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Men's bathrooms, spellcheckers, and acrobatic letters: seeing things the dyslexic way.
cap, captain miss america
I didn't know I was dyslexic when I was a kid. And I don't know if that was good or bad for me. As a child, I also had a speech impediment, and that was picked up on when I was very little-- because people can't tell what you see in your head, and you don't know that it's different enough to tell them it's wrong, but if you talk like Daffy Duck, people will notice. I went to free in-school speech therapy and when two years of that did absolutely nothing, I went to a private therapist, which did work, but that's a different story. There are ways in which I think my life has been improved by my dyslexia, and ways in which I think my life could be better without it.

I preface this by saying that if you are interested in knowing more about dyslexia or think you might have it, there are a number of different ways it manifests, and my experience with it isn't going to be everyone's experience. But I find that every now and then, people ask me what it is like, and I thought it would be helpful to talk about what I see.

My dyslexia takes the form of a disorder where the orientation of shapes and images is not static.

The best way to explain this is like this:

Suppose there is a lowercase "p." Suppose I look at it four different times.
Instead of seeing:


I might see:


Here's another example, something that happens to me in real life all the time. Let's say you're in a restaurant and the doors to the restrooms say "M" and "W."

I might look at them and see "M" and "M" or "W" and "W." Or even "W" and "M."

For most of my life, people just thought I had a really bad sense of direction. I was a verbally-gifted enough kid that my dyslexia never slowed me down with reading-- now that I'm an adult, you would notice a significant difference in my reading speed versus my friends' reading speed, but as a kid, my vocabulary and word recognition compensated for my cognitive issue. No one realized that something was slowing me down because I was so good at the other things you need to be good at to read. But once the other kids caught up with me in those things, it became more apparent that I was a slower reader. Still, people just chalked this up to me being a more *careful* reader.

It did affect my writing-- a lot of my early writing was mirrored. I honestly have no idea why that didn't tip anyone off. And this is a little secret they don't tell you about dyslexics-- I can read backward as adeptly as I can read forward, because it all looks the same to me. So yes, I read more slowly than you do when we're reading something written forward, but if you give me mirror writing, I will read it at pretty much the same speed.

One thing that is a really big misconception about dyslexia that I often hear is the whole, "well, why don't you just proofread/spellcheck?" Because, my dear little pumpkins, proofreading doesn't work if you're dyslexic. Sometimes words that are spelled right will look mispelled to you. And spellcheck will totally underline words that are spelled wrong...but you might see the underline as if it is under a totally different word

But, Tea, you might ask, why is your spelling so impeccable?

1) I work at it.

2) As a dyslexic, it is even harder for me to read things other people write if they are misspelled, for what I hope are obvious reasons. So I am aware of the difficulty it presents to read mispelled words. This means I work really hard to spell correctly.

3) I have a really good aural memory and sense of etymology. Etymology is really useful for a dyslexic because thinking of words as chunks or etymons rather than distinct letters means there is less to flip. I also say a lot of what I am spelling out loud when I am having trouble.

4) My dyslexia is not as bad as other people's! I know other dyslexics who simply can't keep the letters pointing in the same direction long enough to put words together. It's like their letters are getting blown around by a wind machine!

Dyslexia also-- and this is the thing that a lot of people don't realize about dyslexia-- affects the way I see things that don't appear on paper. If I'm looking in front of me, I might think the things that are on my left are on my right, and vice-versa. As a kid, I could never tell my left from my right. It's not that I didn't know which was left and which was right, it's that I couldn't see which was left and which was right. People tried to teach me the easy "Hold out your thumb and your forefinger" trick. If you don't know this trick, it's one where if you hold out your thumb and your forefinger on each hand, the one on your left hand is an L and the one on your right hand is a backward L. But guess what? That doesn't work for someone who sees an L and a flipped-L as the same letter!

So this means that sometimes I will turn in the wrong direction on a street. It also means that it takes me too long to figure out which way to go when I am driving a car, which is the biggest part of why I don't drive. There have been too many times when I have overshot turns because it takes me that much longer to process which way to go== one time I knocked down the Jesus in front of a church! I felt terrible!

The thing about dyslexia is that it doesn't translate to the sense of touch. So if a letter is raised, I can touch it and tell what letter it is. It also means that once I had a keyboard memorized, I could type very well. Looking at the keyboard, the keys all jump around on me, but if I am not looking at the keyboard I am a fast and accurate typist because my hands know where they letters I want to touch are located. I actually have a harder time typing if I look at the keys than I do if I look away. If I can't tell what direction something is in, I can reach out and touch something and figure it out. My mom used to think my spatial sensibilities were whacked out, or that maybe I was just daydreaming too much and not paying attention to my surroundings.

