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A Dyslexic boy in a Trojan horse

‘Come in’, said the Well Known Educational Psychologist. We did. ‘Please sit down’, she said, and we did. She didn’t waste time, and quite right too. We wanted to know.

‘Tom and I have had a very interesting afternoon.’ That sounded bad.

‘He’s a very able child indeed’. That sounded worse, because it came with the emphatic pause that always indicates a big ‘but’.

In the pause I wondered why we’d done this. Why we’d taken a little boy out of the woods and out of his playground to have someone fumble inside his head with blunt tools: indices, probes, inventories, and assumptions about normality.

‘He’s quite dramatically dyslexic, I’m afraid.’ My wife shared her fear. There was a lot of it sloshing around. ‘But his IQ is so high that he’ll be able to use lots of coping strategies. And he’s still very young: there’s lots that can be done.’ And she told us what it was. Regulations could be invoked, tribunals could be convened, cards could be flashed, phonemes could be chanted. He could be imprinted like other children. It would just take longer. It would be hard work, for Tom and for us, but there was every reason to be hopeful of a ‘good result’.

And what the hell did that mean? I asked myself. I was too polite to ask her. I didn’t want a result. I wanted my son.

My wife wasn’t so polite, but, between sobs, she put it more diplomatically. ‘What outcome can we expect?’

‘Oh, functionally normal or near normal, if we’re lucky. There’s everything to play for.’

In everything I’d ever thought and written I’d battled against the normal, and here I was, paying good money to have someone mutter gravely that if we played our cards right and poured time and tears into our new Project (previously known as Tom), he might turn out to be the same as everyone else. Professional psycho-surgeons might be able to cut out, like a cancer caught early, that which makes Tom Tom.

‘We’ll do whatever’s necessary’, said my wife.

‘Will we, indeed?’ I wondered. And I still do.

Tom’s not great at reading. He prefers to talk, draw, hunt for stag beetles and Roman arrowheads, track badgers and fight with his siblings. I get occasional glimpses through his eyes, and I’m awestruck. The awe’s not just an artefact of paternal love, or a romantic pre-lapsarian view of childhood. There’s something extraordinary going on. He lives a poem that I can only stutter. He, somehow, grabs the whole of things: his grammar is context. I’m a nerd: my grammar is grammar.

I have five non-dyslexic children, and therefore five controls. So what I’m describing isn’t just childhood: it’s something intimately to do with Tom’s dyslexia.

‘That’s all fine’, say our kind friends, ‘but wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could explore the dazzling world of literature too? Just think what an imagination like his would make of Tolkien or, eventually, King Lear.’

But can we have both? I’m not so sure. I know that I’ve tried, and that I’ve failed. When I see a tree, it’s clothed with other peoples’ written descriptions of trees. The tree itself is more or less invisible. But not for Tom. There’s nothing vicarious about his world. He sees for himself, and seems to see far more of the real tree than I do. Not for him the neat, prescriptive relationship between word and reality that defines and suffocates me and the world into which we’re trying to force him. Because he sees for himself he is himself in a way that I’ve never been myself.

Of course language is important to him. He’s a highly verbal boy, and he’s a very human boy. Language is central to what it is to be human. When Homo first became sapiens, she spoke. Language both facilitates and connotes relationship: between person and person, person and thing, and thing and thing. The relationship between a leaf and a water droplet can exist, at least in part, because it can be described. And without relationship we’re nothing. Language is the key to the dazzling nexus of relationships that we call the World; a nexus in which we exist, if we exist at all, and of which we consist, if we thrive at all.

So I don’t want Tom to be an alingual dreamer. You need your Broca’s area to dream exhilaratingly.

But writing? As a writer, I’m really not sure about writing.

Isn’t writing about control? About taming the universe? About reducing it to chewable chunks? Isn’t it, in short, about making the world something that it is not; and, importantly, making it much, much less than it is? About making it, narcissistically and bloody boringly, in our own image.

Books smell of dust, which is what we’re made of. A book about the sea smells of dust. The sea smells of itself. Most of us smell the sea through the sea-books that we know. That’s a shame. And it gives you debilitating spiritual asthma.

Writing, on balance, does nasty things. God, for instance, only turns malignant when he or she is squeezed between the pages of a book and his/her anatomy described in chapter and verse numbers. It’s not surprisingly that someone constricted so uncomfortably gets grumpy and dogmatic.

Where does this leave Tom? Well, in a world that knew the real value of stuff, at a massive advantage.

But the cold, shrill voice of reality (a.k.a. that of my wife) cuts in: he’s got to earn, hasn’t he? He’s got to play the game. What’s the point of being a gilded visionary with an unrivalled facility for holistic appropriation of the essence of things if you can’t read or pay your gas bill? Don’t sacrifice the poor lad on the altar of your own romantic conceits. He’s not a prophet, for goodness’ sake: he’s a snotty-nosed boy with a bit of unfortunate neuronal mis-wiring and, unless we do something about it pretty damn quick, a terribly troubled future. In your doting, you’re seeing a neurological disadvantage as a triumph: that’s understandable, but perverted.

