Actor Henry Winkler was told he was stupid. A teacher labeled Dan Malloy, the future governor of Connecticut, “mentally retarded.” Delos Cosgrove recalls “hanging on by my fingernails” in high school and college before becoming a thoracic surgeon and the Cleveland Clinic’s chief executive officer.
Each has dyslexia, a condition that makes reading difficult but has little to do with intelligence. Mounting evidence shows that many people with dyslexia are highly creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, and neuroimaging studies demonstrate that their brains really do think differently.
A growing list of entrepreneurs, politicians, writers, actors and medical professionals struggle with dyslexia but work around it.
That helps explain the long list of entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, actors and other professionals, doctors and lawyers who have excelled despite, or perhaps because of, their affliction, experts say.
“There are people who are dyslexic that you could never imagine,” says Sally Shaywitz, co-director, with her husband Bennett, of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. When they give talks on dyslexia at high-powered gatherings such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she says, “We can’t walk down the hall without people pulling us aside and saying they think they have it, too.”
Michael Eric Bérubé
PIPER OTTERBEIN: ‘They were just drilling things into me that were never going to stick’.
Celebrities who have spoken out about having dyslexia:
• Actors: Orlando Bloom, Whoopi Goldberg, Anthony Hopkins, Keira Knightley, Henry Winkler
• Director: Steven Spielberg
• Lawyer: David Boies
• Writers: John Irving, Wendy Wasserstein, Philip Schultz
• Politicians: California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy
• Scientists: Nobel Laureate Carol Greider, Paleontologist Jack Horner
• Historical figures believed to have had dyslexia: Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin
Source: WSJ reporting
The Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Cosgrove says he relied on memorizing texts in medical school, and reading hasn’t gotten easier for him. He says he has never read a novel and told his staff he’d rather hear about any problems in person than read a report.
But, he says, “I frankly think dyslexia is a gift. If you are supported in school and your ego remains intact, then you emerge with a strong work ethic and a different view of the world.”
As many as one in five Americans has some degree of dyslexia, according to Yale research, although only about 5% of children have been formally diagnosed. And it clearly runs in families; six gene variations have been linked to the condition to date. Dyslexia was long thought to be a vision-related problem, but there’s a growing consensus that dyslexics instead have difficulty associating letters with spoken sounds and blending them together fluidly to make words. Neuroimaging studies can even pinpoint what goes awry.
Reading typically involves three distinct areas of the brain, all on the left side. The parieto-temporal region, just behind the ear, and the inferior frontal gyrus, at the front, slowly analyze words. The occipital-temporal area farther back recognizes the whole word instantly. Scientists think a word’s meaning, pronunciation and spelling are stored there too.
Imaging studies show that the best readers have the most brain activity in the rear, instant-word-forming area when they read. Dyslexics have much less activity there and more in the two slower areas.
“Think of the word ‘bat,’ ” says Dr. Shaywitz. “If you are dyslexic, you have to retrieve the B and the A and the T separately each time. It’s exhausting.”
Dyslexia can’t be cured, but imaging studies show that some remedial programs that help children learn sequential sound-letter relationships can rewire those circuits. Without such help, dyslexics may become accurate readers, but they never read fluidly. They often have problems spelling, writing, reading aloud and pronouncing words.
That’s why experts urge schools to give students with dyslexia extra time on tests, waive foreign language requirements and grade separately for creativity and spelling. But many schools don’t, according to a federal report commissioned last year by the Congressional Dyslexia Caucus.
Among dyslexics who succeed, Dr. Shaywitz says many “give up their social lives and everything else to spend more hours studying. They are very bright, but they are terribly anxious and think, ‘I’ve just been fooling everybody.’ ”
Other children with dyslexia become discouraged early on and continue to fall further behind their peers, even if their IQs are high.
Helping them access information in ways other than reading can be critical, experts say. Audio books and computer programs that can turn written text into spoken words and vice versa can keep their minds stimulated and vocabulary growing.
Gov. Malloy credits his mother for believing in his potential and giving him a radio to listen to at night. Having to read slowly helped him master complicated issues as he went from a New York City prosecutor to mayor of Stamford, Conn. He was elected governor in 2010. But even now, he says, “I have to stop and call each word up and do the best I can.”
At auditions, Henry Winkler memorized scripts in advance or ad-libbed if he forgot. “Some people got upset that I wasn’t reading the words, but I told them I was giving them the essence of it,” says Mr. Winkler, who played Fonzie on TV’s long-running “Happy Days” and many other roles. He is the co-author of 23 books for children in the series “Hank Zipzer, The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” about a resourceful fourth-grader with dyslexia.
Jack Horner’s reading ability is so poor that he says he bought shampoo for dogs instead of people recently. He left high school in the 1960s with all Ds and flunked out of college.
Mr. Horner also made some of the most spectacular dinosaur finds in the Western hemisphere. He won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, has two honorary degrees, inspired a character in “Jurassic Park” and is curator of paleontology for the largest Tyrannosaurus rex collection in the world.
How did he do it? He took a low-level museum job and worked his way up. And as he tells his students at Montana State University: “If you’re the first to do something, you don’t have to read about it.”
Other people with dyslexia find that they thrive only outside the world of reading and writing. “Find what you love and enjoy it,” says Piper Otterbein, a high school senior from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, whose talk at a TEDYouth conference has become a YouTube sensation. After years of tutoring and remedial classes, she dropped English, math and French and has found her passion, and self-esteem, in art and design. “I decided my creative brain is the one that suits me best,” she says.
Many adults with dyslexia say life does get easier, even if their reading skills don’t. Secretaries, co-authors, book editors and spouses can take dictation, spell and proofread. “There are very few times when adults are judged on being timed in reading,” unlike the standardized tests kids take in school, says Tyler Lucas, a New York-based orthopedic surgeon who realized he was dyslexic after his daughter was diagnosed with it.
The proliferation of smartphones, video chats and other technologies may also make the future easier for people with dyslexia, he adds. “Reading is just one way of communicating—and in the future, I think it won’t be as important as in the past.”
A version of this article appeared April 2, 2013, on page D1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Dyslexia Workarounds: Creativity Without a Lot of Reading.