I think that is the extent of things I can think of telling you all about what it is like to be dyslexic. I don't think it is all impairments-- I think it has some benefits, too, at least for me. But people often ask and I thought it would be nice to share. If anyone has any other questions about dyslexia-- at least my dyslexia and the way it affects me, please feel free to ask and I would be happy to answer.

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How does dyslexia affect your work and art?

I honestly do not know because I have never been not-dyslexic so I don't have any frame of reference!

I have a very mild form. If there are a small group of similar objects in my hand, say four or five dimes, I can look right at them and simply not tell if there are four, five or whatever. I can mentally count them but it doesn't look right. It goes from one number to the other. And when handwriting, I often skip letters because my head is thinking of the next letter. Messy. And once in awhile, I get my right and left hands confused.

I've also known friends who have been severely dyslexic such that driving directions (cross country!) were always expressed as 'towards you,' and 'towards me' instead of left and right.

So I sort of know what you mean but of course, not really. Thanks for sharing. You're a really interesting person.

Yes! I actually do better with north, south, east, and west when I am going places than I do with right or left, because if I'm in a place I know well like New York, Boston, or Philly, I know which way is north and it doesn't change.

This is so interesting, I never knew it quite worked that way! Of course I've never known any other overt dyslexics, and only one other online. Or maybe she was just a sloppy typer, I never really managed to figure out which, and I never really managed to figure out what a lot of her NPCs real names were, because they were fantasy names, and she tended to switch the letters at the end so it either ended with -el or -le in about equal measures.

I find it very interesting when people view the world differently, since that's a big revelation in how very fragile our senses are. It's the same with Aleph's color blindness, who am I to say that something is grey instead of pale purple? His eyes have as much a right to process things as mine do. It is neat.

Yeah, my understanding of dyslexia is that it's not really a disability, it is just not the way the majority of people see. There are benefits and drawbacks, not just drawbacks.

And letter-switchers are very frequently dyslexics, so that makes sense. You just don't notice that the letters are in a different order than last time.

I don't really have the ordered-letter problem, that's a different manifestation of dyslexia, and it seems like that one would be harder.

I didn't know about the reading backwards thing! Is that common in a high number of dyslexic people?

I'm fairly certain I have number dyslexia, particularly with memory. I cannot handle three-digit number orders, even, a lot of times. I remember in high school giving my cell phone out incorrectly many, many times. Nothing too bad, or worth getting checked out to me, since I'll just write it down if it's important or inform someone no, I can't help remember a license plate or phone number even for just a second because I'll likely reorder it. (And every now and then, change a 8 for a 3 or a 4 for a 7. That's less frequent, but happens.) I'm careful with my math and always do things twice at least, which isn't a bad thing with bookkeeping and handling our family's business checking account and deposits, anyway.

I think so! I don't know a ton of other dyslexic people but a couple of the ones I do know can do it as well.

I don't know if what you are talking about is dyslexia, because dyslexia has a visual component and yours sounds more like a memory thing and numerical ordering thing-- most dyslexics don't have the things mixed up inside their heads or verbally, although some do, but that's usually because they have something else on top of dyslexia. There is a very similar disorder called dyscalculia which specifically has to do with number-ordering and mental arithmetical things, and if you're interested in getting a diagnosis you might want to look into that because it sounds like that is what you are talking about! But yeah, I think part of the reason my spelling is as good as it is is because I am that much more careful because I know I have a problem.

I thought I had dyscalculia, but it was diagnosed as some sort of processing disorder. I can't copy down a list of numbers without getting them all wrong, and it occasionally takes me three tries to get past my building's three digit security code.

That is so interesting that dyslexia effects how you see things more than letters! I never knew that! I did know that dyslexics have trouble telling right from left.

Yeah, I think most people don't realize that it's just that it manifests itself most on paper. Part of what made me realize that what I was seeing was dyslexia was when I worked at Rolling Stone, we did an interview with Bob Weir, and he was talking about how things he was looking at seemed to move on him and he never knew that was what that was until he was an adult. And I was like, OH.

I'm not dyslexic... but for the life of me I still can't figure out my left from my right. My boyfriend constantly teases me about it. :/

my mom can't tell left from right, especially when driving. I guess we tease her good naturedly about it... she's dead-on for landmarks, though. she can get you anywhere if you know how to read her maps!

I like the "towards you" and towards me." I'll try that...

