A Short Guide to Working Clinically with your Amazing Dyslexic Adult Clients
All my dyslexic clients express great relief at “finally feeling understood” and that our work together addresses their trauma and their unique needs in ways that their prior therapy entirely missed. —Kathleen Dunbar
Part 3 of 3
The Specific Emotional Impact of Growing Up Dyslexic and
Suggestions for Healing and Therapeutic Interventions
Dyslexics have unique emotional responses to and ways of coping with the challenges of school, the workplace, and relationships that therapists will do well to identify in order to provide the best therapeutic experience for their dyslexic clients. Click on the links below to learn about both a specific emotional impact upon your dyslexic client, and strategies to engage healing.
Low Self Esteem
Being Invisible and Difficulty Asking For Help
Grief, Loss, Intense Sorrow and Almost Unfathomable Pain
Anxiety and Fear, PTSD, Trauma and Panic Attacks
- Not Believing You Have a Positive Future, and Not Knowing Who You Really Are
Important Considerations in Working with Dyslexic Clients
THE DYSLEXIC BRAIN
- Great eight minute video by dyslexic educator Dean Bragonier of his school NoticeAbility who explains dyslexia:
- The neural towers in a dyslexic’s brain are farther apart than in the general population. Because of this, dyslexic thinking is more right-brained and metaphorical; they tend to be sensitive and empathic and can read other’s emotions easily. Because of the physical structure in the dyslexic’s brain where the neural towers are farther apart and the neural signals have to travel farther, the result is great big picture thinking, a unique ability to find solutions and make creative leaps, and ease at understanding all kinds of systems.Concurrently, there are some deficits in the area of the brain responsible for reading. So they have great gifts, and they have challenges with reading, writing and sometimes math. (As a note, the neural towers are closer together in ASD, which results in more concrete, logical, left brain thinking, and a very different flavor of creativity).
- Dyslexics have different ceilings of reading and writing beyond which they do not go. Every dyslexic is different.
- The gifts and challenges of each dyslexic will be unique.
- Reading and writing are not measures of intelligence, they are only a transfer of information. In fact, dyslexics tend to have higher IQs.
- Your dyslexic client is unlikely to know this information. They benefit greatly from you proactively educating them about this.
- Learn more here about: Different Kinds of Dyslexia and Sometimes Co-Occuring Diagnoses.
- Humans have only been reading for about 5,000 years. We’ve only had mass-education systems since the 1800s. Learning to read is not built into our brains, it requires great effort and the right approach, which is a Reading Science approach, which is one that benefits all kids.
Reading Systems. There is a way of teaching ALL kids from the methods that benefit dyslexics—this includes PHONICS and being READ ALOUD TO and then learning how to spell advanced words. THIS BENEFITS ALL KIDS. There is a general controversy now about the abysmally low reading ability scores and SAT scores of all American kids resulting from the widely used and profoundly harmful Whole-Language approach (also known under the names Balanced Instruction and Reading Recovery) which started in the 90s versus the benefits of Code-Emphasis, Reading Science, phonics and being read aloud to which is once again beginning to be implemented. For more info on the differences between these systems you can visit: Best Practices to Teach Reading.
- Dyslexic kids benefit from additional methods of learning to read which include things like drawing letters in the air with their hand. That is how my partner Joseph learned (in his twenties!)
Here is the link for How The Dyslexic Brain Works.
Here is the link for Dyslexic Strengths Explained.
BEING THE ADVOCATE THE DYSLEXIC NEVER HAD
- One of my roles as therapist is to be an advocate for my dyslexic client—the advocate which they sorely were lacking and which is one of the important missing experiences they need for healing. This missing experience helps them validate their experience, allows them to process their anger and grief and trauma, helps them begin to take in support and be visible, and to claim their gifts.
- The school system failed them. I tell them this, and they all heave a sigh of relief to have it, at last, named out loud by somebody who gets it. What I say exactly is, “The school system f****d you!” I offer this intervention early on in therapy, often in the very first session. This is profoundly healing. *Note: I view this as an essential intervention.
