covering up some uncomfortable reality. Dyslexia makes literacy harder and there’s extra work involved.

    This is not to say that you can’t call the positive potential of dealing well with adversity for what it is: a tremendous opportunity to learn about resilience and your capacity to thrive despite a condition. Many people I know who have learning disabilities do point to some positive attributes or habits that they developed as a result of their school struggle. So, the consequences of having dyslexia, outside of the core classes, can be I suppose a gift, or can lead to positive results.

  9. Richard says:

    Memory being what it is (mine is fading, fast it seems), I forgot that I wrote something about this a while ago:

    Here’s the last few paragraphs:

    “So back to Edison. It’s only in retrospect that we make an issue of his dyslexia. Why? Because he achieved something. But his achievements stand on their own. He was one of the greatest inventors ever, who happened to be dyslexic. To reverse this and say that if you’re dyslexic there’s a higher probability that you will invent things is ridiculous. On the other hand, when you do invent things and you happen to be dyslexic you’ll then know that you can be smart and creative and also dyslexic.

    But, you have to do the inventing first.”

  10. Anna says:

    just a small addition to your conversation: I never understood the reason my son could not put down on paper what he studied and knew orally, until he got the diagnosis of ‘having dyslexic symptoms’.
    But, the diagnosis gave him an understanding for the feelings of confusion in class, especially when he knew his stuff but did not achieve the scores he thought he deserved.
    He used to reverse his second language in school, though the script is completely different from English.
    Maths was a struggle in the juniour years but he got a wonderful tuition Teacher in 9th Grade who used to sit near him and correct numbers he may have reversed when copying a problem from the book. Once he understood the logic of the sum he found he could get the correct answer. Within a month, he had begun to pass his maths exams. From then on, his confidence increased and he took Accounts in 11th Grade and did well.
    English was the language we spoke at home. We are all voracious readers but he was never interested. He loved TV,movies and read comics. Once his father bought him a book to read. He went out and bought the comic and told his father the story so his father would not know that he had not read the book. Similarly, when he had to write book reviews in 9th Grade,he chose a book that was appearing on TV off and on, watched the movie more than once and read the book(?) which was a difficult book to read, before he wrote the review.
    But, I always thought he was gifted- he observed differently. He now works in web designing,film shooting,digital editing and creative work for his office. He studied film making in college.

  11. Sanford says:

    Glad you’ve joined in the conversation. I’ve witnessed many kids who begin to get real clarity of their school life once they are properly evaluated.

    So, he has talents in how he observes visually and that translates to web designing and creative arts. It’s his dyslexia that makes reading, spelling and certain aspects of math difficult. That part of his brain is different enough to cause problems, Other parts of his brain that translates to his strengths are well intact. We then tend to practice those interests and strengths, which makes a huge difference in motivation and success.

  12. Robert Ross says:

    Interesting, at 77 years young, I have collected pages from a mix of sites over a long period of time and have seen the differences in the copulation of descriptions attributed to those of us with learning disabilities. My parents family, 3 boys and one girl and our generation have the entire alphabet of letters after their name and go from the RRD (self) to autistic. My wife, married to me for 50+ years is an ADHD, is asking more and more questions as we age. Poppop has restarted writing a book about the general community of disabilities after fighting Lyme, Cancer three times, 2 reverse shoulder replacements and misc. “what ever is going around” My advice is never lose your dream, be patient, ignore perceptions and assumptions. We will survive, doing the best we can with what we got.

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