On Compensation Learning (Dyslexia & Asperger’s)

I was first introduced to dyslexia in greater detail through a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David & Goliath”. Gladwell talks about “capitalization learning”. Our boy Desmond does this; he learns and operates using the areas he’s gifted in. Stephanie is much the same way, she learns by leveraging what she is gifted in. And when you think about it, there’s high degree of probability you do too.

Dyslexics don’t have that luxury.

From an early age, there’s things which are fundamental that are simply out of our grasp. Think for a moment how young you were when you first started to read at school, how much you had to read at school, and how much reading was valued at school. It’s an integral part of the education system and life as a whole. Because of this, dyslexics simply cannot capitalize in the same way. Factor in the young age this all happens in, it can be devastating for kids with dyslexia and they may never recover from what happens to them.Yet, as Gladwell points out, there’s an unusually high number of successful people who are dyslexic. Tom Holland, Steve Jobs, Sir Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Nikola Tesla, and many, many more. The list is large and rather impressive, and there’s a common theme that runs throughout. What all dyslexics who do well (or even “well enough”) end up doing is called “compensation learning”; we compensate by honing a specific skill (or a small set of skills), refining it in the fires of our trials until it becomes a weapon unsurpassed.

These differ depending on the person. One might compensate by becoming an expert at improvising, using one’s body to communicate, and developing a genius sense of humor top mentally cope. If this sounds like a great skillset for a comedic actor, you would be correct; so try not to be shocked to find out that Jim Carrey ( “….it’s amazing how blank a script will be. It just says ‘Jim does something funny’….”) is dyslexic. Another might compensate by studying body language, including how to anticipate what movements meant what. Learning how to determine the intent of others by their words and their motions. These would be incredibly useful skills for both a civil rights activist and a professional boxer, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Muhammad Ali was also dyslexic.

Going down a list of famous dyslexics, when you encounter dyslexics in your every day travels, it’s the same familiar story. “Compensation learning”.

For some time I knew I was gifted with pattern recognition and analysis, along with lateral thinking. In my early years there were a couple of people (a special shoutout to my mom, who may not realize how much she fostered this when I was younger) who helped foster these gift’s. Now not only can I see how that got developed, but also how reliant I am on it. Everything from getting information off a paper before my brain shuts down to searching for information efficiently to determining the algorithms used by spellcheck in order for the words I’m trying to use showing up correctly to learning software applications quickly because of familiar interfaces. It turns out having enormous difficulty reading, spelling, and writing can result in someone constantly looking for patterns to make their lives easier and to learn things. It also can result in someone learning to think outside the box to come up with solutions because the conventional is impossible.

It goes beyond academics and the workforce though. People with Asperger’s (now folded under Autism Spectrum Disorder) often struggle in social situations. This ranges from saying highly inappropriate things without thinking (me), thinking something is funny but it’s not (me), not being able to “read” people’s emotions (me), monologuing (me), not liking crowds (me), not wanting to be touched (me), sensory overload (me), not able to make or keep eye contact (me), lack of impulse control (me) – just to name a few. Both dyslexia and Asperger’s can result in someone requiring more time to process things (me).

After my diagnosis, some folks who have experience with this kind of stuff told me that they weren’t surprised. Others though, they couldn’t believe it. They thought that I was socially adept or even socially proficient. Neither is the case; what has happened is I have leveraged my pattern analysis skills towards social situations. There’s often a pattern in the way people talk, and a pattern to their body language. I’ve figured out a lot of those patterns, and that’s how I’ve been able to survive when being in social situations. The catch with this is if I don’t have enough time to figure out the pattern or if I don’t have enough time to process things, that’s when the items from the previous paragraph rears their head.

I was asked a few times now how I felt about all of this. There’s a part of me concerned because although now I know about myself being autistic/Asperger’s, there’s still going to be several times where I have those “you can’t say Asperger’s without saying ass” moments. But more importantly, I feel revitalized, moving forward with knowledge and fully accepting my identity as both a dyslexic and an “aspie”.

Dyslexia giving me the skills required to live with Asperger’s.

Initially inexplicable, yet most likely reality.

Until next time, courage.

(Please don’t ask me how long it took to write this stuff, because the answer is “way longer than I’d like to admit”).

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