Reframing Dyslexia

First published: 30 HUMAN GIVENS JOURNAL, VOLUME 11, NO 3 – 2004 

Renée van der Vloodt argues that ‘dyslexia’ expresses a talent, not just a disability. Hilary Farmer shows how working with that talent can eliminate the associated learning difficulty.

THERE is a striking similarity between a nine-year-old ‘dyslexic’ child and a 40-year-old business executive on stress leave for burnout. Both may suffer from poor short-term memory, inability to spell, anxiety, lack of concentration and difficulty in taking in what is said – in short, high levels of confusion. This is not a coincidence. We would like to suggest that, if ‘dyslexia’ and other related learning difficulties appear to be on the increase, it is because they are symptomatic of the distress caused by an inadequate educational system, which, in turn, echoes a society that is failing to meet the diverse needs of individual people.

Any attempt to find out what ‘dyslexia’ is quickly reveals a great disparity of views. Educationalists, psychologists and psychiatrists are often at loggerheads among themselves, some questioning the very existence of the condition. The term itself comes from the Greek and means merely ‘difficulty with words’ – a description rather than a diagnosis.  Indeed, the seemingly unrelated traits associated with dyslexia can be any one or more of the following: short attention span, frequent day-dreaming, poor sense of time, poor comprehension skills, difficulties expressing oral or written thought, handwriting or coordination problems, being socially inept, sequencing problems, dyscalculia (difficulties with maths), dyspraxia (difficulties with movement) and poor short-term memory. The British Dyslexia Association defines it as “a difference in the brain area that deals with language … a puzzling mix of both difficulties and strengths.” Without a consensus on what dyslexia actually is, the validity of so-called diagnostic testing methods is clearly questionable. And a diagnosis of dyslexia very often exacerbates an individual’s difficulties, rather than bringing forth help.

A bigger picture

Dyslexia is still all too often treated solely as a disability; it is sometimes linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain (to be countered, perhaps with Ritalin) or to a suggested neurological impairment. In this, the field of dyslexia compares with that of mental illness. Also, in both cases, there are an overwhelming number of treatments available, yet with little or no research carried out on their efficacy. So, the time has come, in dyslexia support as in therapy, for a bigger organising idea. The Human Givens approach, which emphasises innate resources and needs, 1 has helped us put our own work in the field of dyslexia into a wider context, as  we shall show.

The most interesting hypothesis put forward in recent years focuses on the predominantly visual and/or kinaesthetic thinking mode of dyslexics – a strength (talent) which only manifests as a disability in conventional classroom teaching.2,3 The theory is that the dyslexic’s preferred thinking style is ‘right brained’ (more intuitive, holistic and imaginative) and therefore oriented towards the whole picture rather than its parts. This accounts for extreme creativity, vision and a refined intuition as well as difficulty in performing linear tasks. Famous dyslexics include Albert Einstein, W B Yeats, Leonardo da Vinci and Winston Churchill, who commented on his early years that “It is not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the very beginning of the race”.

Visual–spatial learners

Linda Silverman has identified what she calls ‘visual–spatial learners’: those who learn holistically rather than in a step-by-step fashion, and use visual imagery instead of words. “Linear sequential thinking – the norm in American education – is particularly difficult for this person and requires a translation of his or her usual thought processes, which often takes more time.”4 In the adult world – if they survive the education system – ‘dyslexic’ lateral thinkers can use their spatial awareness to great effect in art, architecture, pure maths, filmmaking, information technology and many new fields which are developing and need new combinations of awareness.  They can be very effective as innovators in business (Richard Branson), and leaders (General Patton), being quickly able to grasp the relationship between many constantly changing variables. Many are exceptional at multi-tasking, as they can think very fast. This is a vast potentially creative resource, and the faster the world changes, the more need we have of it.

