Dear Young Dyslexic,

Much has been written about how destructive dyslexia is on a child's development. In addition to the pain and embarrassment, the dyslexic child is faced with a dilemma. How does one develop a sense of self and deal with feelings of helplessness in the face of almost constant failure? Many dyslexics are asked to do the impossible, which is to function in school when they have few of the necessary tools. Except for one of my patients who jumped out of the second story window of his classroom (he was okay), we can’t escape.

The remarkable fact is that most dyslexics do learn to cope with this impossible situation. Their coping mechanisms demonstrate creativity and talent. However, these mechanisms are usually frowned upon by the adults in their environment. If we dyslexics had a nickel for every time an adult asked: “Why don’t you try harder?” “Why don’t you pay attention?” Or “Why don’t you asked for help?, we would all be millionaires.

As children, most of us employed a number of different strategies. We sometimes exaggerated  incompetence and asked for help from our fellow students. In college, I found this also helped me meet pretty girls. However, I did not present myself in a very favorable light.

Being the class clown was also very useful strategy. One can divert attention from one’s weaknesses and even suggest that our mistakes are nothing but a comedy routine. Similarly, many of us developed a well-honed ability to manipulate our teachers. I remember encouraging one of my high school teachers to speak for an extra 20 minutes about his World War II experiences until there was no time left for the test, for which I was unprepared.

Perhaps the most powerful and most insidious strategy is what a friend of mine labels  “flying under the radar." Like Bilbo’s ring, its function is to render the individual invisible. If you are invisible, teachers cannot ask you to do impossible tasks and classmates will not laugh at you. It is accomplished by making yourself  appear very small. Bowing one’s head, looking down, slumping in the chair, and looking pitiful add to the effect.

All of these coping mechanisms demand a  variety of talents and a  great deal of social intelligence. However, these strategies all reinforce the feeling that “I can’t do it” and promote a negative self-concept. They serve a very clear purpose in childhood and in some ways may save the individual’s life. Certainly, these strategies protect one's sense of self and gives one some kind of feeling of power in his or her environment.

Next time I will discuss the downside of these strategies.

Be well and make a bit of noise,
Dr. Michael Ryan