I always knew I was smart. People always told me so, and I just knew it. Everything, academically speaking, came so easily to me. Math, science, history, geography, even spelling and grammar — they were so simple to me. I never did what I would consider “studying.” I really wasn’t even sure until college what “studying” even was. I just went to class, paid attention and took notes, did my work, did the review, then passed the test — usually with an A, sometimes a B. I never understood what people meant by “studying,” or why it seemed that everyone was always doing it. It didn’t make sense to me why everyone needed to study all the time when I didn’t. I thought everyone was capable of just doing what I did, show up to class, do the work, take the test. So, I knew I must be smart because I understood most things academically and it was so easy for me — except reading comprehension or reading speed tests.
Although I knew I was smart, whenever we had to take reading tests, or read in class — either aloud or silently — I felt dumb. Reading and reading comprehension was always the one academic area that I struggled with. It never made sense to me. I didn’t understand why I was so good at everything else academically, but I was awful at reading. I knew people who had been identified as dyslexic, and I never thought I was. I didn’t have the same problems that they had. I always did perfectly fine with word problems in math, I did fine when having to read small, short sentences or paragraphs for history and geography and other classes too. I was an excellent speller and great at grammar. I also did not have issues writing, as proved by my blog. I always saw exactly what was printed on the page, no letters looked backwards or moved to me. Some dyslexics I know see lights and monitors flickering, I never did. So, in my mind, I must not be dyslexic. I just felt dumb.
I remember having trouble learning to read. I remember one instance when I was about 8 or 9 and listening to and watching a 3 or 4-year-old read a newspaper. I remember my mom being amazed that such a small child could read. I also remember that I was thinking that he probably didn’t know the meaning of what he was reading, but that it seemed he was in fact reading the words correctly — as my mom seemed to think he was. I remember thinking, “Gee, I’m 5 years older than he is and I can barely read a level 1 book. Here he is reading a newspaper!” I felt really dumb, and jealous.
I had what I later found out was a severe social phobia. I never told anyone I had trouble reading until probably high school. I went through all of preschool, elementary, and middle school “faking it” and not telling anyone I struggled. Even through high school and college, even though I had told a few family members, I still never told anyone else; and I never asked for and received any assistance or accommodations. If you read my other blog posts, I talk about my social phobia being so severe that I didn’t see doctors or tell people about other problems I had either. I went through most of my life just living quietly in my own world, just pushing through with all the anxiety.
In school, whenever I had to take a reading test, I was always one of the very last people finished. It was frustrating, physically and mentally painful, exhausting, and very time-consuming for me to read. None of the techniques that teachers would go over to help kids become better readers or to help kids be able to answer the comprehension questions ever helped. So, I started ignoring the lessons on that. I tried reading the questions first like they suggested. That didn’t work because I could never remember what I was supposed to be looking for — I couldn’t remember the questions as soon as I finished reading them. I tried highlighting what I thought was important information, but the stupid questions often didn’t ask what I highlighted. The questions often asked what I thought were obscure little facts from the piece. I learned after many years that, although it took me longer than most everyone else, what worked best for me was to read it first. Then, I would go through each question one at a time. After reading the question and the answer choices, I had to go back to the piece and find the answer. Reading the piece first, I got a general, overall gist of what it was about; but, I couldn’t remember any details. So, when I went back to look for the answers, I kinda knew the general idea, but I had to hunt for the answer. I often had to read and re-read sentences, paragraphs, or sometimes the entire piece multiple times to find the answer to the question. In this process of looking for the answer, I often forgot what I was looking for, I forgot the question; and I had to go back and re-read the question several times.
The worst questions were the hypothetical ones, or the ones that ask you to draw a conclusion or interpret meaning. They would ask, “What did this character probably mean when they said….” Well, I almost always got all those questions wrong. I now know that I’m autistic and that that’s why inferring meaning is hard for me. I’m extremely literal. When a character says something, I think they actually mean what they say. I had no idea it actually meant something else. I have trouble drawing conclusions because, being autistic, I can see a whole host of outcomes. I usually could see most of the answer choices being a possible outcome. I now know that I think outside of the box, and those tests test whether you can think inside of the box; that’s what they want, the in-the-box answer. I didn’t know that as a child though, so I agonized over every question. It took so long just to read the thing, then to find the answers, then I had to figure out all those stupid questions like that.