The difficulties arise in conventional education because people with dyslexia commonly operate visually, in three dimensions, rather than two. When faced with a two-dimensional written word, particularly one to which they can attach no (visual) meaning, such as ‘in’ or ‘on’ or ‘although’, the word may seem to disappear, as they struggle to concentrate on it, or else it simply ‘walks off the page’.  Because people with this three-dimensional ability can take in ‘the whole picture’ more easily than its parts, they can, for instance, visualise an image from A bigger picture Dyslexia is still all too often treated solely as a disability; it is sometimes linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain (to be countered, perhaps, with Ritalin) or to a suggested neurological impairment.  In this, the field of dyslexia compares with that of mental illness. Also, in both cases, there are an overwhelming number of treatments available, yet with little or no research carried out on their efficacy. So, the time has come, in dyslexia support as in therapy, for a bigger organising idea. The human givens approach, which emphasises innate resources and needs,1 has helped us put our own work in the field of dyslexia into a wider context, as Learning HUMAN GIVENS JOURNAL, VOLUME 11, NO 3 – 2004 31 the side or from behind as easily as they can see it head on. This can create considerable confusion, for oneself and others, in a linear world. (Mildly dyslexic myself, I may, to the consternation of following drivers, slam on my brakes at the sight of a ‘no entry’ sign printed on the road just in front of me, failing to notice that it is upside down and therefore a message for oncoming traffic.)

Inconsistent performance

A theme that runs through the academic performance of dyslexics is the inconsistency and oscillation of their results: crystal-clear vision one moment, foggy opacity the next; high marks followed by low marks. The continual uncertainty about whether they have ‘got it right’ or not can have a highly damaging effect on their personality development, resulting in an eternal quest for validation, to compensate for never quite knowing. With teachers increasingly focused on meeting targets, and with less and less time to explore learning, schools have become harsh environments in which dyslexics, in particular, feel out of their depth and unsafe. As we know, heightened emotions reduce access to our cognitive intelligence, and an ongoing diet of this kind accounts for poor performance, coupled with a variety of anxiety disorders.

The mismatch between dyslexics’ preferred use of the right brain and the left-brain requirements for success at school further accounts for their inconsistent results. Despite the valiant attempts by a number of enlightened minds 5,6,7,8,9 to encourage teachers to pay attention to recent findings in brain research rather than persist with fossilised modes of teaching and learning, much of education is still predominantly based on left-brain activity: from phonics-based reading schemes and retention of large amounts of information to meeting deadlines and continual delivering of course work. A dyslexic, however, geared towards visual–spatial thinking, needs to see the big picture before the parts can be understood and be placed in the context of the pattern. Verbal thought can only be produced in a linear sequential way – a very slow and confining process to dyslexics when an intricate web of associations is visible to them all at once. W B Yeats conveyed this dilemma exactly, when he confessed that he was difficult to teach: “My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind”.

Meaningful learning

Educators debate whether it is more effective to teach reading using phonics, or by emphasising meaning. However, Dr V W Berninger from the University of Washington10 has found that the brain is sensitive to the interrelationship betweenboth sound and meaning. PET scans have shown that the processing of sound takes place in a different part of the brain from the processing of meaning.  This could be a crucial understanding for teaching dyslexics to read more effectively. Experience-based and, therefore, meaningful learning, as opposed to the storing and reproducing of seemingly arbitrary facts, is the only way forward for dyslexics. (I once worked with a newsreader who was word perfect in his delivery but what he read had almost no meaning for him whatsoever. Thus he was unable to add his own links or update his own bulletins.)  Further fascinating findings from Yale University show that, when reading, accomplished adult non-dyslexic readers employ their brains differently from the way that accomplished dyslexic readers use theirs: “For non-dyslexic controls, stronger activation of left hemispheric reading systems … corresponded to better reading skill. For dyslexic subjects, the opposite was true: the stronger the left-hemispheric pattern, the poorer the reader. In contrast, increased reading skill for dyslexics was correlated with greater reliance on the right hemispheric systems.”11 Strong evidence, indeed, that pushing dyslexics to learn to read in a way that is alien to them worsens their reading ability rather than improves it.  Currently, it seems that dyslexics are in a no-win situation. Placed in a stressful environment and rarely taught to make good use of the way they naturally use their brains, their symptoms will manifest themselves more severely than necessary.  Prolonged ‘retreat’ into confusion or trance-like states becomes inevitable.

