Thursday, June 6, 2013

Panel on Talents of Dyslexics

Dear all, I have been meaning to post several things here. Lots of good things are happening lately related to better understanding dyslexia and talent. I will start with a short version of our proposal for a roundtable discussion to be held in Boston later this month at the annual meeting of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities (IARLD). It summarizes various new developments and trends. Best wishes, Tom West

Revised Final Draft – June 6, 2013

IARLD Roundtable Discussion -- Boston, Mass., June 27-29, 2013

Special Talents and Successful Outcomes Among Adults with Dyslexia – Recent Developments

Thomas G. West, Henry B. Reiff, John W. Hagen, Nicole Ofiesh


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 abilities 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 fix the problems that those with dyslexia experience but we have done almost nothing to develop a deeper understanding of the varied and hard-to-measure talents and abilities that many also possess – although these same talents are seen as increasingly valuable in a vastly changed economy and workplace. Some suggest that this neglected research agenda could provide the greatest potential for substantial future research progress. This roundtable discussion will focus on the pros and cons of increasing research emphasis on the strengths and talents. This topic was discussed in a Roundtable in the IARLD Conference in Miami in 2010. Recent publications and targeted conferences suggest that the topic is rapidly gaining more serious attention than only three years ago.

The coordinators of this session have long been strong proponents of looking seriously at the apparent special abilities of those with dyslexia -- in all their great variety. However, 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 traditional academic context. Others are uncomfortable about discussing strengths and talents since it would confuse funding sources that are unwilling to provide support for investigations of strengths and talents rather than handicaps and deficiencies. Many individuals with dyslexia who have been highly successful with respect to scientific discovery, technological innovation or entrepreneurial business claim that their success, their accomplishments and their special ways of seeing come directly from their distinctive dyslexic way of thinking -- not in spite of their dyslexia. Some proponents argue that identifying and developing such talents is an important foundation for individual self worth as well as future educational and occupational success. Other proponents make a much greater claim -- that major contributions can be made to the larger (increasingly specialized) society by the distinctive ways of thought seen in many highly successful dyslexics: the rapid and insightful comprehension of extremely complex information; the propensity to avoid “group think” and deliver highly innovative solutions to fundamental scientific problems; the capability to see patterns completely missed by well trained and experienced professionals; the apparent unusual proficiency in visual thinking well suited to new and powerful information visualization technologies.

Recently, the study of the talents seen in those with dyslexia is gaining increasing interest among a small group of innovative researchers. Much has changed in recent years that would suggest that these initiatives may be much closer to taking place: a small but important conference of foundation heads, researchers and highly successful dyslexic individuals (with their families) took place in April 2013; the increasing influence of the “learning sciencies” and the “positive psychology” movement; efforts to integrate dyslexia research with work psychology research (in the UK and elsewhere); books, articles, blogs and websites devoted to “the dyslexic advantage.” The discussion will also focus on how young adults in the workplace can improve their quality of life through intentional development of the attributes of successful adults with learning disabilities.

The roundtable discussion will address the following issues:

(1) How do the early case histories underscore the existance of very high visual and spatial capabilities along with the difficulties that those with dyslexia frequently have with reading, writing, composition, memory or organization?

(2) How have recent technological changes begun to increase the value of the visual and spatial strengths that many adults with dyslexia exhibit just as they seem to make their  academic difficulties less and less important?

(3) What approaches need to be changed in the classroom – for dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike -- to support the individual strengths and gifts of each learner?

(4) With the reexamination of the traditional research focus on pathology and intervention, are we beginning to see that we are researching the wrong kinds of things – and that we should shift instead to understanding how persons with dyslexia can tap into special strengths that fit well in a transformed economy?

(5) Recent work on understanding diversity among persons in terms of cognition and competence provides good evidence that societal progress is dependent upon the multiple contributions from individuals with far ranging talents. How can we develop research and practice approches that maximize the benefit of high diversity in both education and work?


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1985. Adults with learning disabilities: A call to action [Position Statement]. Available from
Eide, Brock L., MD, MA, and Fernette F., MD. 2011. The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Gerber, P. J., Ginsberg, R., & Reiff, H. B., 1992. Identifying alterable patterns in employment success for highly successful adults with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 475-487.

Goleman, D., 1996. Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Johnson, D., & Blalock, J., 1987. Adults with learning disabilities: Clinical studies.  New York: Grune & Stratton. 

Nicolson, Roderick I., and Angela J. Fawcett, 2008. Dyslexia, Learning and the Brain. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Reid, Gavin, and Jane Kirk, 2001. Dyslexia in Adults: Education and Employment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Reiff, H.B., Gerber, P.J., & Ginsburg, R., 1997. Exceeding expectations: Successful adults with learning disabilities. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Seligman, M.E.P., 1990. Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.

West, Thomas G., 2004. Thinking Like Einstein: Returning to Our Visual Roots with the Emerging Revolution in Computer Information Visualization. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

West, Thomas G., 2005. “The Gifts of Dyslexia: Talents Among Dyslexics and Their Families,” Hong Kong Journal of Paediatrics (New Series), vol. 10, pp. 153-158.

West, Thomas G., 2009. In the Mind’s Eye: Creative Visual Thinkers, Gifted Dyslexics and the Rise of Visual Technologies. Second edition. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

For additional information:
Thomas G. West (Session Co-coordinator): Research Scholar, National Library of Medicine, NIH. Mobile, 202-262-1266. Institutional address: Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, Advisory Board, 4400 University Drive, MS 2A1, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia 22030-4444. Email: Blog:

Henry B. Reiff, Ph.D. (Session Co-coordinator): Graduate and Professional Studies, McDaniel College, Westminster, Maryland 21157.


  1. I am very excited to see the research move in this direction. All too often, people with dyslexia have self-image problems because the educational emphasis throughout their school careers has been on their inability to read fluently. What talents they had or have were ignored because they could not "read" and therefore were failures.
    I am so sorry I am unable to attend this round table discussion.

  2. Thank you for your post. I had been a teacher for thirty years in the public school system teaching children with learning challenges and trying to make the changes of which you speak within the system. Finally, after getting in trouble one too many times, I started my own busines, Neuro-Diverse Educational and Behavioral Services, to support families and children with learning challenges. I may add that the learning challenges are situaltional to the enviornment they are in. The schools' standard teaching methodologies are auditory and not conducive to the visual-spatial learner. In my business, I coach my clients how to best adapt their learning style when in a traditional teaching enviornment. How to take the materials and use them with how they learn best. I also train the parents the best way to support their children and what the laws indicate for support and accomodation in the classrooms. I attend meetings and conference with parents regarding the IEP process. However my best work is with the child by reducing anxiety, building self-esteem, and showing them how they are already successful. They acquire A's and B'S within a few months departing from their usual failing report cards. I find the schools are not ready to listen. Even with IEPs and the law written to support our students, I find a great deal lacking in actual accomodation. Systemic disease is a huge problem no matter what state my client resides. I wish you the best of luck as you move forward.

  3. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. In fact your creative writing abilities may inspired others.
    office furniture assembly Chicago