A reformed Dyslexic – growing up in the dark

Reprinted from Chapter 2: The Elephants in the Classroom – uncovering every student’s natural power of mental imagery to enhance learning

My real passion is to alleviate and prevent much of the confusion that threatens to overwhelm students. Teachers and parents of children under 7 years old need to incorporate visualisation into any and all forms of teaching and learning, especially literacy and numeracy. Nobody showed me how to use my visual brain for literacy – something that has affected my entire life. It would have been simply turning on what had been turned off.

Allow me the indulgence of sharing my own story in this regard.

I call myself a reformed dyslexic, because I struggled in school with literacy, long before dyslexia was commonly understood in schools. Had I been born later, I would probably have been labelled dyslexic. I have subsequently learned for myself those vital missing skills that have in turn inspired my efforts to help others. My hyperactive brain could have also got me diagnosed with ADHD and a splash of Asperger’s.  I am now an avid reader which has helped me to learn and reduce any number of other symptoms. My curiosity prompted me to discover why some EPIC students are successful while others struggle. From my perspective, there are very different experiences of mental imagery that dramatically affect every learner. 

I live in a permanent state of curiosity, with a ‘jigsaw-puzzle’ brain that people around me might find challenging but which has, I believe, the potential to be quite powerful. My mind can make intuitive leaps and see connections in things that others may keep separate. I see things clearly that others do not see. Things are obvious to me – I don’t know why – perhaps because of fast connections, insights or something else. There is nothing special about me, my brain likes understanding ‘why’ and connecting things, like huge jigsaw puzzles, in several dimensions. I see the same skills in many of my students. For someone who is neurodivergent, the biggest challenge is to present this knowledge in a way others can cope with and take action.

School – Trying to Learn in the Dark

Entering the school system, in the UK, at age 4, my literacy was progressing, fitfully. By the age of seven, I was really struggling. My report at 16 says: “Hampered by lack of vocabulary and atrocious spelling, she has an inability to express herself clearly. It really would help if Olive could learn to spell.” I had been in the same school for 12 years and was generally a good but often shy student. It took me another 40 years to discover the secret of why literacy, in English, seemed so tricky. Having no mental images of words was like trying to read and write in the dark. I realised then that schools take no responsibility for their teaching methods negatively affecting their students’ ability to spell or read fluently.  I was expected to fix this, and I had no idea how to do it. I now regret, missing out on all that fabulous children’s literature, for I could read to myself, but I couldn’t remember anything I read. As a result, I found reading boring, and I only read those things I had to, rather than for pleasure. 

Also, I can remember, as if it were yesterday, with a clear picture of the room, being told I was tone-deaf and being told to leave the music class immediately. I was only around ten years old, and I was rejected without knowing why.  How many EPIC students are moved down a set without any explanation? This feeling resonates with what many of our EPIC students experience today about literacy, numeracy and so many other subjects.  They can’t do it, and they have no idea why. My spirits were kept up by excelling at sports and being good at maths, so maths is the degree I completed. 

A teacher once told my mother that my brain was far too fast for my hand, which was nearly accurate.  Whilst reading this book, you may notice I have a very different perspective on many things, which is a common and positive dyslexic trait. I have written this book to share these different approaches with students, their parents and their teachers.

I now feel privileged not to have been given any label in the past, although I knew my literacy skills were well below average. I recall wanting to disappear into the floor when we were reading aloud in class – dreading my turn coming around. I never read for pleasure until I was nearly 40 when I wanted to read to our son. How could I contemplate reading anything for fun when I found it such a nightmare? For me, it was extremely difficult to remember what I had read and, when putting a book down, a bookmark was essential. I also studied French for years and never managed to achieve ‘O’ level. Now, whose idea was it to teach me another language, when I couldn’t spell in my first language?

However, I did GCSE and A Levels Maths a year early, which was almost unheard of in the 1970s, thanks partly to my excellent mental images of numbers. I then graduated from Sussex University with an honours degree in mathematics.

Just like my clients, I was the child who always asked “Why should we do this?” and “How does that work?”  I have learned so much from clients, and come to understand more about what each brain wants and needs in order to make learning easier, and decipher what is happening for the student.  I don’t pretend to know all the answers for every learning difficulty as I am also continually learning, but I hope the understanding you will gain from this book will give you many new perspectives to try.

My Corporate Career

University was followed by a successful career as a software engineer, first developing systems for medical blood analysis which had 150 software programs all interacting with thousands of patient records. When looking for a software bug, I remember developing the strange knack of being almost able to dialogue with the programmes, asking which could have changed those data bits incorrectly – visualising the components in my head, trying them out and fixing what didn’t work – all using clear mental images.

I progressed from engineer to department manager and finally research and development director in a hi-tech data communications company. I was involved in the early days of the Internet, managing up to 100 software engineers, hardware engineers, authors and a customer support staff.  One of the excellent skills I possessed was to be able to see problems and challenges from very different perspectives; a useful skill when working in a complex global company. The downside, of course, is that you can be overwhelmed by seeing too many different perspectives to make a decision.

When, years later, I first discovered that good spellers could see words in their head, I was dumbfounded that I had never thought of trying this. I was furious that no one had told me about this skill, which others had taken for granted.  I then turned this into a passion for offering others these skills. 

