Saturday, 10 August 2013

Dyslexia Blog - My fears about dyslexia and social media with young people

For those of you who haven't read my dyslexia blogs before, here is a little preamble and introduction, so you know who I am and what I do and why I write this stuff. For those of you who know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph for todays installment. Let me give you a bit of Background so you know who I am and what I do. I was born in 1962. I didn't start talking until I was 4 years old (at all, not a single word). My parents thought I was deaf. My reading age at eleven was 5. When I was fifteen I started a rock and roll band called the False Dots, the band is still going strong. When I was 16 I started a business called Mill Hill Music Complex (although then it was simply called the studio), a rehearsal studio, as we had nowhere to rehearse. The business has grown into a very successful enterprise, one of Londons biggest and most well respected independent studios. We now have 16 studios and a music shop and also have a photography/video studio and a dance studio. I also have done IT work, mostly on a freelance basis since 1983. In 2012 I also moved into film production, producing two highly acclaimed documentary films, both of which had screenings at the House of Commons. When I was 31, a friend suggested I had a dyslexia test. To my surprise I was told I was moderately dyslexic. This made me interested in the subject. To my amazement, what I have learned over the years is that my lack of educational aptitude, my feelings of anger and injustice and the core of my personality have been formed by the fact I cannot read words in a linear fashion.

The recent press coverage of ASK.FM has caused me to think long and hard about the issue of social media and how it affects the dyslexic community, especially the younger and more vulnerable members.

When was the last time you cried? I don't mean cried because the dog got run over in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, I meant really cried because you were depressed and you could see no hope and no point in living? I am not 100% sure, but I suspect that it was many years ago after I split up with a long term girlfriend. I was thinking about this as I recently met up with her and her current partner for a few beers. The subject came around to suicide. Her partner described it as a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Afterwards, I had a disturbed nights sleep. For some reason this comment stuck in my mind. At the time of our split (many many years ago),  I was distraught. I seriously believed that life was no longer worth living. It was probably the low point of my life, as at the time I had serious health problems, serious financial difficulties and just to top it all, through my own stupidity I was single. I wasn't even sure I still had a job, having been off work ill for six weeks.

Now I am not someone who is particularly prone to depression or stupid rash acts, but I can remember the feeling of total despair. Fast forward to our friendly drink. We all worked out OK, I sorted my problems out and she got on with her life. Her partner is a nice bloke and a good laugh to have a couple of beers with. In short, we grew up. So what has all of this got to do with dyslexia & social media? Well at the time of my depression and problems, I was unaware of my dyslexia. My years at school had been a trial and it was only in my late teens, that I'd sorted my head out and managed to cope at all with anything.

School in the 1960's & 70's as a dyslexic was hell. The school I was at had a culture of institutional bullying. Teachers bullied you, prefects bullied you, the older boys bullied you and if you had any weakness, even the younger boys bullied you. I developed and extremely spiky personality to deal with this. I learned that if you got your retaliation in first, you survived. This could be verbal or physical. What you needed to be was high enough up the pecking order so the bullies would go elsewhere. I was brought up to fight back. I was also brought up to stick up for my friends. I was lucky in that my classmates had a strong ethos of sticking together so we survived. It was no fun at all. Every lesson, every time homework was handed in was an invitation to get humiliated by a teacher. What sort of lesson they thought we learned, I have no idea, but I hated it. In the end, my parents took me to the doctor. The doctor diagnosed depression. The solution? I was put on Valium. My parents assumed that this would make me bound around like a young puppy. After three days, my father concluded that the valium had transformed me into a zombie. He preferred the moods, sulks and strops to the zombie alternative, so the valium was thrown in the bin.

The conversation mentioned above and these memories combined with the recent coverage of the current news story about ASK.FM made me think long and hard how I would have reacted to all of this had we had such websites back in the 70's. The concept of suicide had never occurred to me. None of my mates, to the best of my knowledge, mentioned it ever. I shudder to think what I would have got into had I had all the tools at my disposal todays young people have. You see I fully understand the emotions of despair and hopelessness. I just accepted that this was my lot. I can remember being 13 years old and a teacher making me stand up in class. I cannot remember what triggered the outburst, probably some minor infringement of the school rules, but he said something like this "Tichborne, you are an idiot, you will do nothing with your life, you are too thick to ever have a decent job and you are too ugly ever to have anything else other than a very ugly wife". If you are a modern day parent, can you imagine a teacher saying that to your child?