As increasing numbers of youngsters find it more difficult to cope with the demands of schools (for whatever reasons), it is time for educators and health professionals to stop pathologising and refining categories of disabilities, and to put the emphasis of education (which means ‘to draw out’) on helping children to make use of their natural talents. Hilary and I have evolved our own intensive way of working with dyslexics over a period of many years of living and working with dyslexic people (see “Working with the talent of dyslexia”, overleaf).  But it is only now, through our human givens training, with its emphasis on meeting needs and best use of innate resources, that we have gained a deeper understanding and validation of the work we do. Focusing solely on someone’s difficulties and ‘treating’ him (the majority of our clients are male) with more of the same repetitive instructions and rote learning that didn’t work in the first place can not only deeply affect self-esteem, but also smother natural desire and ability to learn. Instead, we need to work to enable dyslexics to find their places in the adult world, so that they, in turn, can actively contribute and participate, rather than hang in there by the skin of their teeth. Their upbringing should be about illuminating and exploiting the resources each was born with.

The major discoveries and advances made by mankind have always been about forging connections and seeing patterns not immediately noticeable to others. To create new knowledge and allow for the unexpected, we must celebrate and nurture a diversity of brain patterns. To penalise and disillusion some of our most talented young people before their journey has begun is nothing short of a crime. Let us not make Mulla Nasrudin’s mistake of plucking and clipping the falcon, until he looked like Nasrudin’s idea of a bird, but had lost his ability to fly.

Working with the talent of dyslexia

PICK up a book on the subject of dyslexia and you will find pages devoted to lengthy descriptions of dyslexic symptoms and different labels concerned with deficits. Many formal assessments conclude by recommending ‘support’ based on practising those areas of ‘deficiency’. By contrast, Renée and I work using a radical approach, based on the idea that dyslexia is about perception and that the dyslexic way of thinking and being is in fact a talent.  What dyslexic learners need to acquire is a method of working that suits their style of thinking. In other words, the problem is not in the learning but in the teaching. This reframe is obviously a helpful one for people with dyslexia.

Creating stillness

A dyslexic person’s attention is constantly on the move, making it hard to focus on a two-dimensional symbol, which is distorted by the movement. Forced at school to try to think in a way that is quite different from the way they naturally think, dyslexics spend much of their time confused, unfocused and ‘getting the wrong end of the stick’.  We help people learn to focus in a way that enables them to control the movement, and thus eliminate the resultant confusion. This effectively allows an individual to be still – a state that resonates with certain meditative states, the Alexander Technique and being in the ‘observing self’.12 In this still, focused state, with senses in accord, hand–eye coordination is perfect and so is balance. (Many people with dyslexia have problems with coordination and balance.)

This stillness and focus also create an opportunity for shared reality. There are many occasions when some people perceive reality differently from others.  Ask three witnesses at the scene of a crime what they saw and you will get three quite different versions, depending upon, for instance, where their attention had been centred, their emotional state or the importance they tend to place on particular details. Ask someone befuddled by alcohol what happened and you can be left wondering if you were in the same place. Similarly, when the dyslexic person is confused, they no longer perceive reality in the same way as everyone else, which is why they get ‘the wrong end of the stick’. But when they have a stable focus, they can eliminate visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and other distortions. So, for example, when they are seeing from a stable, instead of a moving, point of view, they can see exactly the same images as someone without dyslexia – a ‘b’ is a ‘b’ and clearly not a ‘d’ or a ‘q’ or a 6 or a 9. When they are hearing without distraction, they cease to confuse ‘th’ with ‘f’ and vice versa. And when letters stop moving, their shapes can be perceived accurately. Only when they perceive these symbols accurately, can correct information be acquired.

