Dyslexia and Programming
Written by Mike James   
Thursday, 30 September 2021
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Dyslexia and Programming

Many programmers, including some of the brightest and best, are dyslexic - how does that work!?



 I want to make a confession.

I’m slightly dyslexic and being a programmer this is a worrying condition!

It is even more worrying that quite a few of the “good” programmers I have had the privilege and frustration of working with over the years have also been dyslexic, some very much so.

First I need to explain why dyslexia is a strange defect to find in a programmer, just in case some of you don’t know what dyslexia is or what programming involves.

KO rules

Firstly, dyslexia is a complicated collection of symptoms and problems that often goes unnoticed in the school system.

Here are seven thing you need to know about dyslexia courtesy of help4dyslexia: 


Click for larger poster

The major problem is that dyslexics find it difficult to read.

This isn't their only problem but it is the one that surfaces as soon as they encounter formal education with its set stages of learning to read. 

When all the other pupils are zooming ahead onto Dick  and Jane book 12, a typical dyslexic is still wondering what the black blobs on the paper might be.

That is, if they are lucky - many know all too well that the black blobs are important, and probably the key to the universe, only they can’t quite grasp it. The frustration often leads to other more antisocial problems and eventually a proportion of dyslexics end up being classified as "bad" and "lazy" rather than having a problem not of their making.




A Range of Problems

Being one of their number, I would like to claim at this point that dyslexics are in fact fine people with huge IQs and wonderful abilities given to them to make up for the problem – but I can’t.

Dyslexics I’ve known have a range of abilities, IQs and failings.

Just because you have dyslexia it doesn't mean that you are gifted with many compensating factors. Usually it's just that dyslexia makes it more difficult to show off what you do have, because people focus on what you cannot do rather than on what you can do.

Once they have managed to decode the blobs, if they manage to decode the blobs,dyslexics usually show other problems – reversal of letters and figures e.g. d/b and p/q, 5 and 2, difficulty with sequences of all sorts, terrible spelling, very short short term memory for learning lists etc.

One odd symptom that is very rarely discussed, but a number of dyslexics I have known recognise it when it is mentioned, is a strange symmetric transposition of whole character or figure groups.

For example, one person I work with always confuses the numbers 12 and 20 to the point where if I find a 12 or a 20 in a program there is a 50% probability it should have been the other one!

Why 12 and why 20?

A good question, but you can see, or rather hear, that there is similarity in the way that they sound – yes the problems are complicated and sometimes comical!

The Big Fail

The big problem is that the formal education makes a fetish out of being able to read. It doesn't much matter that a dyslexic might be able to do difficult algebra or master scientific ideas - if they can't read they they are a failure. 

The same is true but to a slightly lesser extent for arithmetic. Many dyslexics are also "discalculic". The problem with this is that mastering arithmetic is also another barrier that formal education sets up. If you can't do arithmetic then you can't do math so there is no point in progressing to anything more difficult. The important point is that many dyslexics can tell you how to solve a problem in arithmetic but they can't do it without a calculator.

It is time the distinction was made between spelling and creating works of great literature and begin able to add up and doing real math. Arithmetic is what a cheap calculator can do, math is something else again.

Dyslexics often have the ability to master the algorithms if not the machinary to execute them and this quickly becomes a barrier to making any further progress in formal education. When asked for the answer to an even simple sum they can't do it but they could show anyone else or a computer how to do it.

If you can't read and you can't do arithmetic then you can't move on to do literature, algebra, the whole world or mathematics and science or anything else for that matter. And yet in many cases if reading and arithmetic are simply ignored then dyslexics can do more difficult things. 

I am always amazed when I encounter a young dyslexic failing at school, perhaps taken out an put into a special education program that drills them for as many hours as possible in reading and arithmetic and discover they they are an expert astronomer, programmer, engineer, maker, electronics expert, photographer, mathematican, etc.

Remedal programs sometimes help but simply ignoring the difficulites and moving on often works much better. 





Last Updated ( Thursday, 30 September 2021 )