Monday, May 4, 2009

Computer Work and the Talents of Dyslexics

The mix of talents and skills needed in various parts of the computer industry seems to provide natural opportunities for some dyslexics. The following long passage is part of an electronic mail message I received some years ago from a programmer and system integrator in Britain. It provides an artfully worded and elegant profile of a common pattern of dyslexic problems along with special strengths that could be much more common than we might otherwise expect. With this passage, I am struck, once again, by the way these special capabilities, although little understood, seem to be so well suited to the changing requirements of this particular industry--and the way someone who has trouble with words can write so well.

“About 2 months ago the BBC showed a program in the Q.E.D. [popular science] series about dyslexia and learning difficulties . . . in which you were featured. I had before heard of various famous people being linked to dyslexia, especially Einstein and Churchill. But until seeing your piece in the show, I think I generally assumed, like most people, that they were great men who had [just] overcome their difficulties to lead distinguished lives. I had not heard before the theory that their abilities could be a result or side effect of their dyslexia. I must say I find [this theory] most interesting. I do not work in any field of research associated with dyslexia but have suffered with the problem all my life.

“As you can probably see, my spelling leaves a little to be desired and if you could see it you would know my handwriting is closer to spiders dying than text. However, I have never had any problem expressing myself verbally and have always been told I am very creative. I read very slowly and find new words difficult to read. . . . I avoid reading aloud as I tend to read very slowly and with little expression which generally gives the impression I am unintelligent. I can never be sure to get left and right correct first time.

“Unfortunately, my mother used to be an English teacher and so finds all that kind of thing second nature. For a long time, she did not really believe that dyslexia existed but put my problems down to the usual sort of things--laziness, doesn't concentrate, late developer, etc. My father has the same sort of problems as myself and it is a family joke that my mother used to send his (love) letters back to him with the spellings corrected! My education was mainly at boarding schools and my letters home got much the same treatment. The English teacher at school had the same attitude as my mother and the Headmaster was convinced that beating me enough would knock the laziness out of me. . . .

“Anyway, that is just some background. Now back to the subject of your theory (and book). I have bought your book and am reading it (slowly !). I studied, and work in, computers and have done since I was 16. I have always found the subject extremely easy and can produce quite complex systems in very short time scales to a great degree of accuracy and reliability. This is based around an ‘intuition’ I have for the way computers work. Once I know the different aspects of a system I can understand all the implications of a single change on the whole, in a way I find that my colleges cannot. They have to analyse each part of the system trying to work out the effect a change will have on that part before going on to the next part and analysing that, etc. This ‘higher’ ability over my peers is something I have only realised more recently and your theory came at just the right time to help me explain the situations I was being faced with.”

It is especially significant that this individual finds that once he has internalized a mental model of the whole system, he can quickly see the effects of any change. This method of working is entirely different from the step by step analysis one sees generally in conventional usage and education. Yet this is the same method of working that one finds often in discussions of the ways that highly sophisticated and complex problems are approached by highly creative people. It may be possible that a methodical study of young dyslexics such as these working in different parts of this still relatively new industry may yield better understandings of problem solving strategies that may have broad applicability.

When we survey a few recent examples of highly successful dyslexics and visual thinkers, we can see that they have many strengths that are often not properly recognized in school or university--but come to recognized in work and in life. What can be learned from this puzzling pattern? It seems clear that we need to work on finding better ways of identifying and developing the gifts and talents that are often hidden under the difficulties. Also, when we look at highly successful individuals such as described here, we see they succeeded by following their substantial gifts, not by focusing mainly on their difficulties. We need to find ways of bringing traditional education more in line with the requirements of work and life. The more we are able to do this, the more likely we will, in the long run, really help dyslexics and visual thinkers--as well as the larger society. We are also likely to learn more about the true nature of talent and intelligence.

Based on excerpt, “Dying Spiders and Mental Models,” from the “Epilogue,” Updated edition, In the Mind’s Eye. (Quotation used with permission. Misspellings silently corrected. British spellings preserved.)