Bringing down arousal

It is important to show clients how to relax. Bringing emotional arousal down is essential, as we know, for efficient cognitive functioning, and there is always emotional arousal behind the loss of focus.  The sequence that makes up a dyslexic ‘symptom’ follows the same course as the human givens’ APET model (activating agent, pattern matching, emotion, thought). An event occurs (A); we match it correctly or incorrectly to our experience (P); this gives rise to an emotion (E) which may then give rise to a thought (T).13 So a two-dimensional symbol that causes confusion because its existing pattern is incorrect results in a loss of focus, confusion, anxiety or frustration and a thought, such as “I’m useless at reading/maths”. The distorted pattern – a reversed letter, the wrong use of a sound, transposed numbers, etc – is what we then see and call a dyslexic error.

When dyslexic individuals discover that they are making errors, they may develop any number of strategies to avoid those errors. Some are minor strategies, for instance rhymes for remembering a spelling. Others are more behaviourally based, such as avoidance of anything that produces the errors.  This avoidance can become so entrenched that it can prevent an individual progressing in a career.  Another common pattern might be aggression –better to be thought a bad lad in school than to be thought stupid. Overcoming these behaviours requires the ability to stand back from them (observing self), relax and let them go.

Having the energy for the job

Our energy levels are inextricably linked to our perception of time, or internal clock, which dyslexics often have a poor sense of – more of that later. When we have a high energy level and are feeling restless, we find it difficult to tolerate a queue. Equally, when our energy level is low, we find it hard to get out of the house in the morning and may have to rush to catch up. Renée and I work with the idea of scaling (where 0 represents low energy and 10 is high energy). As in the human givens and some other brief-therapy approaches, scaling is used to provide a measure by which someone can assess degree of change. But whereas, in human givens’ work, it is Learning HUMAN GIVENS JOURNAL, VOLUME 11, NO 3 – 2004 33 used as a mirror, we use it as a means of helping an individual to take control of their energy levels.  Once energy levels are visualised or felt and then scaled, people can use the scale to become aware of their energy level at any given time and choose a level appropriate for the activity that they are engaged in. This technique would have been helpful for W B Yeats, who clearly experienced the phenomenon, common to many dyslexics, of having a rush of ideas that are too fast for words and for writing.

Three-dimensional learning

Mention has been made of the dyslexic’s ability to perceive three dimensionally, resulting in some very different perceptions of two-dimensional language and mathematical symbols, such as letters becoming confused with other letters, sounds misheard, etc.  Indeed, vision, hearing, time, balance, coordination and movement can all become distorted in the process. It becomes necessary, therefore, to throw out the misperceptions and input the correct data –a re-patterning.

We do this by working with the learning style of the dyslexic person. In practice, this means using a type of modelling clay, so that dyslexics who think three dimensionally, and in pictures, can use a three-dimensional medium to create the symbols and concepts they need for understanding. These symbols and concepts are then linked to problem words, also modelled in clay, making them become real.  As in human givens therapy, what we work on is negotiated with the client, at the level that they need and within the context of their daily lives, work or study needs. For instance, someone might tell us that, when they read, they can’t take in the information properly. One of the reasons for this is that the dyslexic person uses a different part of the brain for reading, as already pointed out,10 and this makes it difficult to put meaning to abstract words such as ‘the’, ‘was’ or ‘for’.

Modelling these words in three dimensional forms with the clay letters provides a link between a picture and a word. For example, ‘for’ can mean ‘received by’, so a person might choose to model someone handing a present to someone else. (This method of working, called symbol mastery™, is part of the Davis® method which is used in working with dyslexics and was devised by Ronald Davis, a dyslexic himself.3) Now the person has an image meaningful to them that they can work with and pattern match to, whenever they see the word ‘for’.

