Adults with dyslexia often go to great lengths to hide their
inability to read and write and can slip through the net partly due
to the fact that they are wrongly thought of as unintelligent.
Carol Daly reports.
The first time I met Paul, he was nervous and apprehensive. Now
in his early 40s, he had been harbouring a secret for most of his
life. He had been too embarrassed to reveal his difficulty to
anyone, even those who were closest to him. Now he desperately
needed help as his marriage had broken down and it was impossible
for him to exist as he had been doing.
Paul did not realise that he was far from alone and that his
problem is shared by many thousands of adults. He could neither
read nor write, and thought that this was because he was of low
intelligence. In fact, Paul is an adult dyslexic who had never been
diagnosed during his years at school and had learned to cope with
his problem in his own way.
He had never been able to send Christmas or birthday cards, to
write a cheque, complete a form, or handle many of the details of
everyday life necessary in a society that places supreme importance
on the written word.
His only financial transactions had been in cash – to pay his
utilities bills he had to go to the relevant offices with money in
his pocket to settle the account. Despite many years of marriage,
his wife had never realised the extent of his problem or that she
was acting as interpreter and scribe for him. Now that she had
left, he was having to learn to manage his daily life as well as
deal with solicitors’ letters and other written materials in
connection with his divorce.
Many adult dyslexics become remarkably adept at concealing their
difficulties from others and may take desperate steps to avoid any
situation in which they might be required to read or write. They
often have phenomenal memories – a necessity for them as they
cannot rely on taking notes. Something as simple as passing on a
telephone message is a nightmare – many people find it impossible
to write down the numbers or the caller’s name, let alone the
purpose of the call.
Demoralising early experiences with teachers and peers can leave
adult dyslexics feeling like outsiders who must conceal their
situation. Some will go to extreme lengths to prevent others from
knowing that they are unable to cope with the written word, and
will pretend to read and understand material. If a challenge is too
great, they may simply abandon the task, leaving many adult
dyslexics at risk of extreme social exclusion.
Although often regarded as unintelligent at school most true
dyslexics are of normal or above-average intelligence. They can be
extremely successful, especially in artistic or creative
Adults with dyslexia are often wary of anything official. They
will avoid form-filling at all costs, either by “losing” the form,
or by creating any distraction that will remove the necessity of
Ironically, the reluctance to explain the nature of their
problem and to ask for help probably creates more difficulties than
the dyslexia itself. It is an amazing moment when an adult dyslexic
discovers that there are others with the same problem. Years of
silence are broken down in the sharing of painful experiences.
There are guilty accounts of the deceit and cunning which have been
necessary to get through life. There are often tears of relief to
find that they are no longer alone.
Eventually, it is possible to laugh about some of these stories.
This creates an enormous improvement in their self-image.
With their talent for spotting possible sources of exposure,
many adult dyslexics will avoid social services as much as
possible, causing themselves unnecessary hardship as a result. But
social workers can be of immense help to adult dyslexics by
reassuring them that their problem is a common one and that adult
education classes are available to assist them.
As their main fear is of humiliation and being made to feel
inadequate, it is important to look for positive achievements in
the person’s life to try to bolster their fragile self-esteem.
There is also a colossal step forward if the person can be gently
convinced that dyslexia need not be a source of embarrassment and
there is no shame in asking for help.
When a dyslexic adult asks for and receives the appropriate
help, it is not only spelling that improves. Social skills,
confidence, understanding of the world, better parenting, more
enjoyment from life and the feeling of normality are other
In addition, by admitting that the difficulty is relatively
common, the adult dyslexic is at last able to drop the subterfuge
that has previously been necessary in order to cope with life. When
they realise that their shameful secret is neither shameful nor a
secret, the doors open to a completely fresh approach to life.
Carol Daly is an adult literacy tutor.