Dyslexia – 8 Basic Abilities

Ronald D. Davis © 1994. Excerpted from Chapter 1 of The Gift of Dyslexia. 
Antwerp Courthouse

Antwerp Courthouse, designed by dyslexic architect Richard Rogers.

Usually when people hear the word dyslexia they think only of reading, writing, spelling, and math problems a child is having in school. Some associate it only with word and letter reversals, some only with slow learners. Almost everyone considers it some form of a learning disability, but the learning disability is only one face of dyslexia.

Once as a guest on a television show, I was asked about the “positive” side of dyslexia. As part of my answer, I listed a dozen or so famous dyslexics. The hostess of the show then commented, “Isn’t it amazing that all those people could be geniuses in spite of having dyslexia.”

She missed the point. Their genius didn’t occur in spite of their dyslexia, but because of it!

Having dyslexia won’t make every dyslexic a genius, but it is good for the self-esteem of all dyslexics to know their minds work in exactly the same way as the minds of great geniuses. It is also important for them to know that having a problem with reading, writing, spelling, or math doesn’t mean they are dumb or stupid. The same mental function that produces a genius can also produce those problems.

 sculpture by dyslexic artist Rebecca Kamen

“Illumination”, sculpture by dyslexic artist Rebecca Kamen

The mental function that causes dyslexia is a gift in the truest sense of the word: a natural ability, a talent. It is something special that enhances the individual.

Dyslexics don’t all develop the same gifts, but they do have certain mental functions in common. Here are the basic abilities all dyslexics share:

  1. They can utilize the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions (the primary ability).
  2. They are highly aware of the environment.
  3. They are more curious than average.
  4. They think mainly in pictures instead of words.
  5. They are highly intuitive and insightful.
  6. They think and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all the senses).
  7. They can experience thought as reality.
  8. They have vivid imaginations.

These eight basic abilities, if not suppressed, invalidated or destroyed by parents or the educational process, will result in two characteristics: higher than normal intelligence, and extraordinary creative abilities. From these the true gift of dyslexia can emerge — the gift of mastery.

Citation Information
Davis, Ronald Dell. (1994, 2010) “Chapter 1 – The Underlying Talent”, from The Gift of Dyslexia (Perigee, New York)

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  • S. Moreno

    It was refreshing to read these comments. I’m over 50 now, I have began to wonder about myself around my mid 30’s about my learning abilities. I wasn’t labeled in school, so I’ve always thought that learning wasn’t my strongest point. I also thought that there weren’t many people out in the world similar to myself.
    I have furthered my education, but I’ve have had to learn educational material in various ways.
    I would color code my study material and reread it over and over. I would also have to read many of my assigned books by audio. Sometimes I would have to use a book marker that I would cut out with a square to isolate a couple of words at a time. This would help me not to wonder off my subject.
    I seem to complete many tasks backwards, so because of this I’m more self conscious about this.
    Thank you everyone

  • Finn P

    I am a dyslexic who has recently been trying to understand my brain better. I am 16 and I love stem. I do math, biology and physics at school and I am very bad at English and spelling, but that doesn’t bother me. I have a bad working memory and lose focus easily. I try to teach myself outside of the school syllabus but the only way I know about how to learn is reading. Are there any ways I can use my dyslexia to my advantage? And if so how? What should I do to improve my working memory? How can I stimulate my dyslexia and use it as a catalyst for learning? What should I do to retain focus?
    Please answer these questions I am really trying to improve my situation, it means a lot to me.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Finn, the book The Gift of Dyslexia explains the strategies that we use to apply dyslexic talents to overcome school problems. Reading or listening to the audio version of the book might give you insight into the way you think and ideas for better strategies for learning and studying.

    • Kate

      Hi Finn,

      I’m a 24 year old dyselxic with a first class honours in Bsc in biology. Currently working in the field and doing a part time Msc in science validation. If you want to join the same field you most certainly can do this! I was diagnosed at a very young age. I started reading alot since I was a kid to improve my reading skills. I used Google translate to help me prounce new words. I kept a notebook and would add new words and their definitions to it. In high-school everyone told me I don’t need to study other languages because of my dyselxia. I defied that and went on to do honours level English and French. For learning everyone learns different. Im a very visual learner I love reading my handwriting in loads of pretty colours. Re writing and summarizing has helped me learn the information. Most importantly in science is understanding the concept not memorising everything! If you need any further help feel free to contact me.