This is a very effective way of working. One student, when modelling punctuation marks and finding out about their use, was astonished to discover the major role they played in reading and writing; formerly, the marks had just been irritating dots and squiggles that everyone kept telling him he missed out or misused. Many children and adults are surprised by their ability to visualise words and spell them forwards and backwards, once they can ‘see’ the letters accurately and have unleashed their ability to use their considerable visual and or kinaesthetic abilities to picture letters in combination.  It is not uncommon to increase reading levels by two to three years by correcting the focus, working on the letters and enabling individuals to look properly, for the first time, at the letters in the words and to process them in sequence.

I will never forget one of my early clients, a nine-year-old boy, very shy and withdrawn, who hardly spoke. He was extremely uncoordinated (dyspraxic) and had occasional epileptic fits. Writing for him was arduous and slow, and he hated it. He had a dispiritingly low opinion of himself, even though he was actually very bright. Through use of the focusing technique and learning how to relax, his hand and eye coordination became spot-on and he learned how to catch and skip. Soon he was playing football for two teams. His confidence soared and so, gradually, did his academic results. He has had no recurrence of epilepsy; he is now 16, and has never had to take any medication for it.

The concept of change

When a person doesn’t have a framework within which to think about concepts, such as change or time, that are essential in life, they will experience difficulties. If their thinking style is such that everything is experienced simultaneously, in a big picture, rather than sequentially, then it is difficult for them to work with and think about the idea of something causing something else. I wonder how many of the dyslexic offenders in our prisons today have grasped this concept. How often we notice that the focus of attention is on the result, not the cause: “I was unlucky; I got caught!” “That teacher is always picking on me!”

Key in the human givens approach is the resource of using one’s imagination to see oneself doing things differently. Similarly, we sometimes use the clay to help dyslexic clients create an image of doing something differently, and, harnessing the step-by step principle of therapy, invite them to explore the idea of consequence: of something happening as a result of something else. One child I worked with could not understand why he could never keep friends. When he modelled what happened when he lost his friends, he realised that he tended to become overexcited and hyperactive, and that others found his behaviour uncomfortable and unpredictable. He learned to use the idea of scaling his energy to control this response, and is now a very popular young man.

Out of time

Many dyslexics find themselves forever ‘running to catch up’ or rushing through things so fast that important details get missed. Losing focus for a prolonged period distorts the perception of time, very often causing high anxiety, obsessive timekeeping or the impression of being on a different time continuum from everyone else around. Being asked to do something in five minutes’ time has no meaning for them whatsoever. Again, standing back, modelling oneself doing something and modelling a visual means of measuring how long it took allows the client to experience and understand a workable definition of time. Once focused on the here-and now, their sense of time changes and they are better able to make predictions about time. A young mother I worked with always left to make the 10-minute walk to collect her daughter from school at least half an hour early because she was so terrified of being late. After this work on time, she was more relaxed, and able to leave 10 minutes before her daughter came out.

Larger and smaller

Sequence is another possible area of work for the dyslexic individual who, unable to think linearly, will find written and verbal expression impossible to order, resulting in muddled word order, elaborate tangents or getting lost in the process of a mathematical problem. Seeing the whole picture as they do, many people with dyslexia may have no concept of bigger or smaller amounts and numbers. They may feel confused by established orders, such as 8, 9, 10; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; January, February and March. One biography of Einstein recounts how he often became confused by certain number calculations, particularly calculating his change. Many frenetically move from one task to the next, unable to prioritise them in order of their importance or else they concentrate all their efforts on just one aspect of the job, neglecting far more crucial elements.