I was quite stunned by this comment. It was the first time I'd ever even considered what sort of wife I may have. At 13 I wasn't particularly interested in girls. I was at a boys school and football was probably the topic of 99% of conversations. I went home and brooded on the conversation. At the weekends, I used to work for my father, washing cars at his crash repair business. At the time he employed around 14 people. One of his fitters was a rather strange looking fellow, with a penchant for gambling. He also had the repuation as being a bit thick. My mother who was the co owner of the business was keen to sack him, but my Dad rather liked him. He found his stories entertaining. My Dad employed many rather useless people over the years, purely on the basis that they could make him laugh. Anyway, I was washing the cars down and this guys girlfriend turned up to pick him up from work. He'd won £10,000 on the ITV seven and bought a huge American convertable cadillac with the money. As every story I'd ever heard about him was about his stupidity or his strange looks, I was amazed when the girlfriend turned up in the cadillac. She was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. Every single workman simply stopped and stared. In those days, wolf whistling was allowed and there were a few. She pulled up, and in jumped the fitter. As he departed, my first thought was of the comment I'd had aimed at me in school.

I said to my Dad "How come he has a girlfriend like that?" My Dad's response was highly enlightening "because he's good fun". I realised that as a dyslexic who believed himself to have the looks of the hunchback of Notre Dam, that if I was "good fun" maybe I could actually bag myself a luscious lady rather like my Dads fitter. Although it was probably just my hormones waking up, I always put my interest in women down to the unkind comment and the proof that it need not be so. Now how do you go about making yourself "good fun?". I immediately started buying joke books and taking an interest in comedians. I demanded that the family watched every show. I learned the art of the witty come back, and the clever put down. A few weeks later, the same teacher again made me stand up and said "Tichborne, you are an imbecile, you have no aptitude for anything at all. Just what exactly do you want to do when you finally grow up and get a job?". I shot back "Sir, I think I'm well suited to being a history teacher like you". The whole class immediately exploded with laughter. The teacher was completely shocked by this comeback. That was the last time he ever directly insulted me. That incident gave me a degree of confidence. It also completely convinced me that if I was to thrive, I had to do it with wit and humour.

What had changed was the fact I had confidence. With a little bit of confidence all of a sudden the issues with dyslexia were not such big issues. I had dodged homework because I'd rather take the punishment for not doing it than do it and get ridiculed. I now realised that if a teacher tried to ridicule me, I could give as good as I could get. As I was considering being a comedian, it gave me the chance to refine my talents with witty comebacks. I would bait certain teachers, just so I could slip the killer one liner in. I learned I could set the dialog up. I found my dyslexia had made me far more observant of body language than my peers, this stood me in good stead. My reports noted that I'd developed an "attitude problem". They didn't notice that marks had changed from D's & E's to B's & C's.

Which brings me back to my friends throwaway comment over a beer. A permanent answer to a temporary problem. My guess is that many of the kids labelled "disruptive", "under performing" and "having issues" have dyslexia or similar issues. The things which helped me turn my attitude to life around were comedy, music and poetry. The thing which enabled me to have a happy and fulfilled life is confidence. Every one of us is different, but I fundamentally believe that for anyone to achieve any level of happiness, they need to have self confidence and self esteem. I believe that the lack of this is a major problem for many dyslexic teenagers. I worry that social media does not build confidence and self esteem in vulnerable young people. In fact sites such as ASK.FM can actually pour petrol on the fires of despair.

I have no idea how we combat a huge reservoir of people all telling each other that everything is terrible. Even worse the trolls who wade in and glory in sucking the life force from our vulnerable young people. I've spoken to quite a few dyslexic teenagers about their issues and problems. On occasion, they've been amazed to hear that I've had the problems I've had and come through. With encouragement, love and support, anyone can achieve great things. I used to be scared to tell my parents of the humiliation I suffered as I was worried they would think I was "useless". As I never tried, I have no idea what they would have said. Social attitudes were different and they were "old school". All I can say is that I do my best to be accessible and supportive of my own kids. Maybe I fail sometimes, too many times.

What should be our response to social media sites that seemingly have a corrosive effect on young people? The first thing I'd suggest is to try and ensure that people don't obsess on them. We all need a range and variety of interest. Secondly, we need to ensure that self esteem and self confidence isn't being undermined. The third thing is to look out for alienation from friends. Anyone with issues of self confidence and self esteem needs friends who are supportive and who build rather than destroy these things. Try and grow healthy relationships. Lastly try and understand the transient nature of problems. Understand that no matter how bad things can be, no matter how bad we feel about ourselves, if we change just a few things in our lives, we could have a wholly different outlook. For dyslexia, there is no magic bullet cure, but we can structure our lives so it doesn't ruin it. Once we start feeling happier and more confident, these things fall into place. That is why I'd try and make sure that the community of people with issues with dyslexia use social media in a positive way. If you are a dyslexic, give it some thought. If you know a dyslexic who is becoming withdrawn, discuss what social media they are using. Don't be judgemental, just find out what they are doing and how it is helping them. If you conclude that it isn't, then educate yourself in what you are dealing with, before you start sounding off. There is nothing more likely to close a conversation down than an ill informed comment.

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