- When I “work with the Inner Child” in the Hakomi Mindful Somatic Psychotherapy fashion to provide a missing somatic experience for the client, I include a session where I am Auntie Kathleen talking to the principal, and I say, “How would you (ie the principal) like to sit across from a judge and have to write a big check out as compensation for how you failed this student!” This is a great moment of healing for a dyslexic client. This can also be a great psychodrama intervention. *Note: I view this as an essential intervention.
- I also let my dyslexic clients know that I follow several Facebook groups for parents of dyslexic kids, and have seen many instances where parents have to resort to getting an attorney involved in order to get their kids the appropriate education and support that is the child’s right. This helps normalize for my clients that they are not alone, that there’s a lot of dyslexic kids and adults out there, and that they deserve and need advocacy. This might bring up grief and anger to work through.
- Some dyslexics might have attended a “special school” for dyslexics. I have had these clients, and they have expressed that they still feel a lot of shame as they had to be singled out for this, and their parents had to come up with thousands of dollars to provide this education.
- Some clients who were at-risk youth and whose parents didn’t have the financial, legal or other support to advocate for their child might have ended up in the streets. The actor Ameer King Baraka had this experience, and ended up spending time in prison. He got out, went on to Hollywood, and for a time ran a nonprofit which assessed low income kids in the southern states for dyslexia and got them some resources. Your client with this experience will have a lot of trauma, grief and anger to work through.
DYSLEXIA, TRAUMA and SHAME
- DYSLEXIA = TRAUMA. If a client has dyslexia, then they have trauma. Period. This trauma is a result of having to go through the conventional education system, and sometimes being bullied. The therapist needs to understand how to work with both developmental and shock trauma. Clients will have traumatic nervous system responses around a variety of situations: Having to read in public (like unexpectedly having the Big Book passed to them at an AA meeting and being expected to read), making a presentation at work, writing reports or emails at work, finding themselves in a conversation with a person whom they learn is a teacher, seeing kid-sized school chairs.
- The therapist must understand the deep shame of being forced to go to a place five days a week where they cannot read, in front of their peers. It is a forced march into a war zone.
Gershen Kaufman, Ph.D. says, “Reading disabilities often match in intensity the level of shame associated with incest.” It’s important we as clinicians understand the impact of our dyslexic clients’ experience in order to best serve them.
- I hold their experience in a similar light as a combat vet—just as a veteran will be changed after their combat experience, a dyslexic will never be the person they were before early grade school, which began a life experience of trauma. They lost their childhood. Healing is possible—but they cannot get back what they lost.
RAISING SELF ESTEEM IS A MAIN GOAL
- Name their strengths and keep talking about this. I identify and name constantly the ways they use the gifts of their dyslexia and how that is showing up in their life. This was lacking in their family and school system, and will be a pleasant and essential surprise to them that I name this and not something they themselves would think of at first. Some examples:
- Dyslexic clients often instantly have a “read” on social dynamics or other systems, are empathetic, and have many positive unrecognized ways they use their big picture thinking. It is important for the therapist to have an active understanding of what gifts dyslexics in general have so that you can help your dyslexic clients discover their unique, individual gifts, and keep celebrating this with them and helping them over time to let the praise for this “land” inside. Praise and celebration, which they sorely need, can be problematic for Protector Parts who kept them invisible for safety—to be praised is to be seen. In school to be seen was to be shamed.
- Dyslexics will already be using their gifts and not even be aware that they are. There will be other gifts that you can help them uncover.
- I frequently say, “You know things before others do,” when I have verified this fact with them, and then celebrate it. This is a common gift of dyslexics. However, this big-leap knowing can be problematical, because where the dyslexic may have leapt quickly to the correct answer with their big picture thinking, other people who had to go the long way to arrive at the answer may have told the dyslexic that they are lazy, or cheated. The dyslexic may have to learn how to help people see how they arrived at their conclusion. “Because of your great dyslexic thinking you just get there and others think you have cheated or don’t believe you.” Dyslexics can know something and doubt themselves because they didn’t learn it in school, or think other people know more than them because the others went to school—they need to learn to trust their great thinking and intuition.
