Monday, January 25, 2010

Talents Among Dyslexics, Roundtable Discussion

I thought that some of you might be interested in a roundtable discussion I organized for a conference earlier this month. The topic is still remarkably controversial among professionals in the field. I plan to carry on the same discussion informally at a conference in Paris next week -- and plan to summarize the continuing debate in future blogs. Your questions and comments are welcome. -- Tom West

IARLD Conference (International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities) -- Miami, Florida, January 16, 2010.

Roundtable Discussion, 1:30 - 2:30 pm

Special Talents Among Dyslexics:

Do They Exist?

Should They Be Researched?

Abstract: This Roundtable Discussion will focus on the pros and cons of dramatically increased research on the strengths and talents that appear to be closely associated with developmental dyslexia. The session coordinator has long been a strong proponent of looking seriously at the apparent special abilities of those with dyslexia (within great variety). The topic tends to be controversial. Some researchers and practitioners feel that there are really no special talents -- or rather, there are no talents that are valuable in a conventional academic context. In contrast, many highly successful dyslexics claim their success comes from their dyslexia. Others argue the talents are distributed in the same way as in the non-dyslexic population. Still others argue that there is no cogent theoretical base for a proper research program. And finally, some are uncomfortable about discussing strengths and talents since it may yield disappointment among those individuals with little or no apparent talent -- or it would confuse funding agencies that are unwilling to provide funds for investigations of strengths and talents rather than handicaps and deficiencies. Proponents argue the great importance of identifying and developing such talents as a foundation for self esteem as well as informed future educational and occupational success -- especially at a time when trends in computer information visualization technologies favor the high visual and creative capabilities that many dyslexics possess, as many conventional academic skills become less and less important in a rapidly emerging global economy.

Contact Information:

Thomas G. West (Session Coordinator): Author, In the Mind’s Eye and Thinking Like Einstein. Institutional address: Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, Member of the Advisory Board, 4400 University Drive, MS 2A1, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030-4444, USA. Tel.: 202-262-1266. Email: or Blog:

Summary of Presenter Viewpoint : Thomas G. West

From the time of the earliest researchers (in the 1890s) until Samuel Torrey Orton (in the 1920s) and Norman Geschwind (in the 1980s), the central puzzle of dyslexia has always been the linkage of high ability in some areas with remarkable and unexpected difficulties and disabilities in other areas. For more than a century we have recognized this pattern, but have generally focused on only one aspect. With the best of intentions, we have learned much about how to remediate the problems that dyslexics experience but we have done almost nothing to develop a deeper understanding of the varied and hard-to-measure talents that many dyslexics possess.

Highly successful dyslexics nearly always say that their accomplishments and special ways of seeing come directly from their dyslexia -- not in spite of their dyslexia. I believe we should take them at their word and give credence to what they say.

Most professionals in the field agree that talents are important, but eventually they almost always come to focus almost exclusively on reading and academic remediation alone. We need to change this, especially as major technological and computer information trends tend to favor the visual strengths that many dyslexics have as their traditional academic weaknesses become less and less important.

I believe the time has come to be serious about trying to understand the talents of dyslexics -- to do the other half of the job. Accordingly, I believe that it is time to think about building a bold and ambitious plan of research and practice that will focus primarily on talent.

The major intent of this initiative would be to build a program with its primary focus on understanding and developing the strengths and talents that dyslexics have -- rather than mainly focusing on areas of remarkable weakness. To build a bold program that would, in time, be as large as all current academic remediation programs in effort, resources and impact on the lives of dyslexic children and adults.

As a dyslexic myself, I feel a growing sense of personal responsibility to dyslexics as a group. I feel the need to substantially change the course of what we are trying to do within the field. I feel we need to seriously embrace a radical change now or there will be no change at all -- allowing additional generations of dyslexics to suffer needlessly -- while also wasting distinctive talents that are greatly needed by the society and the economy at large as we enter an age of great uncertainty on many fronts. We should recognize that we badly need the big picture thinking, creativity, innovation and original insights that appear to be the signature contributions of the most successful dyslexics.