Revisiting my own Education

Living in a permanent state of curiosity, I challenge the status quo and want to know why things are the way they are.  A neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) training programme introduced me to visualising words in just 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes set me off on this new journey of discovery and ultimately changed my life. Picture visualisation works efficiently for most people, but many need to develop new skills for words and numbers. Having discovered how people who are good at spelling do it, I worked out a method to teach others to achieve the same exceptional success rates.  I needed to help them resolve areas of confusion, such as letters jumping around on the page, being overwhelmed, stressed out or having low self-esteem, before they could all achieve what they wanted.  Then I moved onto the rest of literacy, for example, reading, comprehension and handwriting. I even discovered how I made maths easy for myself when others struggled. Above all, I needed to make teaching these skills person-centred, easy for the student, the teacher and a parent home educating. My consulting practice, Empowering Learning,TM was born in 2002 and continues, today, to train people around the globe.

With a bit of help from inspirational authors like Temple Grandin’s brilliant account of her own experiences, I figured out how to help students improve concentration while avoiding sensory overload, fidgeting, zoning-out and so many other impediments.

As is my wont, I looked outside the box to discover what neurodiversity, neuroscience and metacognition could contribute to the story and found limited but valuable research. For example, most people believe that everyone’s symptoms are different, especially on the autistic spectrum. I agree with researchers that even with dyslexia, different people are affected to varying degrees. But exploring the bigger picture, including dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, Asperger’s, 48XXYY and autism, I discovered a theme running through all of them and that theme is how we use mental imagery for thinking and learning. It is common to almost all neurodivergent skills and is, of course, the reason for this book. 

As my journey continued, I realised I could now overcome some of the challenges I had assumed that I had no control over, and the process of change was really gratifying. I also realised that I had always been able to visualise numbers (hence the maths degree) but had never imagined visualising words.

What did I need from my teachers? I was great at mental arithmetic because I was easily visualising numbers and all I needed was a teacher who asked me how I did maths so quickly and who would then help me to learn how to add words to my pictures; Unleashing trapped potential.  These skills would have prevented me from growing up riddled with anxiety and stress about literacy.

What I Realise Now

I realise now I had very fast-moving images of pictures, often moving so rapidly I couldn’t recall them. I had no mental images of words and yet good mental images of numbers for mental arithmetic.  As a result of learning how to use mental imagery for words, I let go of my crippling confusion over spelling and reading. I love reading now, whereas it used to send me to sleep and my spelling is patchy.  The area I have never caught up with involves all the technical details of English, such as sentence construction, styles of writing, etc., all of which should have become embedded at a young age.  I was too busy just trying to spell each word.

My story is like so many of those with whom I work – they have fabulous visual skills, neither they nor others appreciate. Nobody has taught them how to optimise these skills to visualise numbers, letters, whole words, sentences and stories; keeping them still or moving them at will and moving pictures around to see different perspectives. I am always distressed to meet so many adults who have been made to feel ashamed of their spelling and reading and are too traumatised even to discuss it.  

After understanding how to help people explore their mental images and learning how to teach these simple skills, I moved onto really understanding how neurodivergent people use their mental images for all manner of different activities, often in situations far superior to my own experiences.  I added brain research, personal energy, motivation to change, the concept of growth mind-sets and family coaching, all in an effort to facilitate learning.

I have seen time and time again, that if students are prepared to practice, as I have, to change a long-established habit, they can overcome the confusing and debilitating symptoms, in minutes or hours, thus escaping the trauma of failure.

I didn’t value my visual skills as a child. Now I realise the gift I had been given – to see many different perspectives simultaneously and make extraordinary connections at high speed – was the very skill that made words so confusing, as they “flew past” in a blur. Like many other people, I had taken my positive skills for granted and not realised that it wasn’t second nature to everyone. These skills are invaluable to me. I employ them many times, every day, especially when coaching individuals, to really understand another person’s experience. I am now very appreciative of these valuable gifts and wouldn’t be without them. All my clients have outstanding gifts, but they often don’t realise their own exceptional and diverse skills.

I have always worked as an outsider, without specialist training in education or an official professional position from which to explain or defend and shape my perspectives. I have focused on primary research relying on stories, anecdotes, first-person accounts and my own experiences to help me develop this approach. I listen to affected EPIC students; they are the experts, and without their valuable assistance, these insights would not have been possible. I have come to trust them more than I do many conventional academic theories. My observations and experiences have enabled me to develop techniques that complement conventional approaches. As a result, I can empower individuals to take action, using resources they already possess in order to positively affect their health and offset any learning challenges.

Olive Hickmott

You can read more about using visualisation techniques to enable learning and more case studies in the book The Elephants in The Classroom – uncovering every student’s natural power of mental imagery to enhance learning. Available here ,  and also from Amazon USAAmazon UK.

#empoweringlearning #theelephantsintheclassroom #homeeducation #breakthroughliteracy #dyslexic #dyslexia

About olivehickmott

I am a Forensic Learning coach, showing people how they can improve their own learning and change their health. Working with creative neurodivergent students is a joy, as they learn new skills to overcome many of their learning challenges.
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