You might have heard that people with dyslexia have trouble reading and writing because they see words backwards or jumble the letters. But this is one of the popular myths unpacked in a new HBO documentary called “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia.”
Filmmaker James Redford spotlights his own family’s struggle with dyslexia. At age six, his son Dylan couldn’t even spell his own name. His mother – a teacher – was deeply disappointed she wouldn’t get to share her love for education with her son as she had imagined.
“Boy, I got slammed really early on,” she said. “He didn’t learn the alphabet. His friends were sailing right past him.” Evaluators refused to diagnose Dylan as dyslexic until third grade; meanwhile, he spent two years struggling in school and inside, with waning self-esteem.
By the time he got to high school, Dylan immersed himself in sports, and art became his “safety zone.” Still, he could not manage one of the basic daily functions of school that most of us take for granted – opening his locker – because remembering the both number combination and direction was more than his brain could process. Dylan persevered and is now a student at Middlebury College.
In “Rethinking Dyslexia” many famous and successful people “come out” as dyslexic, including billionaire businessmen Richard Branson and Charles Schwab, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and attorney David Boies, who has argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
James Redford says he wanted to make the film he wished had been available when his son was first diagnosed with dyslexia, one that would offer understanding and hope. The Big Picture uses humor and animation to show what goes on inside the brains of people with dyslexia. And it celebrates the achievements of those who make it despite their disabilities. But the film doesn’t tell the story of those children left behind or those who got lost along the way, like kids from poorer families and substandard schools, kids who might hide their disability or drop out of school and find themselves in the pipeline to prison. The “big picture” of dyslexia cannot possibly be solely a story of triumph against the odds.
It’s clear that the young people profiled in this film had tremendous support from their families who acted as passionate advocates on their behalf. If there’s any lesson here it’s that parents, too, must do more than they ever expected in order to help their children navigate the educational system.
And young people have to develop strategies that work for them, whether its listening to books on tape, making lists or depending on flash cards. Boies said that because of his dyslexia, he became a great listener and he learned “to speak without notes, because I couldn’t read the notes…Because learning is hard, it forces you to rely more on thinking.”
That’s one of the positives of dyslexia identified by Dr. Sally Shaywitz of The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. People with dyslexia are typically slow readers, horrible spellers with shockingly bad handwriting, but, says Shaywitz, they are also out-of-the-box thinkers who show tremendous creativity and critical thinking skills. She calls this “the paradox of dyslexia … an island of weakness surrounded by a sea of strengths.”
The big takeaway of “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” is time. Children and adults with this developmental learning disorder need extra time to read, to write and to process information. That’s an enormous challenge in our highly caffeinated culture that puts a premium on speed. The rest of us have got to learn to be patient (and kind.) Slow and steady wins the race.
“The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” premieres on HBO Monday, Oct. 29 at 7 pm.
Center Director Julie Drizin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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