Sunday, 22 December 2013

Dyslexia and Christmas

For those of you who have read my dyslexia blogs before, you may wish to skip this paragraph as it is just the background. If you 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.

I guess that Christmas is a great time of year for Children everywhere. When I was but a wee nipper, I used to love it. I can remember raucous family dinners in the Tichborne household. We'd awake at 4am to check our stockings. I guess things were simpler then. We'd get a couple of quality street choccies, a tangerine, a few small presents and a big present. We'd write Xmas lists, which we'd burn on the fire and send up to Father Christmas. My choices were usually things like a train set, an action man or a Corgi toy, usually the latest Thunderbird or one of the machines from UFO. It was great. Then as I grew up Christmas became more serious. I guess the worst Christmas was when I was around 12. My parents felt I was too old for toys. It was a right of passage in our house that at a certain point you stopped getting toys and started to get clothes and books. Now I wasn't into clothes and being dyslexic I could read properly.

My Mum took this into account, so got me things she felt would interest me, such as the Manchester City Yearbook or the Shoot Annual. She figured that if I had something I liked, I'd at least have a crack at it. She'd say "What book would you like for Christmas?" I'd reply "Comics". She'd say "You're too old for them". I then realised what the game was. I'd ask for things which were vaguely educational, such as Chemistry sets. All I wanted to do was to use the set to make explosives. I must confess that my Dad was also fairly fed up as that was what he was hoping to do as well. Instead you got Copper Sulphate and were able to make nails look like copper. My Dad, being quite kind in that respect, realised my disappointment and took me to his workshop for a quick crash course in making expolsives. Having assembled several prototype bombs, we proceded to a piece of wasteland at the back of his workshop and let them off. It was one of the best days of my life. My father was raised in the outback of Australia and worked on goldfields. Handling things such as nitroglycerene and dynamite were part of daily life. Sadly though, reading and following instructions were not my strong point, so my bomb making career never flourished, my attempts always seem to go wrong (thankfully). I was thinking about my early Christmas experiences and I was wondering how I would have approached Christmas if I was the parent of a dyslexic child. Happily my three do not have the condition.

Firstly, I guess that however much fun it was, I wouldn't give them lessons in bomb making! The Chemistry set was also a bit frustrating because I couldn't get on with the instructions. Anything which has overly technical reading requirements is not great for a dyslexic youth. Needing help only reinforces the frustration and the sense of uselessness. 

The thing which transformed my life was music. I would always encourage dyslexics to try music. A Ukulele is a good way in to playing as it is simple and you can play along on your own. It is easy to pick out simple melodies and also to play chords as a background. 

Another thing which I got into was photography. My folks bought me a cheap instamatic camera and I went around taking all manner of odd pictures of Mill Hill. I still do, many of them I've posted here on the blog. Whilst most people liked taking snaps of their friends, I hated pictures with people in them. My folks would laugh and say "what is that supposed to be?". It is something I never really took further, but would have liked to.

I also loved games. We'd play cards at Christmas and other board games. I was quite good at reading other people, but lousy at counting cards, which my brothers both excelled at. I learned to read their ticks and also to give misleading signs myself. As for board games, I loved games like monopoly and risk. These games help you devise strategy. Many families seem to have lost the art of playing board games. I would suggest that they are great for dyslexics. 

Another thing which I got into then was gardening. My sister Cath used to buy me seeds and plants. I would grow all manner of things. I still have a couple of trees in the garden that I planted when I was twelve (I bought my folks house from them in 1987). I really got into gardening and worked for a landscape gardening firm for a while when I left school. I loved being out in the open. 

Another thing I loved was cooking. My mum would follow recipes, but my Dad always simply cooked by intuition and taste. If he cooked a bacon sarnie, he'd never simply have bacon, he'd always put some tomatoes and mushrooms with it. His omelettes were legendary and I watched and cook a pretty good one myself. He said that if you could cook, you could live like a king. He explained the importance of seasonings and why certain foods worked well with other foods. My mum noting my interest, bought me cookbooks, but the instructions often baffled me. Maybe one day I will make a cooking video for dyslexics. I believe that if you understand the taste of food and why it tastes good or bad, you can cook. I love cooking Xmas dinner.

The last thing in my list is drawing and painting. I've always enjoyed it, although I am truly useless. It is something that you can enjoy. My mother started painting in her 60's and developed a great love of it going on courses in France. It is something I will do if ever I get to retire. For the modern day generation computers open up other forms of art such as video making, which are often easy and intuitive. 

So anyway, my advice is that if you are giving presents to a dyslexic youngster, ask what they want. If you see that there are hidden issues such as difficult and baffling instructions, then discuss this. I personally would steer away from anything overly educational at Xmas. For me this was always a source of disappointment . For many dyslexic children, especially those in their early teens, Xmas is a break from school and is a big highlight of the year. Make it special. We all need to enjoy ourselves sometimes and not be vividly reminded of our big failings as human beings. 

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