Interview with Amber Lee Dodd, Author with Dyslexia
When were you diagnosed with dyslexia and how did you feel about the label?
I was diagnosed quite late. It wasn’t until I went to university and I was urged to get tested that I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia. It wasn’t a huge surprise but it did help make sense of things. The problem is the label still comes with a stigma and people still don’t understand it. When asking for help at university I was asked by an older personal tutor, ‘Doesn’t that mean you just can’t spell?’ I think some schools and universities are doing a great job in providing support and help but unfortunately it’s not the case everywhere.
What was your overall experience of school?
In infant and junior school I was labelled with special needs and had to attend special classes and do adapted work for some of my classes. It meant sitting on my own and not knowing what I was doing a lot of the time, or reading the dreaded easy reading series books with the special needs group. I was very aware of being the worst in the class. And on a couple of occasions one of my teachers called me stupid. But when my teachers gave up on me, my parents didn’t. They got every book out of the library on learning difficulties and both being teachers they managed to come up with a programme to teach me to read. It took me longer than any of my classmates but I did learn to read and once I could I wanted to not just read stories, I wanted to write them. It was writing stories in class that I realised I was finally good at something. And slowly, slowly, I started to catch up with my classmates in my other subjects too. In secondary school I started to do well. But I still had problems, including being accused of cheating, because the content of my essays where good but my spelling, punctuation and handwriting wasn’t. My dyslexia was completely missed throughout school.
Why do you think there are still so many common misconceptions about dyslexia?
I think the problem is one person's dyslexia isn’t another’s. It can present in different ways. Some dyslexics are fantastic mathematicians but struggle terribly with English. Other’s it’s the reverse. Dyslexia isn’t a simple set of symptoms; it’s a way to describe a different way of processing information. But that’s a complicated thing to understand.
Did you know that the highest percentage of young dyslexic adults in London are found at both Central St. Martins Art College and the Young Offenders Institute? This gap is unacceptable. What do you think needs to change to make education/ the situation better for young dyslexic people today?
I didn’t know that! But I’m not surprised. Under the current English test guidelines I would fail. As an adult, as a children’s author and short story writer, I would fail. This is ridiculous; we are setting children up to fail at a young age. We are setting them up to fail again and again. We are valuing spelling and punctuation over content, comprehension and creativity.
To help meet these ridiculous standards we have turned creative writing into an exercise that is mostly judged on grammar and spelling. We are devaluing our creative subjects when we should be championing them. And we are placing spelling and grammar targets that discriminate against those with dyslexia.
When I go into schools and talk about being an author, I tell children that it doesn’t matter how good you are at spelling, or how good you are at school, everyone can write stories. I can’t say it too often because if you can get a child enthused about one subject or one thing at school you’re opening up their world.
Your book 'We Are Giants' embraces diversity and inclusivity. Why is that important to you?
I write books I would want to read and I want to read about the people I’ve meet and worked with. We Are Giants was written after working with disabled children, so it seemed only natural to include a disabled character in it. My next book has a dyslexic protagonist and has a little of my school experiences in it. I’m always looking to write about unique and different points of view because we need to hear different voices.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer with dyslexia?
Firstly, don’t worry about your spelling. I had a spelling mistake in my first sentence and my book still got published. Plus you get to work with magical people called copy editors.
Secondly, read. And read lots. Don’t worry if you’re slow about it. It still takes me about a month to finish reading one book. But I take a lot of that in. And I go back and reread things if they didn’t make sense to me or I jumped a few lines. It may be a slow process but the advantage is I learn more from it and I start to unravel how the author put things together.
Thirdly, don’t worry if you’re doing it differently. My dyslexic brain makes me jump all around a narrative and I often have to write quite a bit before I can sort out the plotting. Find a way to organise your thoughts and ideas that work for you. Some people make visual diagrams, or come up with places in their book and fit the plotting around that. I write lots of lists and notes and flow charts often on the back of used envelopes. There is no right way, only the way that works for you.
When were you diagnosed with dyslexia and how did you feel about the label?I was diagnosed quite late. It wasn’t until I went to university and I was urged to get tested that I was diagnosed with...