I use this example, and feel free to use it and any others here: A set of blue prints for me is just blue lines on a flat piece of paper. Some dyslexics, like my partner Joseph Feusi, look at the blue print and instantly see the entire building in three dimensions and can walk around inside it! Joseph can walk around the building in his great dyslexic imagination and also understand structurally what is wrong with it and how to remedy it. In fact, he was a self taught builder and built his first house when he was just 21 years old! He was once asked to assess another builder’s building with some issues and when he came on site he instantly understood where there was a dangerous flaw that needed to be remedied. However, the architect of the building who had made the error told Joseph that he couldn’t have identified it because he/the architect had gone to architectural school and Joseph had not. In fact, world famous architect and dyslexic Richard Rogers specifically employs dyslexics on his design team because he needs their special abilities to envision and create his building designs.
Take care: Dyslexics are brilliant. And their dyslexia is a challenge. Dyslexics who were not supported can feel overwhelmed and ashamed and their experience was one of great hardship and no one may have been there to help them discover their gifts. They WILL HAVE GIFTS and it is the therapist’s job to help them find the gifts or to understand those that they are already using. Understanding the kinds of gifts that dyslexics have will help the therapist and dyslexic identify them—learn more here: Dyslexic Strengths Explained.
Dyslexics excel in the areas of Humanities, Architecture, Engineering, and Entrepreneurship but may need accommodations like speech-to-text programs or benefit from a personal assistant to review their emails. I talk about my partner Joseph, who, for example, writes in his head, edits in his head, remembers the edits, and dictates his incredible writing! I come in to spell check and grammar check the odd thing. Joseph can also figure out how to create a document that will best be received by a particular recipient because of his innate profiling skills. He writes these documents on behalf of his clients all the time. He can do this because of his dyslexia, not in spite of it. John Muir Laws who wrote the amazing Laws Field Guide to the Sierras is so dyslexic he has never read a book, yet he wrote this one with help and did lots of cool illustrations.
- Joseph offers his own journey as a dyslexic in a short form to illustrate the strengths and challenges of dyslexia. Find it here: The Story of Joseph.
- SOMATIC-BASED THERAPIES are the most healing because dyslexics are naturally right-brained. Somatic, attachment, trauma and relational approaches help clients naturally develop keepable, felt-sense shifts away from their critics and shame and instead ground them deeply in the esteem of their wise self. Once in the wise self, nourishing beliefs, resiliency, and positive thinking naturally arise and can be practiced and further anchored.
- Traditional CBT or Cognitive Behavior Therapy is not a helpful approach for a dyslexic. For example, trying to cognitively convince a dyslexic client that they are safe. In some significant ways they are not safe! At any moment someone could hand the dyslexic something to read. That is not safe. They know that and you will lose their trust if you work from this approach, or they will go along with you and you may end up reinforcing their invisibility defense. Go with more right brained, relational, somatic approaches. When their self esteem rises, they will naturally be more resilient when confronted with triggering situations.
- TRAUMA WORK IS ESSENTIAL to process their school experience, work experience, and any bullying, and to teach them ways of soothing, grounding, and more resilient options for their nervous system.
- Work to ease SHAME.
- It’s all about building SELF ESTEEM.
PARTS WORK is very helpful. As their self esteem rises they will have a more filled-in, felt sense of their Wise Self to dwell in and return to when they get activated. Some common Parts/Protectors who will show up are:
- Be Invisible
- Don’t Ask For Help
- I’m Not Smart
- Something’s Wrong With Me
- “Imposter Syndrome”
- I Don’t Have A Positive Future
- I Don’t Know Who I Really Am
- I Must Be Wrong (shows up when they know something intuitively that another had to learn in school)
Here are Suggestions for Working Therapeutically.
- Be Invisible
- Dyslexic clients will have a SIGNIFICANT AND DEEP GRIEF. Make a lot of room for this. The mourning they have will be considerable because they have lost so much when they were not supported.
- Dyslexic clients will need their ANGER supported. If they have coped by being invisible, they also hid their anger. They need to be WITNESSEDand the good boundaries that come with anger learned and expressed.