This process was very exhausting and frustrating. I know now that I’m hypersensitive in all my senses and I have General Anxiety Disorder. So, being one of the last ones done, I’d be subjected to all the other kids who were already finished making noises. Sometimes they’d talk, even if it was just a whisper; or, even if they weren’t talking, just people rustling around, getting out books to read or work to work on, or kids opening and closing the door to go to the bathroom. I hear everything, and I can’t concentrate. It makes me very anxious and even more frustrated. I need it completely silent. Looking back, what I really needed was to be in a room with just me and a teacher who read the story to me while I followed along. I needed to be in a study carrel and possibly have ear plugs or noise-canceling head phones on while answering questions. I needed the temperature to be just right and the lights to be dimmer than most people like them. For the ideal environment, I’d also need no odors in the room or coming through the air ducts. I need to not be in any pain or hungry. Even then, although my anxiety would be really low, if I had any at all, I still don’t know that I would remember the passage well enough to answer the questions. And, even still, I wouldn’t be able to answer the hypothetical and inferring questions.
We often graded/checked the questions in class. I always preferred to grade my own, which teachers sometimes did. When other students graded mine, it always gave me great anxiety and I was greatly embarrassed. I knew I didn’t do well, and sometimes my classmates would make comments about me not doing well and it just made me feel even dumber. When I handed it in to the teacher and she looked at it, I felt awful. Most of my teachers would look at my score and say, “Holly, I’m surprised! What happened?” I was mortified. I was embarrassed. I knew I had some kind of problem, but I didn’t know what it was and my social anxiety prevented me from telling anyone or asking for help.
Even though I had the same experience with every reading comprehension test, even though I had trouble learning to read, even though I could never tell a teacher what the story was about or what happened, none of my teachers ever took it upon themselves to intervene or to find out what was going on. I guess they didn’t think to because I was so good in every other area and made mostly A’s in everything else. I actually remember hoping that a teacher would realize I had trouble and get me some help, but that never happened. I don’t hold a grudge, it doesn’t bother me that they never did, though.
I made it through elementary school. In middle and high school, I was always in advanced placement English ironically. My older sister always was, and I looked up to her. I wanted to be like her. If she could do it, so could I. So, for 7 years, I was in advanced placement English, where they read novel after novel after novel and have to have discussions about them, write papers about them, and take tests over them. I didn’t admit this until just a few years ago, but I faked my way through 7 years of AP English. Honestly, I can probably count on one hand how many of those novels I actually read. I maintained mostly B’s and some A’s in English over those years. I took the AP exam at the end of high school to try for college credit and missed getting college credit by one grade level.
I’m now open about this; and, with a lot of therapy, my social phobia has diminished quite a bit. So, I now talk about it and tell people. They usually ask me, “How did you do that? How did you fake your way through 7 years of AP English without reading the novels but still making A’s and B’s?” Well, I guess what it comes down to is that my overall intelligence is high enough that I was able to find ways to cope and make accommodations for myself. With testing in the last couple years, my overall IQ tested in the 94th percentile. That means 6% of the population tests at a higher IQ than I did. For comparison, to become a member of Mensa, your IQ has to test in the 98th percentile.
I didn’t read those books. I would usually read the first sentence of every page to get the gist of what the book was about. When I didn’t get something or if something was confusing, I’d go back and read a little more before the first sentence or after. I paid attention in class and took notes. I paid attention anytime classmates were talking about the book outside of class. I read Cliff’s Notes or synopses or outlines or commentaries or anything I could find about the book online if I needed more help. I’d watch the movie of the book if there was one, realizing that movies are often not the same as the book. It did, however, give me the main idea of the book. I did reviews that the teacher gave us in class. All that culminated in me making good grades and faking my way through 7 years of AP English. Although reading is very difficult for me, non-fiction is often not nearly as difficult because it’s just giving straight information and I don’t have to follow a story or a sequence of events. So, reading a short passage about the book online was much easier for me than actually reading the book.
I did the same thing in my literature class in college. On a side note, I’ll always remember my literature professor, Dr. John Smith (seriously, that was his real name), who told us he was 83 I think it was. He was so proud of his stamp collection that he brought it in to show us in class. What I didn’t like about him was that he graded based on an old grammar handbook or whatever. He’d count off for things that grammatically were correct nowadays, but were once incorrect. There was no way for us to know what was correct 60 years ago. He’d count off for punctuation that I know for a fact I did correctly, but apparently it was different in his time.
