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PERSPECTIVE: Although the writer was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 17, a lack of support meant he struggled with writing, and was nearly kicked out of university.
He shares his story — of growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia, being told to “just try harder” as a struggling primary schooler, not knowing what to do about his eventual diagnosis, and sinking to a low point in life after his second year at university before finally finding the help he needed to manage the condition.
Through this article, he hopes to convey the following message:
“If there’s any take away you get from this article, I hope it’s this: dyslexia is common, it’s not a big deal, especially if diagnosed early. If you have the resources for it and any meaningful concern, please get yourself or your child tested, because it’s so much easier to deal with when you know you have it.
It’s not a disease, but unlike what Richard Branson says, it’s not a superpower, it’s just a thing that some people have, and it can, mostly, be worked with.”
For this article, I spoke to my parents about the first time my dyslexia was ever raised, or at least that I was aware of.
We remember different things about it, sometimes wildly so.
We both remember someone — though we can’t agree who — in primary school saying my grades were slipping, that they thought I was slow in school, not trying hard enough, and needed to apply myself more.
I remember mum saying there was nothing wrong with me, and mum remembers bringing me for a dyslexia test that ended up inconclusive. (She says it was more of a questionnaire than a test).
Either way, I was not diagnosed with dyslexia at that time, and it wasn’t brought up again for nearly a decade.
We were all wrong — I was dyslexic.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty primarily affecting the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling, as the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) says on their website.
It is sometimes difficult to articulate, but a common description, and also the one I’m asked most often about, is whether words slide off the page, or if numbers rearrange themselves in front of my eyes.
I’ve never experienced that, and I don’t know anyone who has. I only became aware of it as a “thing” because of Dilbert creator Scott Adam’s own description of his condition.
For me it can just be described like this: It’s like trying to gather fine sand on the beach with your hands.
It’s not impossible, but you see so much of it slip out of cupped hands, off the sides, blown away by the wind.
Sometimes, while writing, I’ve felt ideas just slip away, never to be found again.
I remember (and frankly, memory is not my strong suit) the educational psychologist that diagnosed me finding a significant difference between my verbal and non-verbal reasoning ability.
I like to joke that my IQ goes down 40 points when I stop talking.
There are many stories I can tell about my difficulties. About endless hours of frustration and tears, both on my part and on the part of my parents. Vast amounts of time and money thrown into tuition with barely any impact.
Endless hours of teachers telling my parents I had to just *try* harder, but there was no more time to try with.
Let me tell you about the last time this happened. It has a nice ending.
It involves the time I nearly dropped out of university.
A-Levels in the UK
I was diagnosed with dyslexia properly at 17. I had basically failed to get into JC in Singapore and my dad, who had seen me struggle my entire school life, had known this day was coming and sent me to the UK to do my A-Levels.
I’m aware of the immense privilege I have. After all, I nearly blew it.
In the UK, they’ve been dealing with dyslexic kids for ages.
And if you end up in a private school with a class size of eight, it becomes very hard for teachers to ignore the fact that the kid who can speak eloquently about their subjects can’t seem to get anything else done properly.
They knew I understood the concepts they taught, but no test, exam, or other assessment seemed to reflect it. They knew this was a classic symptom of dyslexia and insisted I be assessed.
The assessment led to a diagnosis, but I had no idea what it meant.
Now, it’s very obvious what I should have done, I should have gone to find an expert to run me through line by line what the dyslexia assessment meant.
But that didn’t occur to me — after all, I did well enough in school to get into a good university after I completed National Service (NS).
During NS, I put my dyslexia aside, mistakenly thinking this was a “school problem”. Three years later, I was back in school, dyslexic, with no understanding of what that actually entailed.
Then, someone in the admin office picked up on a passing mention of my diagnosis, and I had the assessment done again. The university set up a meeting with a in-school specialist to help me, and she asked me a question that I didn’t recognise the gravity of:
“What can we do to help you?”
I don’t remember what I said, but I do know that I had no idea how to assess my own needs, let alone how to answer that question. At that point I didn’t even know what I needed to ask.
This would end up being the most difficult lesson and the most important one: to recognise the limitations of self-assessment, and to realise what is normal for *you* might not be “normal”.
I didn’t learn it that day, I’m not sure I’ve learnt it now. But at least I am aware of “normal” things that aren’t “normal” for most people.
I went on with no actual help. I had extra time for exams, something I did not need. But I couldn’t write an essay to save my life.
Trying to move a desert with only your hands
I could write words. For every thousand words I needed, I must have written three thousand. But no ideas knitted together without massive amounts of time, everything was a garble or paragraphs with half formed ideas that couldn’t easily connect to each other.
It was like trying to move a dessert with only your hands.
Let’s just say many essays didn’t get done.
At the end of my second year in university, I was broken.
I could not figure out what was wrong. I did not understand why, when I spoke to people about my essay topics, ideas flowed easily, but the moment I paused to record it, either in type or in audio, it fell apart.
I failed almost every single module I was doing that year, save for the ones where I had done so well in my exams that I didn’t need the essay to pass.
That’s the thing: I was doing fine, even exceptionally well, for written examinations. Dyslexia, as I experience it, is always a dichotomy of some things being very easy and other things being impossibly hard, and no logical reason why.
