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Jamie Oliver and Sir Richard Branson. Photo/Getty Images

The secrets of highly successful dyslexics

Aside from success, what do Sir Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver have in common? Dyslexia.

For decades, New Zealanders were dyslexia deniers. There was a belief that any problems children had with reading and writing could be solved with an intensive programme, called the Reading Recovery Initiative, pioneered by literacy specialist Dame Marie Clay. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Ministry of Education finally accepted that dyslexia exists.

Now we are learning far more about the neurological and genetic factors behind the condition. Recently, German researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain to show that people with dyslexia have a weakly developed structure in the subcortical white matter. The sampled group had less connectivity than non-dyslexics in a control group. Previously, it had been assumed the cerebral cortex of dyslexics differed from non-dyslexics.

There are plenty of stories about highly successful dyslexics – Sir Richard Taylor, head of Weta Workshop, is a local example. But many adults with dyslexia go undiagnosed. Unaware that their brains are wired differently, they assume they must be stupid, and feel embarrassed and ashamed.

Wellington-based literacy and numeracy specialist Mike Styles says we are letting those people down. This has implications not only for an individual’s prospects and mental health – depression and anxiety are often associated with dyslexia – but also for society. In research done in prisons last year, Styles found half the adults he screened were positive for dyslexia, which is in line with international statistics. In the general population, 10% of people have the condition.

Other countries are way ahead of us in implementing ways to support those with dyslexia. “Internationally, it’s a rapidly developing field,” says Styles. “Singapore is a success story and the UK is also a leader. There are a lot of researchers and practitioners there assessing people for it as well as doing needs analysis to work out what sort of technology they need to help level the playing field.”

Last year, the New Zealand Government announced a plan to screen schoolchildren for any special learning needs. However, that still leaves a gap for people in tertiary education and the workplace, and Styles has been involved in a study to see how they can best be supported.

The first step is screening, for which a range of tools and methods is available. The one Styles uses takes about an hour and costs between $100 and $200. About 80% of the people he screens are unaware they have the condition.

“It’s about more than reading and writing,” he says. “Dyslexic people can have issues with short-term memory, organisation, time keeping and sequencing. The process of automaticity [doing things without thinking about them] takes longer for them and they can struggle with transitions – a new job, a new shift.”

Once diagnosed, dyslexics can find help via Workbridge. This might involve technology such as reading pens, apps or speech-recognition software, access to a mentor or reader/writer assistance and advice related to the presentation of written matter. Dyslexics do better with simple sans-serif fonts such as Helvetica and a buff-coloured or pastel background rather than stark white, for example.

Styles runs workshops to upskill tertiary tutors, many of whom trained under the regime that didn’t recognise dyslexia.

“The legacy of the denial is that it doesn’t matter where you go in the education system, there is minimal understanding of dyslexia,” he says. “It’s not a part of our DNA.”

A valuable part of helping anyone with this learning difference is showing people what a successful dyslexic looks like. Dyslexics such as Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson and chef Jamie Oliver often talk about the advantage the condition has given them and how thinking differently has left them with a creative and business edge.

“Dyslexic people have a whole range of skills and talents,” says Styles. “Often they have visual-spatial and 3D skills that others lack, for instance. It can be valuable for a dyslexic person to know the competitive advantage they may have in the workplace.

“Knowledge is really powerful. Once you are aware the reason you have struggled for years is that your brain works differently, that makes all the difference.”

This article was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.