From a Learning Disability to Harvard: My Dyslexia Success Story

Dr. Edward Hallowell shares his inspiring personal journey with dyslexia, as well as tips for diagnosing learning disabilities in adults and children.

Boy diagnosed with Dyslexia sitting with head in hands and stack of books near him outside
Boy diagnosed with Dyslexia sitting with head in hands and stack of books near him outside

Let me tell you about a first-grader who had trouble learning to read.

He entered first grade in 1955 in a public school in a small town on Cape Cod. He had trouble with Dick and Jane and letters, sounds, and words.

His teacher, a kindly woman with white, curly hair, wore lots of powder that sprinkled down on her students as she walked by. She was a human sugar doughnut. Her name was Mrs. Eldredge, and while she was firm in preserving order in the classroom, she never ridiculed or embarrassed anyone.

During reading period, as the students sat at round tables and took turns reading aloud — “See Spot run! Run! Run! Run!” — Mrs. Eldredge went from table to table, listening and correcting pronunciations, sprinkling powder on her students as she passed by. When she came to the boy who struggled with reading, she pulled up a chair and sat down next to him. As he stammered and stuttered, unable to produce the right sounds, Mrs. Eldredge hugged him to her. None of the children laughed at his clumsy reading because he had the enforcer next to him.

I was that little boy. At the end of first grade, I was still a poor reader, and, to this day, I’m painfully slow at getting through a book. I would have benefited from an Orton-Gillingham tutor back then.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Dyslexia?]

The intervention I needed most, though, I got. It was Mrs. Eldredge’s arm, which took the fear out of trying to read. When her arm encircled me, I felt no shame in having my kind of brain. I have a dyslexic brain, a disordered brain, call it what you will. But if it weren’t for Mrs. Eldredge, I wouldn’t have come to enjoy my poor old brain. My brain got me through Harvard as an English major and a pre-med minor. I graduated magna cum laude and went on to medical school, residency, and fellowship. I write books.

None of this would have happened without Mrs. Eldredge’s arm. Even though Mrs. Eldredge now resides in heaven — perhaps sprinkling powder on clouds as I write — she continues to help me. I remember to thank her almost every day.

If you’re born with a brain that harbors dyslexia, I would say, “Lucky you!” You have untestable and immeasurable potential. You’re a surprise package; no one knows what you can do, including you. But I can tell you from years of experience that you can do special things. You have many talents that can’t be taught, and a brain that eludes the predictive powers of our wisest sayers of sooth.

But I would also say, “Watch out!” You need a guide, one who has been down these trails and can show you how to get through the desert and over the mountains. You need someone who will never let you give up, someone who can make you know that there’s more to you than you can show or tell right now.

[The Unlikely Signs of Dyslexia You Should Not Ignore]

You also need a careful, diagnostic workup. You need the benefits of the wonderful treatments for dyslexia. You are lucky to have dyslexia today, because the process of treatment for it is possible now.

Learning Disabilities may be defined as difficulty learning to read and spell that can’t be explained by lack of education, poor eyesight, or deficient mental capacity. If you have dyslexia, you may learn to read, but you will read with difficulty. You will struggle to develop fluency, or the ease reading takes on for people who don’t have the condition. For them, reading becomes as automatic as riding a bike. They don’t have to think about maintaining their balance. That’s what it means to be fluent. But for the dyslexic, fluency is tough to acquire. He can read, but only slowly and only with effort and concentration.

Learning Disabilities affects 15-20% of the U.S. population. It’s common in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Exact figures are hard to come by, but at least 20% of those with ADHD also have dyslexia. Consult a reading specialist to get a definitive diagnosis.

Sometimes people confuse ADHD with dyslexia, but they are different disabilities. Learning Disabilities is a language-based learning disability; ADHD is a deficiency of attention. When you treat ADHD, the symptoms of dyslexia may improve; the new-found capability for paying attention helps in reading. While medication is an effective ADHD treatment, there is no medication that helps dyslexia.

What helps is specialized tutoring. You need to develop phonic awareness, the ability to break down words into their component sounds — symbolized by the letters of the alphabet. Sally Shaywitz, one of the pioneers in dyslexia studies [and author of Overcoming Learning Disabilities], calls this “breaking the code.” Fluency is a problem for a dyslexic. Ask an adult to read something aloud. If he stumbles and stops and starts, most likely he has dyslexia. The good news is that he can be treated, no matter what his age.

While Shaywitz and other experts stress the importance of phonemic awareness, breaking the code, and becoming fluent, British expert Dr. Roy Rutherford offers a new, and still unproven, approach that may be an adjunct treatment for dyslexia. He and his colleagues have developed the Dore method of exercises to stimulate the cerebellum, located at the base of the brain. Rutherford believes that specialized tutoring, the standard treatment for dyslexia, should be combined with cerebellar stimulation for best results.

“Phonological skill is only one part of the problem,” he says. “Training only phonemic awareness is like training only the forehand in tennis. If you practice your forehand for a year, you will develop a superb forehand, but that doesn’t mean you’re a superb tennis player. If you measure excellence at tennis by assessing only one skill, you are obviously not addressing the whole game. So it is with dyslexia.”

As with treating ADHD, it’s important to look for and develop the person’s talents and strengths when treating dyslexia. Otherwise, the dyslexic child or adult will feel that he is stupid. He needs accommodations — books on tape, for instance — to enable him to express the creativity that most dyslexics possess. Whatever the treatment a person receives for either dyslexia or ADHD, promoting his talents and strengths will invigorate the treatment and make it far more valuable.

A dyslexic needs a well-trained, optimistic guide who looks for the positive, and sets up conditions for the positive to emerge. He needs the Mrs. Eldredges and the Sally Shaywitzes of this world, who will smile when you write funny or read upside down or make up words. You need a guide who knows that, without an encouraging arm around you, you’ll collapse, but that with one, you can soar.

Soar where? That is for you to show us. But the dyslexic needs a guide who knows that as he misspeaks, gets flustered, underachieves, makes messes and misses the social cues he is so famous for missing, and puts his shoes on backward, he has a zany angel inside him. If you can keep from believing the bad things ignorant people say about you, I know that you’ll eventually lead those ignorant people to a better world.

Signs of Dyslexia: Children

Reading and writing letters in the wrong order is only one manifestation of dyslexia, and it doesn’t occur in all cases. Other problems experienced by dyslexics include:

  • Learning to speak
  • Organizing written and spoken language
  • Learning letters and their sounds
  • Memorizing number facts
  • Spelling
  • Reading
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Doing math operations Formal testing is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of suspected dyslexia.

Signs of Dyslexia: Adults

The signs listed below are often associated with dyslexia if they seem unusually pronounced, given the individual’s age, educational level, or cognitive abilities. A qualified diagnostician can test a person to determine if he or she is truly dyslexic.

  • May hide reading problems
  • May spell poorly; relies on others to correct spelling
  • Avoids writing; may not be able to write
  • Often very competent in oral language
  • Relies on memory; may have an excellent memory
  • Often has good “people” skills
  • Often is spatially talented – professions include, but are not limited to, engineers, architects, designers, artists and crafts- people, mathematicians, physicists, physicians, and dentists
  • May have difficulty with planning, organization, and management of time, materials, and tasks

[The ADHD-Dyslexia Connection]

From Delivered from Distraction, by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, Copyright ©2004. Published by Ballantine books.

Updated on January 17, 2020

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