From Our Readers Are You Illiterate & Other Questions About Learning Disabilities From Our Readers

What is it like to grow up with both Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?  If you had asked me this when I was a kid, you would not have received any insights; just a blank stare.  It’s not that my parents sheltered me from the fact that I’m wired a bit differently than everybody else; it’s just that I wasn’t diagnosed with either condition until I was older.  More specifically, I have what are called Stealth Dyslexia and ADHD-PI, an inattentive subtype of ADHD.  Their symptoms are mostly internal and easy for parents and teachers to overlook.  I have spent most of my years in school daydreaming and flying under the radar.

Most people hear “Dyslexia” (I just misspelled “dyslexia” 3 times before I got it right, ha ha) and think I see a book like a word jumble game.  That’s true for some, but as you can probably guess from the name, Stealth Dyslexia is a little sneakier than that.  Other people have boldly asked me, “Are you illiterate?”  No, I am actually a good reader.  That’s the main reason I lived an entire childhood unaware of my dyslexia.  Who is going to suspect that the girl who learned the alphabet at a year old and regularly tested above reading level has a learning disability?  Surprisingly, both of those qualities are common among stealth dyslexics.  So I’m a good reader, but it’s only because I (like a lot of dyslexics) have a great memory.  I know how to read because I have memorized what a word, as a whole, looks like.  I can’t sound it out, but I know it when I see it.  My brain used this memory, plus a niche for grammar, as a way to compensate for its own shortcomings.

That’s not to say school came easily to me.  I was able to get by, sure, but I was routinely told that I “wasn’t working to my full potential.”  My grades didn’t reflect how bright my teachers thought I was, but they weren’t bad enough to get a tutor.  This grade limbo is indicative of learning disabilities, but like most of the neon warning signs in my life, it was over-looked until I was diagnosed in high school.  For one, I wrote flawless backwards- you could hold it up in a mirror and read it perfectly.  I’ve always struggled with copying notes, telling time on an analog clock, and hand-eye coordination. I can’t read without a few words jumping down to a line they don’t belong on or reading a word only similar to the one printed.  When I am called on to read in class, my cheeks flush, my chest tightens, and I endure what I’m sure is a heart attack while I read the passage aloud.  I regularly mix up b,d, and p.  I know the answers to basic algebra but I can’t tell you how I got there, leading many math teachers to say, “Well we both know math isn’t your strong suite, you didn’t show your work, and you can’t tell me now how you got the answer.  Of course I think you cheated.”

So no, even with a type of dyslexia that allows me to read above grade level, school did not come easily to me.

And if the way my mind works wasn’t causing me enough trouble, I am one of the 20-24% of people with Dyslexia that who also have ADHD.  ADHD-Predominantly Inattentive, to be exact.  It’s a subtype I’d never heard about, not until I was twenty years old and so deep in self-loathing and resentment over not being able to finish anything in my whole entire life that I started searching the internet (what else?) for answers.  I knew the root of my problems: I couldn’t make myself focus on anything.  And I knew about ADHD, but I’m not hyper.  I decided to Google it anyway, and discovered ADHD-PI.  It is characterized by excessive daydreaming, trouble paying attention to tasks, an inability to listen to or follow instructions, disorganized, forgetful, and easily distracted.  I read through the symptoms, eyes wide, mouth agape, my head nodding as I realized there was a reason why I am the way I am.

The thing about ADHD is that the brain is desperately looking for stimulation, and stimulation is found in things that interest you.  You can become completely absorbed in what you like, and unable to do what is boring or difficult.  This looks very much like a willpower problem, and since I’m not hyper, it didn’t occur to anyone that I was struggling with ADHD.  Instead, it made for endless lectures on effort, motivation, and “If you just applied yourself and stop being so lazy!”  Every time I was told that I wasn’t living up to my potential, I knew I was trying twice as hard as other kids for results that were half as good.  When I was trying my very best for mediocre grades, what other conclusion could I come to except that I’m dumb?

It took a while to get it all figured out, but I’m not dumb; I never was.  Dyslexia does not make you dumb.  ADHD does not make you dumb.  Of course I have plenty of days when I fall into that habit of hating myself because I’m “so stupid.”  A twenty-year old habit is a hard one to break, but I’m trying.  I know my weaknesses: math, physics, computers, any sport involving hand-eye coordination. But I also know my strengths.  I am creative, kind, compassionate, imaginative, insightful, and I have a knack for music.  Oh, you know what?  I’m smart, too.

You can read more from Kelly Moore on her blog.

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  1. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was 28, but I did have the hyper part. Luckily, I was a really good student and loved school, so it never occurred to anyone that I might have ADHD. I spoke out of turn, needed my mom to help me schedule when to do homework, etc. It wasn’t until grad school, when keeping up with both school, research and an apartment made me melt down. It all seemed too hard. Why was my place such a mess? Why could I just NOT START that damn paper? How did I lose my keys in the refrigerator? Just the diagnosis helped things out. I can’t take stimulant medication, though, so it’s a process.

  2. I also have stealth dyslexia and it’s always been the hardest thing for me to explain because I don’t know any differently! All I know is that I can never seem to learn things the way that they were taught in school and that I had to figure them out in my own way. That goes for everything from reading to basic math to understanding certain concepts of theory and philosophy. I just need to take a moment (and in some cases, years) to rework what it is that’s being asked of me or how I can make a simple task possible for me. Once I can figure it out, I can do it just as well, or sometimes even better, than most, but it can be hard to explain to people why I have a hard time being put on the spot or why I sometimes get super quiet and go into my head when something’s being explained to me.

    I’m so glad that you wrote about this– excellent piece about something that I know many of us live with or are affected by!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. It is very similar to my own. I am now working with a nonprofit group in San Francisco to help parents, students and educators understand exactly the strengths that you mention at the end of your blog. This April we are putting on EdRev 2012, Stand Up Speak Out. In its fourth year it is a day of education, celebration and inspiration for students with learning and attention differences(disabilities), their families and the educators that support them. Featuring a keynote program of accomplished adults who struggled in school along with students who are forging their own way in the education system today, over 100 vendor of technology that supports learning for people like us, workshops and a student after party deemed “Learning Man”. to learn more visit EdRevSF.org JOIN US!

  4. Thank you so much for writing this. I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until Junior year of high school, and wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until after college. Few people understand how frustrating it is to be labeled as dumb and an underachiever, even though you thoroughly understand what you’re learning and know you are working overtime. Along with wishing my brain “worked normally,” I used to simply wish I’d been diagnosed earlier so that I’d have known all along that I wasn’t stupid like people insisted – just awesome in different ways. Like you said, it’s hard to keep those “I’m so dumb” thoughts at bay sometimes, but all we can do it try. This is a wonderfully written piece. Thank you!

  5. My sister also has dyslexia, ADD and dysgraphia. Her symptoms are all caused by a disorder known as The Irlen Syndrome. I highly recommend you check this out online. When my mom (after extensive research) found out about this “syndrome”, it was like the world clicked. My sister went through all the necessary testing and now, after being treated for this, she is 100 times better off. One in twelve people have this disorder and most people have never even heard of it. You should diffently check it out. Who knows, this could also be part of what is causing your dyslexia and ADHD.

  6. Story of my life.

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