- Keep being real about how they should have been supported.
- Older individuals might have spent a lifetime in the wrong job. Difficulties in school often mean the dyslexic fears they won’t be employable and won’t and can’t have a positive future. They may have just found something for a paycheck, instead of being supported into a profession that made their heart sing and utilized their gifts. There are heartbreaking and ongoing posts on a large Facebook group I follow of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s just now finding out they are dyslexic and that they could have had an entirely different experience in life if they had been diagnosed and had support.They will have a lot of grief and anger.
Dyslexics as kids should have been assigned an expert role in their family about something that they excel in—this would have underlined their strengths and grown their self esteem. This is what Ansel Adam’s dad did when he took his son out of school and put a camera in his hand and encouraged his son to be a photographer. I proactively talk to clients about this. I tell them that there is a really cool dyslexic guy, Dean Bragonier, who runs NoticeAbility which is a school “dedicated to helping students with dyslexia identify their unique strengths and build self-esteem.” His students are taught in ways that work for them. I may email the client the link if they are interested.
- Dyslexia runs in families, so a parent may have been trying to help a child through their own loss. You might have a dyslexic parent as a client. Or a client who is dyslexic and their parent struggled to help them. I know a brilliant dyslexic adult whose nondyslexic parent still complains about what a hard time the parent had because their kid was dyslexic, and told their kid to hide their dyslexia and not tell anyone! Not surprisingly, their kid believed there was something wrong with themselves and continued to struggle with this as an adult. It was a complete revelation to this client for me to talk about their dyslexia as a gift, help them identify their dyslexic gifts, and stand up for themselves.
- It is a cruel and unhelpful thing to hold a child back in the second grade. If this happened to your dyslexic client, it will be one of the single most shameful things that have happened to them in their entire lives and they may have never told anyone. Factually, repeating a grade will never help a kid’s learning but the trauma of the shame and not being with their peers will last a lifetime. It’s much better to just let a dyslexic kid be with their peers and try to get them additional help. Or homeschool them. Proactively talk about this in session.
- Be kind and supportive of your amazing, sensitive, dyslexic clients!
DIFFERENCE VERSUS DISABILITY
- Remind clients that dyslexia is a learning difference, not a disability. Dyslexia was categorized as a disability legally so that a child in the school system can get accommodations. But dyslexia is actually not a disability, it is an expression of neurodiversity. It is a shame on the conventional school system that such lengths have to be gone to for differently learning kids to get the support they need.
- I remind my dyslexic clients that if the gene pool didn’t want dyslexics it would have thrown them out long ago—instead, they are 20 percent of the population because their wonderful different thinking is essential!
The dyslexia-advocating organization, Made By Dyslexia is big on letting the world know it needs dyslexics to solve world problems because they have the capacity to do so, and that while there are challenges, dyslexia is not a disability. I may email my clients the link to Made By Dyslexia if they are interested.
- Ansel Adams is an example I use. He had a really hard time in school, so his dad took him out of school and put a camera in his hand instead. Many dyslexics would really have benefited from home schooling if it had been possible. My clients really relate to this.
- The dyslexic Albert Einstein was terrible at math. He often slept twelve hours, and it was in the special hypnogogic state between waking and sleeping that he fully realized E=MC2. In fact, dyslexics often do some of their best work in a daydreamy state, which is when their great dyslexic thinking makes amazing leaps and they jump to solutions. What looks like “laziness” to a nondyslexic is actually a necessary process for the dyslexic. Start a conversation with your dyslexic client about times they do this.
- State out loud that reading and writing are not measures of intelligence, they are only a transfer of information.
- World famous dyslexic Sir Richard Branson says, “It’s not about how well you do in school or what you get on tests—it’s about you following the passion of your strengths; and delegating what you’re not good in.”