    • chantel w

      Hello there I am now 45 and have it as well although when I went to school it was an unspoken sin to have it..Without even finishing high school I was contacted buy Penn State when i was in my 30s out of the blue so i took the call and heard what they had to say and I was shocked! they knew about me and my ability from an old teacher of mine I can see things backwards like a picture and I am VERY good at finding things out weather it be a puzzle ,place,product,or something i have read,You should be able to tell just by my typing that that i have it….It is a blessing and I dont regret having it for a min.It has made me faster better and able to see things others cant,We can sometimes see everything at once and when you learn to hone in on it USE IT!

    • Christie B

      If you want to learn to read pick a subject that interests you very much. Be willing to look up the words you don’t know. If you look them up on line they will pronounce them for you,

      Best of Luck

    • Elena

      Hi Finn,

      I too am dyslexic. I remember being extremely frustrated in grade school. I would do my best to study with the tools teachers provided me, but I couldn’t grasp the subjects. At the time, I had an interest in english rather than mathematics because the stories made more sense to me than numbers. I enjoyed digging into the underlying questions concerning character actions and behaviors. I guess I had more of a scientific approach to it. I did struggle with the wording while reading. I was better in a group forum where we discussed what was read, or I found it difficult to connect the dots and realized I had to read the passage multiple times to understand. It wasn’t until college that I truly found the study method that worked best for me. During class, I would type up my notes and record the lecture in case I forgot anything. From that, I would reorganize the notes and fill in additional information to further expand on an idea. I would then print out the revised notes and highlight and underline text with different colored pens and highlighters to help materials stick in my mind. On top of this, I would upload my notes on to my phone and play them with the speaker function through my car speakers or ear buds. This helped me visualize the answers from the highlighted notes I prepared while doing other tasks. I ended up using this method through out my undergrad and graduate degree schooling. I remember the struggle of figuring out what study method worked best for me, but once I did this, school came easy to me. I hope this helps you to achieve your goals.

  • andre

    I am only 13 years old I searched uo if it was bad if i did not know how to read and I read the syntoms of dylexia and i have most of then and some months ago i went to the doctors and she asked me how was i going in school but i did not know how to tell my doctor that i might have dyalexia because my mom was there and i was scared to say it so i did not and just said i was going good in school . And my first year in 5th grade i failed and had to repeat my grade and at that time my reading level is J and now that i am in 7th grade i am at the same reading level and i need help telling my mom doctor and teachers for help or something that can make me improve in reading and writing.

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      Please don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you have already had to repeat a grade, then your mom and teachers know that you have been struggling. Asking for help is the first step you can take towards getting what you need.

    • Trina S

      Andre, You are very wise young man I’m very impress with your ability to notice you are dyslexic before your teachers and doctors. It’s ok to tell your Mom tell your teachers that you have dyslexia and your not comfortable reading out loud and being called on due to your dyslexia. If your teachers DON’T understand they need to educate themselves. I worked with teachers how they need to work with students that are dyslexic never compare them with other students. I’m truly sorry you were held back back they should have worked with you try some summer home schooling to get you caught up with your class. Show your family all the people who are genius and have/had dyslexia. It’s truly a gift we all have been given we just need to use it to our advantage. Tell your Mom and ask to call your doctor to inform them to get their medical advice and treatment going forward. Don’t ever keep anything from your Mom remember you can tell her anything she loves you know matter what.
      I bet you will become a doctor or teacher Andre you will help children with similar issues like dyslexia. PLEASE keep us updated.

  • Gussie

    My son can figure out geometry solutions without writing each step out. His teacher insists he has to write it out. He says he can’t write them out. What do I do to help?

    • Abigail Marshall, DDAI webmaster

      This is a very common problem, because dyslexics usually think mostly with visual imagery, but can have a hard time translating their thoughts to words. It gets even harder when mathematical symbols are involved. Geometry is particularly hard to put into words, because it is all about understanding shapes — so a picture-thinker may find that it is easy to see the answer in their mind but have no clue how to explain it.

      Here is what Davis Facilitators do to help: we use clay to model mathematical symbols and their meanings, and to model the meanings of common words used in math problems. The key is to give the person the ability to think with the words and symbols they need to write out an equation or a proof.

      My son had similar problems. I talked to him about how he would need to learn to write out his steps sequentially if he wanted to learn to write a computer program or code –that helped to motivate him. Otherwise, it seemed to him like a waste of time – why write things out when in his mind, the answer was already obvious? I would watch him do his homework in algebra and he would write down the problem, then write down the answer, and then work backward up the page to show the steps in between.

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