Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Being Dyslexic and Empathy

www.beingdyslexic.com is, as the name implies, a forum for people to discuss issues relating to their dyslexia. I have been a daily visitor to the website since I came across it some months ago. It has been refreshing to learn about the experiences of dyslexics directly from dyslexics instead of from reading the conclusions of research projects. Why? Because the issues raised are the ones that concern the dyslexics themselves.

Instead of fixating on reading and writing, the discussions range from talking about time management to empathy, from creativity to relationships. From this dyslexic-centred discussion several surprises emerge.

I have for some years wondered if there could be a connection between dyslexia and the degree of ability to recall emotions and to sense the emotions of others. My suspicions emerged from a chance remark by a dyslexic actor who said she relied on her strong “emotional memory” to help her get into role. This chimed with my own experience. As a writer I use the ability to recall and relive emotions when I am creating characters and working out what they must be feeling and how they will act as a result.

But when I asked dyslexic professionals I was told that there was no such relationship. I searched the internet and found no references to research on the subject. If such a connection did exist it would be a dyslexic strength. It would be something that dyslexics could use to give them an advantage.

Then someone posted a question on the ‘Being Dyslexic” forum. If you had a superpower connected to your dyslexia, the questioner asked, what would it be?

A stream of answers came through over the following days saying that the superpower they already had was the ability to read other people’s emotions – to know what they were thinking or feeling. It was such a strong effect for some of these people that it felt uncannily like ESP.

There is no doubt that in a predominantly non-dyslexic world, dyslexia presents itself as a disability. But in my opinion, the anomalous strengths of dyslexics are systematically under researched and under reported.

Which brings me to one of the other surprises from the being dyslexic forums – the spread of attitudes people have to their own dyslexia. Some hate it and wish it would go away, feeling it is blighting their lives. Others see it as a source of strength and part of who they are. The variation is huge. Now THAT is an area which could do with some research. It might not help anyone spell better, so educationalists might not regard it as a priority. But I’d rather be happy than get my spelling right every time.

Perhaps my priorities are skewed.


Emma said...

I don't think your priorities are at all skewed. People with disabilities often fall into two camps: those who see their disability as a strength and part of who they are and those who hate it and see it as a blight. I'm in full agreement the way forward is to research strengths and what enables some to accept their disability so that others can be supported. Although some will always see their disability as a negative and hate it, just as some non disabled people hate their lives.

Educating others as to dyslexia's strengths and moving the focus away from "dyslexics can't spell" can only bring positive results.

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks Emma,

I have to say, I fall into the group who don't regard dyslexia as a disability at all, but rather ad a different arrangemnt of abilities.

I haven't taken this stance as a phillisophical argument. It is the way I feel. The gifts are at least as great as the problems. One might as well call the lack of dyslexia a disability.

The reason dyslexia manifests as a disability and causes such pain - and it really does - is that we live in a predominantly non-dyslexic world.

Sorry. I probably sound like a cracked record.

Thanks again.


Pam said...

Liked this post. I recently wrote a post about stuttering and empathy, in response to a comment from a friend who stutters wondering if people with differences do indeed have more empathy.
I do think as a person who stutters that I do have more empathy and compassion for those dealing with a challenge, because I know what its been like.
So its not at all surprising that one with dyslexia would also feel a stronger sense of connection with others struggling wioth something.
I like how you touch on a bunch of things. Like you, I don't consider my stuttering a disability, but it can disable somepeople if they are so afraid of social punishment that they can't or won't communicate.
I just had another of my blog posts published as an article in my local newspaper.

Permission to Mother said...

My son syas he can read people's emotions by picking up subtle changes in their voice and body language. He has great intuition about people.

Anonymous said...


I believe you are right about empathy being "stronger" for some dyslexic people. One can speculate that the way dyslexic people think , in images, helps them get a more reliable (true) perception of what other may be feeling and thinking, combining what people are saying, with how their voice sounds, their faces look and so on. Is this a good thing? I guess it depends...people may not be ready to say what they are really thinking/feeling at times... Im not really sure it goes the same way for men and women, since empathy itself differs (cognitive vs affective). But since you are thinking about this as something to make you feel better about dyslexia itself i have to say i think its the wrong approach...dyslexia its just a name it doesn't make who you are..it doesn't make you good or bad, stronger or weaker... it's key, imo, to escape the black or white thinking.

Unknown said...

I totally understand the empathy thing! (Only discovered quite recently in my 50's that my differences were due to my being dyslexic, which was such a relief; all my miserable years at school now made total sense,) but one of the (many) things that got me into trouble as a child was being too aware of other peoples feelings and emotions. I saw both sides of any argument or discussion, and was reprimanded for usually seeing or taking the other person's point of view. In history class in my teens, I clearly saw the 'enemy's point of view, which didn't go down too well! Always being able to see both sides of the coin made it difficult sometimes. But I wouldn't swap it for being any other way!

Felicity McGuinness said...

I am currently researching this myself which is why I came across your page - psychology and Neuroscience connect imagination [a common trait of dyslexia] with the ability to be emphatic which is likely why you are finding perceived greater empathy levels from people who have dyslexia.

Unknown said...

I have so many questions as I am dyslexic and an empath highly intuitive I can feel the Energy every person when I walk in a room at that moment I feel I can read their story. Some sort of a powerful feeling of deceit the moment I see jealousy. As a child there was no name no place for me our system pushed me through school without learning anything. Mark Twain once said do not let schooling get in the way of your education WoW how I Resonate and resentful there should be two different types of schools one for the dyslexic and then one for the people who learn and books. Everything that this says is true and then some. If you had to learn based on emotions alone we also can be very telepathic and psychic.

Unknown said...

My email

Unknown said...