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.