Other symptoms I have of dyslexia that I didn’t connect to my reading difficulties until adulthood include getting opposites mixed up. I often will be shivering and say, “I’m hot.” Or, I’ll finish eating a big meal and say, “That was good, I’m hungry.” I also say things backwards; I’ll get the words mixed up and they’ll come out of my mouth in the wrong order. I’ll say things like, “The wall is painted on the tree,” when it’s actually that the tree is painted on the wall; or I’ll put the preposition in the wrong spot in my sentence. I also have trouble understanding meaning when there’s a homonym when I’m reading, or a homophone when listening. So, a simple example would be, if someone said, “I am present.” I very well might think, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why are they calling themselves a present?” while I’m picturing a wrapped birthday present. My favorite example of having trouble with homonyms is “ice cream floats.” I once read a flyer for an ice cream social being held at the fire station. The top of the flyer read, “Ice Cream Floats in the Bay.” I read it and said (aloud), “It does?” I was picturing a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in the San Francisco Bay (because that was the only bay I could think of at the time). I concluded in my mind that ice cream most likely would float in the bay, but I couldn’t figure out what that had to do with eating ice cream at the fire station or why it would be on the flyer. It took me about 5 minutes to figure out it wasn’t even a sentence. It was a tagline for the event and it actually meant “ice cream floats” as a noun, the dessert, and “in the bay,” as in a fire station bay. It was saying that we would be eating ice cream floats in the fire station bay. That might have something to do with me being literal as well.
Some people ask me what it’s like for me to read. The closest comparison I can come up to is this. Sometimes it’s like reading a list of random vocabulary words. I see exactly what’s on the page. I can tell you what each word individually says and means. I can read to you each individual letter in order. But, when I combine those words into sentences, then paragraphs, then into a passage, it takes considerable effort to try and figure out what it means because it doesn’t seem to make any sense. So, for example, if you have the vocabulary list, “cat, dog, house, doctor, tree, car, book,” I can read each word to you and tell you what each word means. However, when I put those words into a sentence, “cat dog house doctor tree car book,” it doesn’t make any sense. To me, reading is often just reading individual words and knowing their individual meanings, but having trouble making sense of the sentence as a whole. It’s different, however, if it’s something I wrote myself. I already know the meaning, I wrote it, so I don’t have any trouble. I also get letters, and sometimes entire words, out of order when I read. Even though I see exactly what’s printed on the page most of the time and am able to read the individual letters to you in the order that they appear, I sometimes will read the entire word as if the letters are out of order. I will sometimes do the same thing with reading words out of order, just like I do when I speak and get words out of order sometimes. For example, the most common words I read wrong are “scared” and “sacred.” I almost always read those wrong. I’ll read one when it’s the other. If the book says, “The scared little kitty,” I will almost always read, “The sacred little kitty.” I see that the word is spelt s-c-a-r-e-d, and I am able to read those letters off the page individually in order, but when I try to read the entire word, my brain tells me it says ‘sacred,’ even though I know that’s not how you spell ‘sacred.’ I actually just had trouble typing out ‘sacred.’ I first type ‘scared’ and had to backspace and fix it. Those two words I mix up more than any others.
So, when I read, I first have to concentrate very hard on making sure I read the word correctly, it’s ‘scared’ and not ‘sacred.’ I then have to understand the meaning of the word, which is not usually difficult, I then have to put each word in the sentence together and consciously think about the meaning of the sentence with all the words put together in that particular order. If there are homonyms, it’s particularly challenging and takes more time to think about and figure it out. By the time I get to the next sentence, I forget what the previous sentence said and what I finally figured out it meant. So, I often have to re-read it. That’s just the first sentence. As I go through each sentence in this way, I also have to keep thinking about the meaning of the paragraph and how each sentence affects the other sentences’ meanings to arrive at the meaning of the paragraph. So, I’m trying to figure out each individual word, then each individual sentence, then put them together to get the meaning of the paragraph. I have to consciously do all of this. It’s very time-consuming; frustrating; and exhausting, both physically and mentally — and that’s just the first paragraph. I have to do this with each paragraph and figure out what the passage is telling me by combining the paragraphs. Again, if there are homonyms or things that I have to interpret because they’re figurative, it’s even more difficult. So, by the time I get all the way through the passage, I’ve forgotten most of what I read and I only have a basic gist of what the passage was about — and that’s just the reading part, if I have to answer questions, it’s even harder.
In my testing as an adult at the doctor’s office, my reading speed tested in the 1st percentile. That means that 99% of people test at a faster reading speed than I did. My reading comprehension tested in the 8th percentile, 92% of people test at better reading comprehension than I did. When I went in to take the test and the proctor told me that I would have however many minutes to read the passage and answer the questions, I told her, “I’m not going to finish.” She then said that if I’m not finished, I’ll get a certain number of extra minutes. I took one glance at how many questions there were and replied again, “I’m not going to finish.” She told me to do the best I can and it’s okay if I don’t finish.
I, of course, only got through about two-thirds of the passages and questions, even with the extra time. When she told me to stop, I told her that, “I told you I wouldn’t finish.” My anxiety and frustration and exhaustion was so high that I started crying. We took a break from testing and I told her about my problems and some of the things I’ve talked about in this blog post. I think she was surprised. I don’t think she really believed me how bad my reading problems were that I had told her about before the test. I could see that she then saw that I really did have reading problems as bad as I said.