- Joseph and I use his experience as an example: Joseph is a brilliant writer, he has A-list Hollywood clients (actors, directors, writers), but I have to proofread his emails for him. As a therapist think about the vulnerability and the extra work involved if someone had to check your emails for spelling and odd punctuation so you look professional. I want to stress that Joseph’s and other dyslexics’ writing level can be incredibly brilliant and high—there are many famous dyslexic authors—but they may need accommodations to get things from their head into print. Joseph, for example, may think of one word and dictate/say a different word, then when he proofreads he actually sees the word he was thinking of and not the word he said. However, he always makes sense and I know the word he wants when I edit.
- Here’s a list of famous dyslexics. They are talented because of their dyslexia, not in spite of it.
- Therapists, as well as others, may unknowingly commit microaggressions when they don’t understand the dyslexic experience. Microaggressions include:
- Don’t push a dyslexic client out of their grief and anger. They will need a lot of room and support to process their grief and anger. Worse would be not helping them identify the grief and anger that arose out of their experience. Know that most dyslexics will have their grief throughout their entire life. They often have missed out on a lot of opportunities that others who are not dyslexic have been supported in.
- Don’t tell a dyslexic how they are so smart that you wouldn’t know they are dyslexic. This ignores their reality of painful life experience.
- Understand the difficulties some dyslexics have in filling out forms. Some can, and some can’t, or they will struggle through it but it will retraumatize them and they won’t tell you what they are going through if you don’t ask. Instead, you can offer to do a verbal format regarding forms—they talk and you write. We use the example of Joseph (my brilliant partner)—whose clients include A level Hollywood people, C-level executives, and entire boards—if he tried to fill out a handwritten application to work at McDonald’s it would be unreadable, they’d laugh at him, and not hire him.
- Many people have an assumption that others will be able to read easily when this is not the case—like the above example, someone at an AA meeting being handed the Big Book when it is passed around and being expected to read a passage in front of others—this replicates the trauma of childhood in school!
- As a kid dyslexics were often told to “just work harder.” And often they did, and still do throughout their lives—dyslexics are incredibly persistent. However, there is no amount of hard work that will help a dyslexic kid to read if their brain doesn’t work in that way. Learning has to be matched to their learning style. Their gifts need to be identified and their challenges supported.
ASSESSING DYSLEXIA FOR CLIENTS WHO MAY NOT KNOW, BUT SUSPECT THEY ARE DYSLEXIC, AND KINDS OF ACCOMMODATIONS
- For a client to understand that they are dyslexic is really important and can make sense of a lifetime of difficulties and help begin healing.
- With curiosity and great kindness ask your new clients if they had any challenges in school, or were ever diagnosed with dyslexia. Remember, they may not yet know because they were not assessed. They may “just think they are stupid.” They may also be reluctant to speak about it, or just brush it off, because of trauma and shame. Proactively inquire what kinds of difficulties your client had in school or has in the workplace. Has there been any support for them? Were they bullied? They will often minimize this due to shame. Be kindly persistent.
- This will raise important conversations about why no one was paying attention and doing an assessment when your client was a child. You may have to proactively begin this conversation.
If you and your client begin to think your client might be dyslexic, here are some resources: The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity has a great list of the challenges and gifts that will help someone begin to understand if they are dyslexic. YCDC includes signs of dyslexia in people of all ages, from pre-school kids to adults.
- Having been assessed as dyslexic is so helpful for students and for adults in the workforce to get the necessary assistive technologies and accommodations. Students Beware!—some uninformed teachers view accommodations as “cheating.” This is ridiculous! You wouldn’t make a disabled person crawl up the stairs, you’d give them a wheel chair and an elevator. Their need for the wheelchair doesn’t change who they are as a person and has nothing to do with cheating or with their intelligence. A dyslexic given the accommodations that is their right has access to knowing and expressing their brilliance. The accommodations themselves have nothing whatsoever to do with cheating or with intelligence. Unfortunately, to this day some teachers believe this. Remember, most teachers in their college and grad school education were taught nothing about the needs of dyslexic kids.
- Accommodations include: Keyboards (instead of handwriting), more time to take tests, verbal rather than written tests, recording systems, calculators, a talking dictionary or thesaurus, speech-to-text software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, a program with spellcheck features for writing, books on audio, text-to-speech software. All of these help dyslexics use their brilliant gifts.