There are many answers to these points, most of them rude, and all of them regularly delivered at high volume. But here’s the most moderate.

If we can legislatively and in other ways craft (and we can) a society that accommodates and even celebrates disability, is it really so fanciful to think that we can learn to deal with and support ability too?

It’s not fanciful, but it is ambitious. Someone with paraplegia doesn’t present a threat to our society’s presumptions. Nobody pretends that paraplegia is a good thing. It’s easy to measure the difference between undesirable paraplegia and desirable normal legs, and therefore easy, at least in principle, to work out what to do to narrow the gap. But, more importantly, an aspirational paraplegic pleases us. It’s flattering when someone tries hard to be more like us.

But with Tom and his kind it’s rather different. He’s coming to society and saying: ‘I see the whole more clearly than you do. I see connections where you see only unrelated, atomistic entities. You could have been like me, once, but you’ve blown it. You can only measure the world: I can taste it.’

That’s an unpalatable submission. It’s particularly unpalatable to a reductionist society that defines cognitive worth in terms of ability to jump through hoops visible only to the left brain’s mean and narrow eye. (He’d have a much happier reception in India. Or Glastonbury. Or any pub session where they were playing old tunes on fiddles and whistles. Or any campfire anywhere). And so it might be tactically necessary, in the short term, to present Tom’s case as one of disability – while keeping quiet about what it really is. And then hope that the world will eventually wake up, and learn what it has to learn from the Toms.

Other disability lobbyists have shown the way. Congenital cognitive ‘compromise’ isn’t like paraplegia. The people who have it, and the people who know them, challenge the validity of the usual markers of worth. Sure, X might have a thinner than average cerebral cortex, but cortical width isn’t the measure of man. To be cortically slim isn’t to be less human, but to be differently human. And anyone who is different from us is a valuable teacher.

This sort of talk is sometimes mocked as political correctness. But mockery isn’t argument. It’s an acknowledgment of the absence of a contrary argument.

So: at the moment, ‘different’ will have to be the label. It can be the Trojan Horse that allows Tom to steal into the citadel. May he soon seize it. It’d be a happier and more interesting place if he did.

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19 Comment on this post

  1. I’m sorry, but no.

    This whole entry just reads like a bad rationalization of a potentially debilitating condition. First of all, books are not constraining and that dust, that you put down, is a connection to a memory of times spent with books. Second, books and literature are a gateway to the imagination. In my time reading I have been in the past, in the future, in different galaxies, with different societies, on travels that would boggle your mind or terrorize your soul. These journeys of mine would not be possible with just an oral presentation, especially when I’m distracted or caught up in some other moment.

    Also, you do your son a disservice by projecting your thoughts and feelings onto him and then attributing them to him. Your son is his own entity, as you are your own, and trying to say how he sees the world or experiences it is not meaningful because it is coming through your lens of experience and not through his. Not to mention that you’re basically putting down how you and I experience the world to try and bolster your son’s “supposed” view, which does nothing to bridge understanding between him and us.

  2. Thanks to your ability to write you are able, Charles, to share your feelings, intuitions and arguments with others hundreds of miles away. You are also able to benefit from the very act of organising and writing down your feelings, intuitions and arguments – even if no-one reads or replies. Finally, you can also re-read later and reconsider your thoughts – which is much harder for most people to do without having previously written them.
    Why would you want to deprive your son of the possibility of this wonderful ability?

    As I see it you argue :
    1. It’s going to be hard work, for him and you
    2. He has, because of his dyslexia, a special relationship with and a particular vision of the world which is valuable and which he risks losing if he is no longer dyslexic
    3. Writing does nasty things

    I’m sure that you’re right on n°1, but I’m not sure that it’s a good reason for inaction.
    On n°2, you cite your «control» of five other children, but the fact that Tom has dsylexia is not necessarily related to his “living the poem that you can only stutter”. (But your powers of projection might well of course be influenced by your knowledge of his condition)
    On n°3, you’re partially right, but I would maintain that it is the writer and not writing that is to blame. Writing also does wonderful things!

    I trust these polite and low-volume remarks help you and your wife (who’s voice is I guess not that cold and shrill, really) and your son.

  3. I am completely with other commenters here. I know of no evidence that learning to read and write “cuts out, like a cancer caught early, that which makes” somebody somebody. Consider it just a skill, like riding the bicycle, albeit it is maybe the most important skill of all.

  4. Nice prose. I don’t know why you bother if you don’t value it yourself … you could go and smell the sea instead if you like. Thanks to the attention and generosity of your carers, your teachers and the state, you now have many more opportunities open to you than the illiterate ever will. I think it would be a shame if you pull up the ladder behind you.