I have no direct questions, but I'd just like to say thanks for sharing! It's really interesting to get to look at things another way, and a lot of people with what we would call learning disabilities (not that your dyslexia appears to have disabled you in any way) are sensitive about it and so might not be so open on the subject.

Also, it's great to hear from you on it, because I know from reading your life that you are a very intelligent person, and there is this preconception that dyslexics are inherently slower and less intelligent than other "normal" people. (The only other true dyslexic I know this is actually true of, but it is not her dyslexia that has made her dumb, she just happens to be both at the same time.)

I took a really long time to learn right from left. I only got it down because when I was a child, I had two little warts on my left wrist, and if I could remember that, I always had an easy checkpoint. Sometimes I still get confused. And it seems like so elementary a thing, an above-average college student who isn't dyslexic shouldn't struggle with it, but I do. I'm bollocks at directions, though, and I think it's related. My senses are fine, it's my brain that's the problem!

It's especially troublesome if I'm riding with someone in the car and they have mapquest directions or something, and I'm supposed to reverse them on the way back. I can't.

Yeah, I think that it's one of those things that people misunderstand exactly what it is a lot besides all the jokes about people flipping letters inopportunely. Which so happens, but still.

I think that's part of why I am a little glad no one picked up on it when I was a kid-- there would have been additional social stigma I didn't need. At the same time, dyslexia goes undetected with so many people who are just written off as slow or stupid and that's not good, either.

I think there are a lot of people with weak directional skills. It is nothing to sweat!

This was a very interesting read, thanks for giving me a glimpse into what it can be like to live with dyslexia.

No problem! That was what I was trying to do-- I think so many people know someone with it but understanding how our brains work is a completely different story! And it's one of those things that I think a lot of people are curious about but don't want to be nosy about.

Hello Fellow Dyslexic!

I taught myself how to read so I didn't get diagnosed until I was in college. I was a "lazy speller" because I was such a good reader.

I didn't know that there was a difference between right and left until the 4th grade and left was the arm that when I dropped it my watch hit the side of the desk with a clank.

Oh my goodness, you have Harry Potter puppets!

And that was what happened to me, I think. My spelling was never really an issue, but people missed the usual warning signs because I was so good at other things that I was able to compensate.

When I was in second grade, I smashed one of my pinkies playing pool and I got a super ugly bruise. That was how I knew which hand was right!

so... ummm.. I learned a little bit about dyslexia 100 years ago when I was in teacher training.

but... what I really have to say is that you are AWESOME no matter what.

that is all.

hugs, anna

You are awesome no matter what, too!

I know I am awesome! I don't mean to sound vain, I am just saying in case you think I feel like I'm sub-par because I see things backwards! I think I do pretty good. But I also see people whine and bitch about dyslexics all the time, stuff like "why the hell can't they just use a spellchecker?" and stuff, and I think it's nice to have a reference to explain it.

The letter-flipping thing is so interesting! Although I realized that some dyslexics have a tendency to mirror certain letters, I did not realize that they change sometimes when you look at them.

Do you ever mentally flip or reverse pictures, or does this type of thing only happen with actual letters?

Yes! It happens with everything that I can look at, not just letters. It was always really hard to read music because I could never tell where on the staff the notes were.

I don't usually flip letter order-- that's a different form of dyslexia. But things appear backward or upside down a lot.

How simple or complicated do things have to be before their orientation starts becoming non-fixed? I mean, can things like your icon also appear backwards or upside down, or is it mostly simpler stuff?

Sorry if I'm asking too many questions, but this is probably one of the first times that I've heard dyslexia explained in this way.

It's ok! I don't mind answering questions.

I think the thing is, the more complicated something is, the more likely I am to know how it's supposed to be oriented. The problem with all of this is that explaining things as flipped is an oversimplification I used to explain for the sake of people who aren't dyslexic-- it's more like orientation doesn't exist. M and W look the same. p, b, d, and q look the same. If you show me a p by itself, I may not be able to tell you what letter it is. But if you show me the word "poodle," I will be able to guess that it is "poodle" "boodle" or "doodle" because "dooble" "boople" and "pooqle" aren't words. If you give me a really complex word like "androgynous," I will know what it is immediately because "anprogynous" isn't a word. So artwork, really complex images, still follow the same patterns of non-orientation, but I generally know which direction is up and my brain compensates for that.

This was really interesting! My sister found out as a teenager that she was dyslexic, but we've never talked about how it manifests. She's like you about spelling; worked at compensating for the dyslexia so hard that she ended up choosing to be a librarian instead of something that came easily to her.

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