- Your adult client will need to be professionally tested if they want to find out if they are dyslexic. Unfortunately, these tests run from $3,000 to $5,000. They are often administered by a PhD. Insurance may cover some of the cost. A more affordable alternative one of my consultees liked was an online company called e-Diagnostic Learning (includes both zoom meetings with an assessor and an online portion on one’s own). Find them at e-Diagnostic Learning. School kids may be able to be tested for free in their schools, but the tests are often not accurate and parents must sometimes pay for their own private testing in order to get the accommodations their child needs and has a right to.
Books, Websites, Facebook Groups
Books and Articles Link. Here’s a list of books about the gifts and challenges of dyslexia, including what it is, help for parents to get their child through school, and books especially for dyslexic kids. The Dyslexic Advantage by Dr.’s Brock and Fernette Eide, is a great one for adults to start with!
Videos Link. Dyslexics speaking up about their experience.
Link to Websites dedicated to dyslexics.
- Link to Facebook Groups dedicated to the dyslexic experience.
Kathleen and Joseph
Joseph and I love referrals!
KATHLEEN DUNBAR, MFT, CHT
I am a California MFT and Certified Hakomi Therapist. I have a specialty working with dyslexics. I see clients who are 18 and over in California and Florida. I work via Zoom (and sometimes with a hybrid zoom/in-person session in California). I've been in practice since 1997 helping clients find self love and healing through a relational and somatic approach. My large palette of specialties includes somatics, experiential work, healing attachment wounds, mindfulness, Wise Self/Parts work (similar to IFS, great for working with trauma), teaching lots of self-regulation, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (essentially the same as Somatic Experiencing) for healing trauma, including shock, developmental, complex/CPTSD, attachment trauma, and panic attacks. I help clients find regulation, resilience, self love, make good boundaries, express themselves, and identify and take in support by taught and practiced exercises in every session. The work I offer heals wounds and shifts clients to resiliency and new ways of relating with themselves, friends, family, partners, colleagues and others in their sphere. My clients walk out of every session with grounded shifts I’ve helped them learn in session and which they can practice in between sessions as tools and continue to develop. I offer consultations worldwide for professionals seeking support for their dyslexic clients.
Kathleen Dunbar MA, MFT, Certified Hakomi Therapist
CA License #MFT39880
FL Telehealth Provider #TPMF517
Virtually/Telehealth Throughout California and Florida
San Francisco and Marin Offices: Mostly telehealth with occasional hybrid zoom/in-person session in San Francisco
Specialties: Somatic and Experiential Psychotherapy, Mindfulness, Hakomi, Healing Trauma, Attachment Work, Creative Expression, Wise Self/Parts Work, Dyslexia, Psychodrama, Biodynamic Cranial Touch, The Tamura Method, Energy Work, Continuum, Archetypal and Shamanic Work
Web-Dyslexia Support: dyslexicselfesteem.com
If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you: I came to live out loud. —Émile Zola
JOSEPH FEUSI, MENTOR/COACH
I have a specialty in mentoring/coaching tweens, teens and adults who are dyslexic (in addition to my general mentoring practice). I've been a mentor/coach since 1994. I am a dyslexic myself and it can be SUCH a profound support for a dyslexic youth to be mentored by a dyslexic adult, and so affirming and life changing for adult clients to have the support of a successful fellow dyslexic. I offer phone, Skype, and Zoom sessions worldwide. I offer consultations worldwide for professionals seeking support for their dyslexic clients.
Joseph Feusi, Motivational Mentor
Available Worldwide via Phone, Skype, Zoom
Specialties since 1994: General Mentoring/Coaching; Mentoring/Coaching Dyslexic Adults and Youth, Consulting about Dyslexia for Professionals working with Dyslexics
Web-General Mentoring: motivationalmentor.com
Web-Dyslexia Support: dyslexicselfesteem.com
Joseph says: A mentor is needed whenever creativity needs a jump start and effort needs to be sustained. It has been my experience that people's dreams are more often possible than not. The adventure is to take your dreams from possibility to reality.