    “Writing, on balance, does nasty things. God, for instance, only turns malignant when he or she is squeezed between the pages of a book and his/her anatomy described in chapter and verse numbers.”

    That’s a lovely romantic vision, but surely not a good example. I don’ think God was ever really benign. Wasn’t there religious human sacrifice in pre-literate societies?

  5. Thank you to all the commentators. You share my own disability, and, as a fellow sufferer, I thank you for your solidarity with me.
    So: Simon asks: why do I bother writing? Because, sadly, I don’t have a more satisfactory mode of expression.
    Airin likes books. So do I. May we both learn eventually to taste things directly.
    Filip: hardly a matter of evidence, is it?
    Anthony: yes, writing can do wonderful things. But only for people, like me, whose senses are pretty badly damaged. It’s better than nothing, but a lot less good than the relationship with reality which Tom still has. It’s good supportive therapy for the very badly disabled. But it’s better not to be disabled. And it’d be terribly dangerous to give that therapy to someone who wasn’t already disabled.

  6. I am dyslexic (I don‘t much like using the word). I left school in the mid-60s, so the ‘condition’ was not recognised and I managed to get just one O level in art and ended up in art school. It was great, but I had lots of other interests, so in six frantic years I became inter alia a commercial diver, studied computing at a poly, became a student psychiatric nurse; ran my own business; developed an interest in philosophy and logic, and was accepted to read philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge (still with only one O level!); went on to get four postgrad. degrees (inc. two Ph.Ds); worked in the casino industry; was a Probation Service community service officer; had another two businesses (one a farm); spent another 10 years working in mental health; did a few years lecturing in the philosophy technology; and have completely renovated (done the real work) three listed houses. I am now finishing the last house and think my next project might be some research into the philosophy of biology at Exeter. (Oh yes, I am also finishing a book).

    Now I am not suggesting that Tom should or will have such a strange life as mine (can’t really call it a career); but I have managed to pay the gas bills and a lot more besides. .I have no doubt that my somewhat unconventional life stems from my dyslexia. It has been very difficult at times and some of my academic work would have been easier without it. But without it I do not think I would have acquired an interest in philosophy, and without that I would not have improved my literacy, which in turn increased my understanding of philosophy….and so on..

    I was fortunate not to be diagnosed with dyslexia whilst at school and treated as being disabled (I have never asked for “special” examination conditions at university). If your son is intelligent the notion that he will at best be ‘functionally normal or near normal’ is pseudo-scientific claptrap. You can spend time and money and worry yourself sick to make your ‘Project…the same as everyone else’, but you would, I believe, be harming Tom. Of course he will need help and encouragement to develop interests that will lead him to reading and writing, and this will mean he should be kept away from anyone who can only aspire to make him functionally normal or near normal. Normalising dyslexics, along with most other human beings that show signs of being ‘different‘, robs them of their projects and world.

    Some of your observations of Tom’s world are insightful if somewhat romanticised (I can‘t stand Glastonbury and the fiddles and whistles). He might well develop an interest in literature, or he might have insights into grammar and context that lead him to Wittgenstein and philosophy. I also know of many great scientists that were not too hot on the reading. He might become a plumber or carpenter. Who knows? But please do not submit to what you describe as the ‘tactical necessity, in the short term, to presenting Tom’s case as one of disability’. I am not even sure I like the word ’different’ anymore since it has been appropriated by the PS brigade. How about not labelling him. It saddens me when I meet children who label themselves as dyslexic and their parents explain their disability and what special teaching they must have to read normally. When I say that I am dyslexic they look surprised. ‘Are‘, they say, ’but you are different’. How different can a guy get?

    1. Keith: many thanks. I agree entirely with your third paragraph.
      I’d hoped I dealt, by way of pre-emptive strike, with the nasty allegation of hyper-romanticism.
      Very sadly, not labelling isn’t possible. If it were possible, I’d have no worries at all. But the nerds rule, and so labels are inevitable. The only strategy, therefore, is subversion.

  7. We all have to use a few labels, all I am saying is avoid them as much as possible. Remember it is the nerds that come up with Tom might be ‘functionally normal or near normal.’ The best way to subvert that is to stop believing in such nonsense.

    Anyway – good luck.

  8. Now that we’ve actually had someone with dyslexia weigh in with his experience that, while he has been able to lead a full and productive life, admittedly some aspects of that life would have been easier to attain without dyslexia, it’s almost unnecessary to read into the subject any further. I am certain beyond a doubt that there are people in the world who have led similarly fruitful if unorthodox lives unburdened with dyslexia, and so it’s completely erroneous to assume that dyslexia is some key factor in leading such a life; to quote from Gattaca, “There is no gene for fate”. Whereas if there’s one other thing we can be certain of then, it’s that dyslexia is actually debilitating but, unlike the vast majority of the near-infinite number of factors that contribute to the course of a human lifetime, is controllable to a degree.

