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We can’t cure dyslexia, but greater understanding of its impact can enable us to help clients more effectively.


We can’t cure dyslexia, but greater understanding of its impact can enable us to help clients more effectively. I spent ten years as a member of the specialist dyslexia team at Ellesmere College, a boys’ public school. I also taught at the Oswestry & District Dyslexia Self-Help Group, Acton Reynald Girls’ School, and several private pupils (though the majority of these pupils were not dyslexic, merely further back in the queue when the intellect was dished out!). It has been estimated that as many as one in ten people are dyslexic (dyslexic, not ‘dyslectic’!). Significantly, this proportion is far higher when applied to the prison population.

Like any other syndrome, the severity of dyslexia varies from one ‘sufferer’ to another, with some being only mildly affected while others experience major problems. Dyslexia can be suspected when a person of average or above average general intelligence has unusual difficulty coping with written words. This is why dyslexia has been described as ‘word blindness’. It affects both reading and writing (spelling and letter formation). These difficulties are often accompanied by poor short-term memory, disorganisation and poor coordination – clumsiness. Research has indicated that there is a connection between the degree of dyslexia and the comparative size of the left and right lobes of the brain. In most people these lobes differ in size; the smaller this difference, the greater the likelihood or severity of dyslexia.

Not surprisingly, the syndrome tends to occur in family groups; a key question in any test for dyslexia is, “Does any member of your family have similar problems?” This factor also explains why the condition, however well compensated in some individuals, is lifelong – no one ‘grows out of it’, and it can’t be ‘cured’. When I was teaching dyslexic teenagers I struggled to imagine what it must be like to be dyslexic – written words had always been so easy for me. As a child, I had piano lessons; I didn’t practise enough, always found it a struggle and gave up in my mid-teens. It never ceases to amaze me how musical people can look at a piece of written music and know what it should sound like when played. I am even more amazed by the way a pianist can look at all those black blobs and know exactly what keys their fingers should be striking, several at once, changing in rapid succession! This is the nearest I could get to understanding how dyslexia feels – and the intelligent 17-year-old dyslexic to whom I suggested it confirmed that it was a good analogy.

The main significance for us, as hypnotherapists, is the effect that dyslexia is likely to have had on our clients. Some, particularly older clients, may never have been ‘diagnosed’, let alone had specific help. Probably the most important single issue that influences our clients and our work with them is that of confidence, whether increasing general ‘life confidence’ or more specific, problem-related confidence (such as confidence that one can become a non-smoker). Dyslexia effectively prevents a person from developing the confidence needed to cope with our complicated (and literacy-based) culture.

We so often need to consider the influences in a client’s childhood in order to understand the problems for which s/he is now seeking our help. The dyslexic child starts school at five, and attempts to learn to read like the other children. It doesn’t work, but he (more boys than girls, so I’ll use ‘he’) can’t understand why. Teachers and parents accuse him of ‘not trying’ – but he knows he is trying, very hard, and the accusation is horribly painful. If he manages to convince them that he is trying, they and everyone else accuse him of being stupid, or ‘thick’ – we all know the unpleasant adjectives applied to our less academic fellows. The dyslexic child doesn’t feel stupid – the more intelligent ones soon realise that they can solve other problems more quickly and effectively than many of their classmates. Why is it, then, that the other children can make sense of those ‘black marks on white paper’ while he can’t? For the dyslexic child, virtually every word is a new word and has to be worked out, whether for reading or writing. For some reason they are unable to remember letter patterns and associations as the majority of us can. Typically, a dyslexic’s spelling will be very phonetic (with interesting variations according to local accents!). As the child grows, and more and more importance is placed on reading skills, and then on writing, the problems worsen. The dyslexic child often becomes an expert at cover-up techniques (just like the anorexic). Avoidance strategies may take hold and result in the unwanted symptoms or behaviour we are asked, often years later, to help eliminate. He will spend far more time and effort than his ‘normal’ friend on a piece of work, but the teacher ‘bleeds all over it’ (comment by a disgruntled dyslexic pupil) and gives a far lower mark. What is the point of trying when the result is only failure and criticism? It is hardly surprising that all this experience, which dominates those all-important formative years, prevents the development of confidence and results in frustration, underachievement and low self-esteem. Almost every lesson life teaches him is ‘you can’t do that – maybe the others can, but you can’t’. Almost every situation is a ‘no win’ situation. Resentment against figures of authority, and against his more fortunate peers, increases steadily.

So, how does this influence the way we should deal with our clients? Hypnotherapy can achieve some wonderful results, but it can’t alter the comparative size of right and left brain lobes! Even clients who have been properly assessed and informed that they are dyslexic may not think to mention the fact. On the other hand some may misuse the title and claim to be dyslexic because they are less bright academically but think ‘dyslexic’ sounds better! I occasionally pick up clues from the initial consultation/assessment form if a potential client makes a mistake when writing his address, or an obviously intelligent client displays very poor handwriting. Whenever a client is suffering from chronic low self-esteem and underconfidence, it makes sense to ask a little about ‘formative years’ experience – doubtless most of us would do this as a matter of course. If it seems likely that dyslexia is a factor, ‘knowing the enemy’ is the key to winning the battle. The people, adults and children, who labelled him ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ were mistaken. He has achieved lots in spite of the problems which he could do nothing to avoid (and were in no way his ‘fault’) – though I admit it may sometimes be hard to discover these achievements or to persuade the client of their value! Visualisations, such as the deleting of negative labels and replacing with positive ones from blackboard, whiteboard or computer screen can be particularly effective.*

A client who comes seeking help for the effects of dyslexia will benefit from feeling calm and relaxed when needing to deal with written words, think more clearly and memorise accurately – all of which seems pretty obvious! If we consider that for the dyslexic, these situations are akin to examinations, the sorts of ideas and phrases that we would use with an ‘examination anxiety’ client would be helpful. Like so much of our work, it’s about changing ‘I can’t’ into ‘I can – and I jolly well will!’

* The Self-Esteem Induction in Hypnosis for Change by Josie Hadley & Carol Staudacher makes a good framework.