Difficulties with order, in a more general sense, can often lead people with dyslexia to live in a kind of chaos. Many may spend too much of their time looking for misplaced objects or desperately trying to use some faulty piece of equipment that either needed fixing or throwing away. Others will revise for an examination or test and be totally unable to remember the information when they need it (because they haven’t been able to categorise it in their minds or, as I call it, to give it a ‘file name’) –only to have it appear in their heads when they are doing the washing up! Making a clay model of themselves in a particular state of disorder and then another showing themselves with order established can help them see the difference between the two.  An otherwise successful solicitor that I worked with put in inordinately long hours at the office owing to problems with time, sequence and order.  She also confessed to having piles of clutter at home that never did get sorted out, problems prioritising clients and always rushing to catch up. As well as getting these areas of her life sorted out, we also dealt with mathematical ‘blind-spots’ that she would formerly have to check and double check, knowing her propensity to make mistakes in this area.

Using our own resources

Whether we are addressing reading, writing, spelling, concepts of change, time or sequence, or balance and coordination, we make use of clients’ own innate resources, particularly their imaginations, rather than imposing on them a set of rules and word based systems. One young man I worked with had been temporarily excluded from school because of his tendency to have sudden explosions in class.  We made clay models to picture what was happening in class when he lost his temper. When I asked him whether there were any times when he felt like exploding but managed not to, he said yes. On those occasions, it was the thought of what his mum and dad would say that enabled him to keep control.  So, with my encouragement, he put a clay model of his mum and dad in his schoolroom scenario, and I suggested that he might be surprised to find that he experienced his mum and dad as being with him, when he was back in class and feeling wound up.  Using his imagination in that way enabled him to relax, focus and lower his energy levels.

Because our way of working uses a client’s imagination, it hands control to the client. In addition, clients can use the medium of the clay to work with their own metaphors.14 We are just beginning to realise the possibilities of using the clay with some people seeking help for problems other than dyslexia, and we are of course using human givens’ learning to enable dyslexic clients to eliminate past educational or life trauma, anxieties and so on.15 Imagination and creativity are qualities that dyslexic individuals have in abundance. Human givens practitioners know that this can be a double edged sword. Wrongly used, it can give rise to depression, trauma and phobias.

The elephant that changed its path

One young man, Nicholas, had been taken out of school because he was highly stressed and was having difficulties caused by his rigid way of thinking. I learned from him that he had previously been bullied at school and that this experience was still affecting him, so I used the rewind technique to resolve those traumatic memories quickly and painlessly. 15 We then worked on a story together, making elephants out of the clay and discussing how elephants follow the same routes, generation after generation. We had our elephants moving down their familiar track when, suddenly, ahead of them, they could see another group of elephants on the same track, travelling the opposite way. The lead elephant was enormous! What to do? Nicholas acknowledged that our elephants would be forced somehow to give way. We agreed our lead elephant should go up the mountain to a quiet spot to think through the problem, and I asked Nicholas what the elephant could see from there. And this ‘rigid’ thinker instantly replied, “He can see other possible paths!” What might he need to get his group of elephants to another path? “A map,” said Nicholas. But the elephant is scared. “Let’s give him a bit of the mountain to take with him for courage.” I asked if he needed anything else. “He must tell himself that he must re-route or die!” So our elephant went down and onwards with his map, his bit of courage and his knowledge that he must alter his path or perish.  You may well have recognised yourself in some of the descriptions of dyslexic traits. Dyslexia, like mental health, is a continuum. Whether we are working with individuals who have dyslexia or individuals in emotional distress, we are essentially in the realms of perception: the way a person sees feels and experiences the world, at any given time.  If a person’s perception of the world is not working for them, our most important role, as human givens therapists know, is to provide them with the tools, and help them access the resources, that can let them choose how to change it.

First published: 30 HUMAN GIVENS JOURNAL, VOLUME 11, NO 3 – 2004

Renée van der Vloodt  runs her own practice in Reigate and in the Netherlands.

Hilary Farmer has a private practice in Cornwall.


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