So, I was officially diagnosed with “Specific Reading Disorder,” aka dyslexia. My doctor says that the reason I don’t have the same symptoms as other people I know with dyslexia is because I have a different type. I have a language processing problem, whereas some people have a visual processing problem. My doctor was surprised as well at the test results. He could see I was smart, but didn’t expect my overall IQ to be as high as it was. He also believed me that I had trouble reading, but I don’t think he expected it to be as bad as it was. We determined that the reason I was able to “fake my way through” so many years without accommodations is because of my overall IQ compensating for my reading difficulties. My doctor says that I have a bad working memory (aka short-term memory), and that’s affecting my reading as well. That’s why I forget what the previous sentence said as soon as I finish figuring out its meaning. My short-term memory is bad enough that he sent me to be checked out by a neurologist. Turns out, I’m fine and it’s just a characteristic associated with the autism. I also have a slow processing speed.
Getting my test results finally made everything make sense to me. I now understand why most academics came so easily me. I now understand why I have such great difficulty in reading. I now realize that I really am smart, and I no longer feel dumb when I have trouble reading. Learning my test scores also proved to me that reading ability doesn’t necessarily reflect a person’s intelligence. Just because a person has trouble reading doesn’t mean they are dumb. My doctor has made me realize that, even though I have a high IQ and was able to graduate college cum laude, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have accommodations for reading when I need them. Imagine what I could have accomplished if I had the proper accommodations for my dyslexia. I might have graduated summa cum laude! There’s also a thought by some that accommodations are cheating. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Cheating would be if someone did it for me, or told me the answers; but, just taking a test in the proper environment so that I can concentrate, or having someone read it to me, is not cheating. It’s just leveling the playing field.
My doctor is still baffled I think as to why I’m so good at spelling, grammar, writing, and handwriting. He said that many, if not most, dyslexics have trouble in those areas as well. I think that the reason I’m good at spelling and grammar is because they have rules and I’m good at remembering and adhering to the rules. I also have an excellent visual memory, so I see a word spelt out once and remember it forever. (Except for independence for some reason. I always have to stop and think whether it’s ‘dence’ or ‘dance.’) For example, I looked up the word ‘Fahrenheit’ in the the dictionary one time in 3rd grade and have never forgotten how to spell it. I think the reason I don’t have trouble writing is because it’s my own thoughts. To me, writing is different than reading. With reading, I have to figure out what someone else means; but in writing, it’s my own thoughts. I do often write or type out the words wrong, but I just fix it because I’m able to realize that it’s wrong. For handwriting, I think it goes back to the visual memory thing. I was always good at copying. When I was learning handwriting, I copied the letters. Many people over the years have complimented me on my handwriting.
I have a problem with people, the vast majority of our society, thinking that reading is the most important thing in life. I read almost exclusively for information. I read quite a bit actually, it’s almost entirely non-fiction, and usually news articles or articles about science or technology or space. Those are probably my biggest interests. I read scholarly journal articles about my rare form of endometriosis. I research anything and everything that I want to know more about, which is quite random sometimes. I’m not illiterate. I can read. It just takes me a lot longer and is much more difficult for me than most people. For me to read something of my own choosing, I have to really want to read it. It is by no means fun or entertaining for me; it’s hard work for me. It has to be worth the immense frustration and exhaustion reading causes me. It has to be worth the vast amount of time it takes me. Whenever I start reading something and it becomes too difficult for me, or it isn’t worth it to me, I say, “Too many words” and stop reading it. I’ve always said that, even before I knew I was dyslexic. I still say that.
Reading isn’t the most important thing in the word. There are other forms of entertainment, there are other forms of learning and gaining knowledge. You don’t have to read; and just because someone chooses not to read doesn’t mean they can’t read when it’s worth it to them or necessary. Even if someone is unable to read at all, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t intelligent. I think that it’s true for some that reading more makes them a better reader; but I don’t believe that reading more could ever make me a better reader. It’s not going to change how my brain works. It’s not going to make my brain suddenly be able to comprehend better. There is nothing wrong with audio books or being read to. There is nothing wrong with watching a movie. There is nothing wrong with learning things by experimenting or doing things or watching them be done. There is nothing wrong with learning about places by traveling and talking to people. I’m a visual learner. I never had any problem watching something and answering questions in class. You don’t have to read for those things. It’s not the most important thing in the world. I understand that it’s important for people to be literate to be able to read when necessary, I’m just saying that you don’t have to read for entertainment or to learn things. There are other ways that work better for some. We, as a society, need to start teaching people, and children in particular, the way they learn. Too often, kids are expected to learn by reading, sometimes exclusively. Not everyone learns by reading. Not everyone is able to comprehend what’s written, and that’s okay. We need to stop acting like it’s not.