Dyslexia Scotland talk

A couple of weeks ago, as part of National Dyslexia Awareness Week in Scotland, I was invited by Dyslexia Scotland to give a talk to two Primary 7 classes at Oxgangs Library in Edinburgh. I planned a 45 minute presentation to introduce the children to what dyslexia is and how it can affect those who live with the condition. I’d originally wanted to weave in examples from Jennifer Brown, but in the end decided to keep things simpler and focus on dyslexia itself and give as many real world examples as I could.

I took the Caledonian Sleeper from London to Edinburgh. I enjoy travelling by train generally, and even though it’s sometimes a little exhausting, it’s nice both to have the time all to yourself and be able to watch the country as it rolls by.

I arrived in Edinburgh early in the morning, several hours before I was due to give my talk. It was a few days before Remembrance Sunday, and there were poppy sellers all around. I had a stroll down the Royal Mile, buying my poppy and taking a moment in the Garden of Remembrance. I then went to a coffee shop and spent an hour or so just reviewing my talk and practising (in my mind…!) what I was going to say. You can never prepare too much, in my opinion.

I tend to avoid buses wherever I travel, for the simple reason that it’s (a) not clear how you’re meant to buy the ticket, and (b) it’s not easy to tell where they’re actually going to take you! Or maybe it’s just me, who knows. Anyway, my talk was at Oxgangs Library, down in the suburbs of Edinburgh, so walking there was definitely out of the question! In the end, I decided it would be best to just get a taxi.

There was still over an hour to go when I arrived near the library, so I bought a few snacks from a nearby shop and took a little wander. The area reminded me in many ways of where I grew up–a small town in central Scotland. Places like this still (by and large) have a sense of community that, sadly, has tended to wither away in many other parts of the country. I could somehow still get a feel for that as I walked around, even in the mostly quiet streets. After all, it was a Monday afternoon and most people would be at work.

It was finally time to go to the library. After the various introductions, we began setting up the chairs, stands, and hooking up my laptop to the TV screen (keeping fingers crossed that the tech would just work!).

The children arrived with their teachers, and everyone began to settle down. After briefly introducing myself (cringe!), I moved on to a little chat about words and all the places where we can find them, and how important they are to helping us understand the human world around us.

When addressing an audience, especially children, I always find myself paying keen attention to whether what I’m saying is holding their interest or not, or if I need to adjust in order to keep them with me. When they’re completely silent, it’s sometimes hard to decide whether they’re bored or spellbound (or at least more the latter than the former!).

The talk continued onto an overview of what dyslexia is, and its different symptoms. The parts the children (and I!) really enjoyed were the exercises that helped them gain some understanding of the kinds of difficulties that dyslexic people can face. I had prepared two reading exercises and several writing exercises. The reading ones involved switching the regular sounds of the alphabet to totally different ones, and then trying to read a sentence written out in the new ‘alphabet’. The difficulty in trying to individually remember what sound each is supposed to make gives a good idea of what some of the symptoms of dyslexia.

Before starting, I asked if any of the children were dyslexic themselves, as I thought the exercises would be double trouble for them! I was a little surprised that none of the pupils (out of a class of 30 or more) were dyslexic, but it might be that the children simply didn’t feel like putting their hands up in front of everyone. Perhaps all the more reason for more events such as this to remove some of the myths of dyslexia.

The writing exercises created the most commotion while the staff and I handed out paper and pencils to the children. The first task was to try and write their name using the ‘new’ alphabet from the previous exercise. Next, to try and write their name as if they were looking at it in a mirror.

Next, I got them to try writing their name with their opposing hand. Finally, to make things really hard, and build up the frustration, I asked them to combine both tasks, i.e. to try and write their name in mirror writing using their opposing hand!

The rest of the talk gave a summary of some of the other symptoms of dyslexia, but also to a bit of ‘myth busting’. I also shared my own memories of being at school, and of one or two children who may well have been dyslexic but didn’t receive all the support they might have. As I’ve tried to show in Jennifer Brown, dyslexia doesn’t just stop at reading and writing. The problems caused at school can often have knock-on effects in so many other areas of life, and, if left unchecked, can seriously affect confidence and self-esteem.

Afterwards, I did a short reading from the first chapter of Jennifer Brown and the Dagger. When I finished, the children all lined up to get my…autograph! 😮 I found it so sweet how they all waited patiently for their turn.