I shut myself off from friends and the world outside, believing that every single hour of enjoyment, of sun, of even classes, was one less hour to write.
But I was always one hour away from the thousand words that would be the answer, I just had to keep banging away at it. Sometimes it worked, sometimes the extra hour was the salvation. It was the only solution I ever found at the time, so I kept at it, frightened to death that any deviation would rob me of the only possible way out.
I stopped calling home, I stopped talking to friends; I was so embarrassed. I had this wondrous opportunity to study a subject that I was passionate about — to do it overseas no less — and I knew I was wasting it.
Yet, I couldn’t even explain how. If I had turned to drink at least I could have blamed the alcohol.
I felt totally alone.
I had a ticket to go home in December. The university essentially told me they were going to flunk me. I was done.
And in that moment, I was completely lost. I felt that my future had fallen away, that everything that I, that my family, had worked for, had fallen away, and everything had come to naught.
I didn’t know how I was going to face up to my parents, and in that moment, I would have done almost anything to avoid it.
When I got home, mum was apoplectic. Dad didn’t say anything to me for a while.
I sat at home, wondering what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Diagnosis: A context to understand my difficulties
The DAS holds workshops for sufferers of dyslexia, but just as importantly, for their parents.
They know that for every child suffering from the condition, they need to educate the parents — often the ones who notice symptoms, and who feel its impacts just as keenly.
Children are children. They have no idea that what they’re going through is abnormal, all they know is the difficulty.
Mum and dad went to the workshops while I wallowed in misery. They spoke to everyone they could.
After a couple of weeks (that felt like forever for me), they were referred to an educational psychologist at DAS. He read a copy of my diagnosis and demanded a meeting with me as soon as possible.
I wasn’t just dyslexic. It turned out that I was very dyslexic.
It was only then, when he went line by line with me, explaining every single part of the diagnosis and how my dyslexia would present itself, that I finally internalised what was going on.
I explained it to an old friend of mine four or five months later, and what really hammered it home for me was the look of realisation on his face. He had been with me for many hours of tuition, and he had always known how frustrating I was for our teacher.
He said there was finally a reason for all I had gone through, all that I had experienced. A context in which to understand my difficulties.
Learning to ask for the help I needed
I went back to school the next semester. I now had enough knowledge to ask for the help I needed, and no longer felt the shame of asking stupid questions.
I had a condition, there was no question too stupid anymore.
I went from failing to getting a Second-lower. The final term, I was trending towards a First.
I finally learnt how to organise information for essays in a way that made sense for me. I’m still working on the system, but it’s done well enough for me now, going on ten years.
The irony? I took the time to appreciate where I was. I didn’t push myself too hard because I was very afraid of burnout. And the grades I got, while not spectacular, came easy.
Who knows what I would have done if I had known about this in primary school?
Helping to diagnose a primary schooler
When I was overseas, my mum’s best friend’s son had a kid. Mum and dad doted on her, becoming de facto godparents to the girl.
Even at three or four, she was curious and very well spoken, with unmistakable charm and intelligence; dad and her loved to warble away at each other.
But at five, they began to notice something.
Mum had given her all our old books, and wanted to buy her tons of new ones.
But the kid didn’t like reading.
And I think we all felt it: A sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t that she didn’t like it, but that she was actively apprehensive, even hostile, about being asked to read aloud for adults.
I knew she needed to get tested for dyslexia as soon as possible.
Her parents denied that there was anything wrong with her (there wasn’t, she’s just dyslexic) and thought she would grow out of it.
But when she entered primary one, at an elite school, she struggled.
She was distraught, and tuition was being lined up for the six-year-old. To her parents, it was a simple solution. All that was needed was more effort.
My dad wouldn’t have it. He said the parents should take her for an assessment or he would do it, with or without their permission.
He saw so much of my experience in her, and didn’t want someone else he cared about to go through it like I did.
My parents eventually prevailed, and the kid was diagnosed at seven.
She went through specific educational therapy for most of her primary and secondary school life. Today, she’s doing very well in school. But most importantly she’s happy (or, as happy as teenagers get, I guess).
Her parents are very relieved. They now advocate for early testing, and like me, they have their eye out for kids in their social circles that might have need of help.
The kid’s also a voracious reader now, chews through books at an unimaginable rate. Who would have thought?
Someone recently asked me if my dyslexia was cured. They weren’t being insensitive, but they did misspeak to useful effect.
Like all these things, it’s never cured. It’s an actively managed situation. I fall back into bad habits from time to time, and considering I work in a writing-heavy field, it’s very inconvenient when I do. Pity my editors.
I do wish that I had known about my condition earlier, mainly because of the distress and money I would have saved my parents.
Regardless, I consider myself very lucky.
I’ve made very good friends while falling on my face, I found my faith, and I never have to question my family’s love for me, or the belief they have in me.
I have a unique view of the world, I think, and I like to believe I use it moderately well.
I spoke to DAS a few years after they helped me out, and did a brief interview with them. They like to keep tabs on the people they assist. I told the interviewer that I now write for a living.
“Wow!” was his reply. I feel it everyday.
Top image via Tan Min-Wei