    That said, Mr. Foster seems to have an irrational fixation on a disorder that he makes so many presumptions about the experience of life with, while, ironically, the only real insight he can have into it is through the written experience of people “like” his son, insofar as these people share that singular disorder “labeled” dyslexia (we could also assume that these people are “like” him in that they are presumably homo sapiens, live in the general vicinity of Earth, and aren’t dead, but that way lies pedantry–hmm). If he so utterly despises his experience he juxtaposes this hyper-romanticized, baseless idea of what the future has in store for his son, he ought either to endeavor to ground himself in our “mundane” reality, or leave this small part of his son’s fate in his demonstrably more sane wife and pursue this notion where the only person he can hurt through its pointlessness is himself. Maybe he can try lobotomy, and then tell us about the plight of those missing portions of their brains, that all that extra gray matter had just been weighing us down the whole time!

    1. Lapsed Pacifist. You say, ‘I am certain beyond a doubt that there are people in the world who have led similarly fruitful if unorthodox lives unburdened with dyslexia, and so it’s completely erroneous to assume that dyslexia is some key factor in leading such a life’. Of course other people can live fruitful lives without (I do not see it as a burden) dyslexia, but I can assure you that my somewhat unorthodox life was shaped by dyslexia. That is a simple statement of fact.

      Not sure what you mean by dyslexia is ‘controllable’. It is certainly possible to improve literacy but that is not the same as control. For sure dyslexia can sometimes be ”debilitating’. The point I was trying make is that dyslexia does have its advantages and that I am worried the ‘nerds’, as Charles calls them, cannot understand them and are taking a medicalised approach to it by treating it as something to eradicate, cure or normalise.

  9. Thank you, Lapsed Pacifist. I’ve actually gained very little insight from ‘written experience of people ‘like’ my son.’ That, of course, is what one would expect. The experience of the world about which I’m talking is, by definition, not one that can be reduced to writing. That’s one of the main points of my post. As I say in the post, my understanding of the universe of a dyslexic boy comes almost entirely from spending time with him.

    1. Charles

      On a philosophical point I must take issue that these experiences cannot be expressed in writing. Not possible to discuss here – its all to do with Wittgenstein and private languages. I grant you that its on the limits of language but I do not think we have to pass over it in silence.

  10. Keith: many thanks for your further comments. Very interested in what you say about ‘private languages’, and would like to hear more.

    1. Not sure it is possible to engage in any meaningful discussion about the private language problem here. (I also live in the wilds of Devon and have had to deal with about 100mm of rain in the last three days!)

      I have found W’s work and subsequent debates into the problems of rule-following, what it is to be the ‘same‘, and private languages useful when considering dyslexia and some so-called abnormal mental conditions. They are also essential when considering the foundations of psychology and cognitive science.

    2. Not sure it is possible to engage in any meaningful discussion about the private language problem here. (I also live in the wilds of Devon and have to deal with 100mm of rain in the last three days!) I have found W’s work and subsequent debates into the problems of rule-following, what it is to be the ‘same‘, and private languages useful when considering dyslexia and some so-called abnormal mental conditions. They are also essential when considering the foundations of psychology and cognitive science.

      1. Also have lost broadband speed (0.1mbs!) which means it is difficult to post. Sorry hit the ‘post’ button twice because it did not upload.

  11. Good Heavens – you intellectuals certainly make problems for yourselves! Lisdexia is no more of a problem than a Birthmark on your butt or being left-handed. It’s merely an unbiased ocular orientation associated with left-handedness. Victorian parents suffered the same anguish about their children being left-handed. Its not an issue. In fact, it’s more of a neurosis of parents. Do NOT take your son to the shrink; do NOT have long, concerned talks with his teachers; do NOT put on a worried face when Tom only looks at the pictures while reading The Adventures of Rupert Bear. Most of all, do NOT inflict your worries about such trifles on your Tom. Just tell him to get on with the washing-up.

    Of all the non-physical disabilities a child can have, the worst is having a moral blind-spot. Sadly, this is mostly induced by poor parenting, the consequences of which are rarely recognised by the parents themselves. Make sure your parental ambition doesn’t become your child’s problem. Right now, your Tom doesn’t have a problem – and never will have, so long as you can get him to finish the washing-up.

  12. Justin: how very good to see you here.
    A birthmark doesn’t (necessarily) determine your view of the world. Dyslexia does. It is not a ‘trifle’.
    Reactions to dyslexia have embodied in them judgments about which view of the world is correct, or at least preferable. Children are taken to psychologists because it is is perceived that the dyslexic view of the world needs to be corrected. I happen to think that this is wrong: hence the post.

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