It’s always so satisfying to come away from a school or library visit with the feeling that you’ve not only given the children a bit of a fun time and a break from regular lessons, but also contributed to raising their awareness and understanding of something they may not have known so much about. It certainly made the long journey back to King’s Cross a whole lot more bearable!

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On dyslexia

My recently published novel, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger, is about a girl with reading difficulties who discovers she has a connection with the world of the fairies, and who goes on a dangerous journey with little time to spare. Fairies, dyslexia, and the great outdoors are the three big themes of the story. In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about the second.

When, many years ago, I first had the idea for the story, the main character, Jennifer, wasn’t even the main character. Rather, she was one of three relatively equal characters (Amy, her sister, and Simon, her cousin—both still in the story). However, by the mysterious laws (or anarchy?) of character development, Jennifer seemed to grow and grow until she not only became the main character of the story but also took over the narrative point of view.

Around this time, my mother had begun working as a teaching assistant at a special needs school. I remember one day noticing a book that she had left on our dining room table about the topic of dyslexia. Idle curiosity (or perhaps the Muses of old, who knows?), prompted me to pick up the book and leaf through it. I’d heard about dyslexia before, but didn’t really know in detail about what it was or who it affected.

I wish I remembered the name of that book—I only remember the yellow cover, and that it was relatively old, published in the early 80s. Reading it, I found myself intrigued. Dyslexia is a condition apparently caused by certain issues with brain development that causes difficulties with learning to read and write. People with dyslexia will tend to perform these tasks relatively slowly, often confuse the order of letters in words, struggle (to varying degrees) to absorb written information, and also find it harder than most to follow an exact sequence of instructions.

However, what I found fascinating is that many famous people in history have been dyslexic. In this amazing list are people as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci (his mirror handwriting, remember!), Pablo Picasso, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill. The condition of dyslexia itself may not necessarily have been known about while some of these individuals were alive, but with hindsight, it is clear that many of the difficulties they expressed regarding reading and writing would today be recognised as obvious symptoms.

It is also very strange that so many modern day artists and actors are dyslexic. There seems to be some kind of link between the condition of dyslexia and a high degree of creativity. It is almost as if the same brain development pathways that cause difficulties with reading and writing also enable an individual to sharpen their creative thinking. In fact, many dyslexics will say how much more comfortable they are with images rather than words. Perhaps this is why they will tend to seek out activities that don’t require so much focus on the written word.

Indeed, there is one school of thought that regards dyslexia as a ‘gift’ or blessing in disguise, enabling a person to think in a much more holistic way, using the power of images rather than letters and words. Perhaps, in some sense, there is a dyslexic in all of us. How often have we heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”? We are all able to ‘think in pictures’. It’s just that dyslexics have the capacity (or power, if you like) to take it that one step further.

I think it’s important to state, if it isn’t already obvious, that dyslexia does not affect intelligence or actual capacity to learn. In that sense, it is very unlike autism (which can share some symptoms with dyslexia), with which it is sometimes incorrectly linked (as they are both classified as special educational needs). More specifically, according to NHS England, dyslexia is classified as a “specific learning difficulty”, rather than a “learning disability.”

I should say here that I’m not dyslexic myself. Perhaps, since I always been such a passionate reader, I had my interest piqued by a condition that causes natural difficulties with something I enjoyed so much. By the time I’d finished that yellow book, I’d made up my mind—Jennifer Brown was going to be dyslexic. I hadn’t realised just how profoundly that would alter the story as I continued to churn through the plot. In the final book, her difficulty with reading and writing is as central as it can be to the story, and her desire to overcome her problems and to find a way to be ‘just as good as everyone else’ is one of her great motivators.

Jennifer, in the second and third instalments in the Fairyhand trilogy, will begin to learn to read and write (yes, I’m giving a little tease of what’s to come!). Although there is no ‘cure’ (it is a lifelong condition), there are plenty of excellent teaching methods and support strategies that can be used to help dyslexics learn to read and write, and perhaps some of those may make their way into the books to come.

I like to think, by combining the ‘fairy’ and the ‘dyslexic’, I have in some small way created a character that helps show the condition in its best light, while highlighting the real-world issues that dyslexic people inevitably face.