Selected articles and books by Thomas G. West: In the Mind's Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics and the Rise of Visual Technologies, second edition with Foreword by Oliver Sacks, MD, 2009, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ‘The Gifts of Dyslexia: Talents Among Dyslexics and Their Families,” Hong Kong Journal of Paediatrics, 2005, vol. 10. pp. 153-158. Thinking Like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization, 2004, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. “Secret of the Super Successful . . . They’re Dyslexic,” 2003, Thalamus, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 48-52. “Visual Thinkers and Nobel Prizes,” Computer Graphics, ACM-SIGGRAPH, 2001, February issue.


  1. Tom-- I wholeheartedly agree!! I'm an educator,parent and visual learner like you-- and it frutrates me to no end that so-called "experts"
    put such little value in the abilities that dyslexics have. Is it possible that THEY do have these abilities???
    I would love to be included in any studies, or discussions that you have. I have been working with these wonderful students for almost 15 years now. You and your work have been a shining light for me-- hopefully the tide is turning as most parents and teachers that really work with these kids realize that they have MANY gifts- and that traditional methods of teaching them is not that successful!
    Please let me know how we might work to change the world!!

  2. I am a dylexic. I've always wondered why (if we are supposed to have such a unique wiring) why are'nt we studied? Couldn't the qualities of a 3D mind help the world? I design processes. I was working for a large credit card company in California and interviewed 28 of their customers to find out where the snags were in their processes. Installing a their credit card into a bank was taking 9 or 12 months because their ran their process sequencially. I was able to identify the places in the process where tasks could happen concurrently, and we showed that we could save 3 months ($$$ saving lots of money) in the newly defined process. That happened because I could see the process - run it and rewind it all in my head. The trouble was, I worked with folks who could NOT. If there was a way to see Dyslexia as a design resource we could really make the world a better place. Anyway, I thought I would offer that idea up here. Here's my blogs: - - - you can find me at linken in as Andrea Boff Sutton - thanks for this blog. I love it.

  3. I wanted to say one more thing, having thought about this post now for more than 24hrs. Human beings are really very funny creatures. Dyslexia isn't the only "kind of mind" - there are some that are distinguished for their concrete rational approaches to problems, even as dyslexics are 3D big picture thinkers. But, do we ever say,"Hey, let's solve that problem with 2 3D thinkers and 3 concrete rationalists"? Nope. I don't think we are very good at recognizing talent and capacity in others. It's too bad.

  4. yes, I think that we should -'work together, as a Human -Race/Species', to do such things, as 'solve the problems of CLimate Change, thru. SCIENCE', for instance.
    ....So, I like that 'lastp point', Andrea: made me think. Incidentally, I recently, (only yesterday, in actual fact); thought that there could be more books and 'research Material', on 'Famous -Dyslexics' (made more available, too) and there can never be too much -info. (So that more people, can 'compare findings' and see research/figures etc.). Fellow -Dyslexics, please find me, on FaceBook, -'Michael K. Shenton' Thanks -Mike.

  5. Hi Tom,

    Would it be the case that only people intimate with Dyslexia be the proponents who could drive this particular research?

    Could a non-Dyslexic researcher properly model the innate talents that are: holistic, visual, creative, out-of-box thinking?

    I think a true champion is someone talented (or willing) enough to bridge the gap in a way that they could communicate the natural qualities of Dyslexic individuals to the rest of the population.

    I'm hoping you can find other like-minded people as yourself to profile Dyslexic people as highly talented individuals who need certain conditions to shine and prosper.

    On a related note, of all the famous and known Dyslexic people that live today, how many of them really champion our cause? It seems not enough by my expectations. Being astoundingly talented is not enough.

    We'll get there someday. It's in our nature to struggle through mental barriers as well as people's perceptions.