By Jay Stringer.
An earlier version of this article was published several years ago at Panels.Net, a now defunct comic book website.
I'm often asked to explain dyslexia. The trouble is, I really can't. It's not that I don't know how my brain works. It's that I don't know how your brain works. Dear reader. Dear neurotypical reader. If I can figure out what you see when you try and read things, and the places in your brain that you store information, then maybe, maybe, I can start to explain how my brain is different.
You can lose whole hours in the day trying to figure out how the inside of your head works, and whole days trying to figure out if someone else's head works the same way. (Whatever you do, don't become aware RIGHT NOW of your tongue. It's just sitting there in your mouth doing nothing. No, now you made it move. Oh god, it moves. And it's just there....all the time. What the hell? Creepy.)
What I can tell you is what dyslexia isn't. It's not about spelling. Not really. That's a symptom. Dyslexia is about the way my brain processes information. Both on the way in and the way out. And about where I file that information when I'm not using it. I have amazing long-term memory. And terrible working memory. What's working memory? It's loosely similar to RAM on a computer. The steps I need to go through to make a cup of tea are stored in my long-term memory, but when I'm actually in the middle of making one, which step I'm on in that process is stored actively in my working memory. And mine is....goofy. Allied to that, colours have frequencies. On the screen you're looking at right now, you can adjust the brightness and contrast to make an easier reading experience. Our eyes and brains are doing that naturally all the time, because every colour we look at has a frequency. Some higher, some lower. Dyslexics are often incredibly sensitive to some of those frequencies, especially to white. White can overpower us, and that's a large part of why we can lose words on a page. Dyslexics also often have colours that can neutralise the effect, and getting glasses with lenses adjusted to the right tint can make reading a lot easier. (My colours are red, yellow, and some greens.)
I’m going to ask you to do a strange thing. Right now. I’m going to ask you to stop reading this piece. Just for a few seconds. I’d like you to stop reading, and think about how much you actually read each day. Think about road signs. Think about labels on food packaging. Think about the instructions on whether the door you are approaching needs you to push or pull. Think about walking into the shop for household supplies, and all the little bits of reading you do as you walk around filling your trolley. Now think about living the same life, going about the same routines, without being able to read, or with reading being extremely difficult. How would that affect you? It would be pretty hard, right?
What’s needed is clarity and context. Given those two things we can learn anything, from basic reading to advanced nuclear physics. But we also need to think about the way we process information, about how we know where to store things in our memory and about what keeps us moving forward, adding to what we know.
Let’s boil this down to Story, Plot and Narrative.
Story is the what. A collection of events. You do this, then you do that, then you eat a dinner, then you do something else, then we get to the end. It’s the basic data of anything that we learn. Okay, here’s a problem for us straight away; dyslexics can’t really do order. We don’t do logical progression. Give us a whole bunch of data, and on it’s way into our heads it scatters like a pack of playing cards thrown across a room.
Plot is when. This is the road map to move through the story. It tells us when to climb and when to rest, when to turn and when to hold. For learning, this is the guide that tells us when to take on information and where to store it. Dyslexics have no problem taking on information. We’re taking it in all the time. The problem is storing it. Where did we leave that thing that we needed? How to we find it again? How is it relevant to what we’re doing?
This is how and why. Narrative takes story and plot and fleshes them out with context and motive. You do this, which then leads to that because of the other, then you eat because you’re hungry and haven’t had any food since whenever, and you like the taste of the bread. Then you do that thing that you’ve been doing every day for twenty years, driven by the memory of something, then we get to the end and you lay down for a well-earned rest.
We all combine information in different ways, and at different speeds. Some can add story and plot together in a mathematical equation that leads to narrative. Dyslexics like myself can’t learn anything without a narrative to hold on to. Why am I being given this information? What does it do? What is it relevant to? What similar thing should I store it next to in my head?
The books I was being given to read at school were no help. Oh, hey, there’s a picture of a dog. And a squiggle next to it that probably means “dog.” So what? Nothing’s happening here, there’s no information for me to file away, and if I do store it, where do I put it? What is it relevant to? And that’s a ball. Nice. But the ball is not moving, I’m bored.
There is a simple thing you could do for all children as they learn to read, but for a dyslexic it could be life changing; put a comic in their hands.
Comics as a medium rely on clarity and context. They are pictures and words being used in small panels to tell a story. Essentially they are hieroglyphs. They are a form of communication older than any of these words I'm typing here. Older than the grammar we are taught in schools. Almost as old as the oral traditions we've built everything on.
Films, on the other hand, do too much. They give you everything. All the movement, all the talking, all the emotion. Watching a film is essentially a passive process for your brain.
Take a look at this example, from Amazing Spider-Man #33, with art by Steve Ditko and words by Stan Lee:
You don’t need to be dyslexic to appreciate that example, of course. It’s one of the purest examples of the language of comics, and readers have been marvelling over the page for decades. It would be difficult to create that sense of movement, that primal understanding of narrative, with prose. A film could tell the same story, (And Spider-Man: Homecoming did) but then the screen would be doing all the work.
If you know someone who is a struggling reader, give them a comic. Give them the best comic in your collection. You might change their life.