Dyslexia, the making of me

When I was 8 I could hardly read or write. Phonics wasn’t being taught in primary schools and I struggled, like seriously struggled. When I did write, every word was spelt wrong, letters were back to front, my writing was huge and it slanted uphill. When I read it took me half an hour to struggle over a single page with a couple of sentences on it.

I was Dyslexic. It wasn’t diagnosed, it wasn’t an overly understood or supported thing in the 1990s education system but it’s what I was.

My parents knew, it ran in the family. They fought and fought for me to have support, none came.

I was the “stupid kid”, no additional support in class was given just the table for those who didn’t try hard enough, those who were “chatterboxes and flutter brains”.

And, until we moved that’s how I felt, stupid. In fact, that’s how I felt for most of my time in school. I compared myself to the other children, I thought I was less than them. Less capable, not as clever and not as good. I felt like I was a bad girl, like I struggled the way I did because I didn’t try hard enough, like it was something that was within my power to control and I chastised myself for not being better.

I was a people pleaser, an extrovert attention seeking dramatist who loved positive reinforcement and the validation of people’s praise. (Obviously I didn’t have that insight at the time 😂). Failing, yes that’s exactly how it felt, was so hard. I would become filled with dread every time I had to do paired reading or my work was handed back littered with red marks.

Then we moved. By the end of year 6 I could finally read. I discovered a love for creative writing, my spelling was still far from brilliant but it was legible and by some miracle I made it into second set at high school across all subjects. Still dyslexic, still undiagnosed but thanks to two brilliant teachers in year 5 and 6 and the constant support and encouragement of my parents, I had made it into high school slap bang in the middle lane of achievement.

The feelings of dread however, the panic every time we had to stand and read out loud, the embarrassment at the red marks and the wrong answers, it all remained. I read at a snails pace and still do to this day. Without autocorrect I would be in a total mess. I have no understanding of grammar, learning and following these rules was simply too much for me to process and retain, so instead I pepper my writing with commas and hope for the best.

I compensated for the challenges by becoming even more of an extrovert. The personality trait which was part of me from birth became bigger, louder, more dramatic. Confidence and an “I don’t care what you think of me” attitude, carried me through high school and masked the panic of reading allowed, gaining giggles at my proclamations of “it’s me reading now so don’t forget it’s going to take awhile”. I fronted it out, called out the comments before they could happen and it actually worked, people stopped teasing.

Like many people with dyslexia I thrives in the creative subjects, art, design and drama were my favourites, they came naturally unlike everything else. English literature surprisingly was also a success area, I debated and wrote creatively and would have done even better had my spelling not let me down. Maths, sciences, English language, snore.

I was finally diagnosed at the grand old age of 16, a couple of months before I sat my GCSEs. My mum and dad had pushed and pushed for the assessment throughout my school life and finally it was granted in the hope I would be allowed additional time for reading. The sound of everyone in the room turning over their exam paper whilst I struggled to read through the text for an additional 15 minutes is still enough to make me break out into a cold sweat today.

The time wasn’t granted. My comprehension was too advanced. I was devastated.

When I started high school the head of year told my mum “Danielle won’t achieve 5 GCSEs, she isn’t that sort of child”. Imagine my mothers pride, imagine how she looked at that head of year on the morning I ripped open my GCSE results to be greeted by 11 A* – C grades. 11! After years of struggling, feeling stupid and finding ways to overcome the challenges. After months of revision and more revision and pushing down deep inside of me the panic when people’s papers turned and I was still reading the exam text, I had achieved 11 GCSEs and was off to college to study art, design and media.

Over the years my dyslexia has faded and become less and less evident. The experience of living with it undiagnosed for so long though helped to shape who I am. Would I be such a confident person had I not faced those challenges? Would I have the career I have if I hadn’t had to fight to progress my entire school life? Would I have the confidence to share things the way I do on my blog had I not spent high school developing my “I don’t care what you think of me” attitude? Would I be the person I am today without having grown up an undiagnosed dyslexic?

The UK school system failed so many children, dyslexia was completely unrecognised for so long and even today it seems it’s a postcode lottery on the support you receive. Their are lost generations of people who are intelligent, creative people who were made to feel stupid and less than simply because they couldn’t spell or read or learn in the way they were expected too, because they didn’t fit into the mould. It’s still the case today for so many and it’s frightening.

As a mother I am now on the opposite side of the story. I am the one who must now be the advocate, who must support my son, encourage him to not compare himself, to not worry that he works slower and finds reading and spelling a challenge, to not care what people think. The difference in 2019 though compared to my mothers experiences in the 90s is the support. I am sure it’s not every school but our school is unreal. The understanding of how children with dyslexia need to be taught, the challenges they face at retaining and grouping information, the compensations which need to be made for them and the techniques to help them thrive and develop foundations for them to grow from, it has blown my mind.

I have learnt more in the past year about a condition I’ve had my entire life than I have ever understood before. The difference I see in the education system now to when I was sat, sweaty palmed, knotted stomach waiting to painfully struggle through paired reading, is monumental.

My son compares, he struggles, he cries. It’s devastating, especially as I know exactly how he feels. But with the support he receives at school, the insight I have and the knowledge my husband opened my eyes too, that is, the fact I wouldn’t be who I am were it not for the struggle, that positive character traits can be born from difficult circumstances, I know he will make it through.

Whether he gains GCSEs or a vocational skill, no matter what happens, the support in education is finally there, the understanding is there and I will always be evidence to him that having dyslexia doesn’t make you stupid it makes you the most wonderful version on you.

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