Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Neurodiversity and Legal Advocacy: Dyslexia

Brain bias

This is part two of my continuing series of posts about neurodiversity and legal advocacy. In today's post, I'll talk about my own neurodiversity - dyslexia. While each type of neurodiversity presents differently, I hope some of my personal experience and research can help you as either a teacher, partner, or mentor when you encounter dyslexic students or associates. If you are dyslexic yourself, the following may help you process your differences and see how they can be turned into strengths.

Studies estimate that from 10-20% of the population has dyslexia. Dyslexia involves a series of genetic, neurological differences that result in a different way of seeing the world. Given the prevalence of dyslexia, it is likely that you have taught or work with dyslexic thinkers.

1.    Strengths

Although traditionally seen as a disability, Richard Branson considers dyslexia to be his superpower, and several companies now hire dyslexic thinkers purposefully because of their strengths. Indeed, LinkedIn now includes "dyslexic thinking" as a skill. Those strengths include:

    A.     Big Picture Thinking

Most dyslexics see themselves as "big picture thinkers." They see trends and patterns in data more quickly than neurotypicals. This permits them to see how things connect in complex systems, categorize broadly based on similarities, and, conversely, quickly spot things that are out of place. The GCHQ, a British intelligence and security agency, employs over 100 dyslexic thinkers to assist in their analysis for this reason.

    B.     Problem Solving

Dyslexics tend to score very high in reasoning skills. Their big-picture view of the world helps them understand patterns and systems quickly, and they can then simplify those complex systems. They are logical and strategic thinkers. In the legal world, this means dyslexics may be able to see legal solutions based on prior precedent a bit more clearly -- once they understand the purpose and policy behind prior precedent, they can extrapolate it to newer areas quickly.

    C.     Creativity

Picasso, Pollack, Spielberg, Einstein and Roald Dahl were all dyslexic thinkers. That doesn't mean all dyslexics are artists, but most do see the world a bit differently, and process and explore it differently as well.

    D.     Empathy

Whether a function of their "big picture" thinking, their experiences in coping with difficulties in reading and writing, or both, dyslexic thinkers score high in empathy. They typically sense, understand, and respond to other people's feelings more quickly and accurately than neurotypical people.

    E.     Spatial Reasoning

When dyslexic children learn to read, the right hemisphere of their brain lights up on MRIs. Neurotypical children usually do not have the same response. This is hypothesized to be because the dyslexic brain tends to use spatial reasoning for everything, including reading. Rather than just hearing and assigning sounds to letters, the dyslexic child seems to create patterns and "shapes" for each word. This spatial reasoning persists in dyslexic thinking, with dyslexics often scoring highly on spatial reasoning and 3D imagination. This may be why they can be strong theoretical mathematicians, but still make sequential errors (they see the forests but miss the trees).

    F.     Communication

When these strengths are combined, they can make dyslexics excellent communicators. Big-picture thinking, empathy, and creativity mean that dyslexics can be strong narrative story-tellers. And Walter Fisher's narrative paradigm of communications suggests that this makes them more persuasive.

2.     Challenges and coping mechanisms

Of course, being dyslexic isn't always wonderful. Dyslexia was categorized as a disability for a reason - it carries with it significant challenges. People with dyslexia are sometimes described as being neurologically "spiky," with scores both higher and lower than the neurotypical (as that name would suggest). While building on the strengths listed above, the dyslexic thinker needs to recognize those challenges. Fortunately, there are numerous aids in helping them do so.

    A.     Organization.

Big picture thinkers need to learn to break things down into steps. While it is useful to see the forest, the trees still matter in the law. Brian Garner's "madman, architect, carpenter, judge" process is extremely helpful to me. I love the exploration of research (another dyslexic trait) but feel constrained by early organization. Using Garner's process, I naturally compose my big picture argument, use the law I find to create structure, then build and rebuild the argument.

    B.     Spelling and Grammar.

Spelling and grammar are most dyslexic thinkers' kryptonite. Yet most rubrics weigh them heavily, both because they matter and because they are easy to grade. This frankly inequitable bias has to be addressed, because it will impact them professionally. But it can't paralyze the writer.

I once had the privilege of spending an evening talking with Ray Bradbury. His primary writing advice? "Write the damn thing!" Dyslexics need to get a draft on paper without fear of failure. That may mean speech to text software. It may mean cut and pasting blocks of text from cases first, then revising later. But getting something on the page is what matters.

Then revise, revise, revise. Word has learning tools that are thoroughly explored in the website listed below. AI could also be used to help. But the main emphasis for a dyslexic writer should be that good writing is rewriting, even for neurotypical writers, but especially for dyslexic writers. A second set of eyes is also highly recommended. My wife, a history professor, reads almost everything I write. Including these blogs. If you aren't blessed with a wife with good grammar skills and the patience of Job, you probably have a paralegal, legal secretary, or co-worker who does.

    C.     Instructions.

Because dyslexics are big-picture thinkers, and because they often have some decoding lag-time, giving them instructions can be tricky. Rather than just telling students to "write a memo," the dyslexic student may need the necessary steps broken down for them. And they benefit greatly from iterative learning - letting them edit and rewrite assignments is a huge boost both in learning and emotional impact.

    D.    Short-Term and Working Memory.

Several studies have shown that dyslexic thinkers can have difficulty with both short-term and working memory. Working memory is a subset of short-term memory that involves remembering sequential steps, planning, and behavioral related decision making. We forget our keys and people's names and phone numbers with alarming regularity.

One of my coping mechanisms is to write things down immediately. If I am researching and have a thought, I write it down quickly. If I have a text or notification come through, it will probably disappear if I do not. I do the same at oral argument - I furiously write down questions and statements that I need to address and draw arrows and write numbers to organize them. Once I have done that, I am locked in, because I can visualize the new argument.

There are several strategies to look into: color association, chunking, visualization, and mnemonics are all useful. As is technology. Calendaring and note apps are a part of everyday life for me and most dyslexics.

    E.     Managing Emotional Impact.

Being a dyslexic student, or advocate, isn't easy. Issues with memory, organization, and difficulty grasping instructions quickly are all anxiety-inducing. Reading -- a huge part of our day -- is draining because of the additional decoding that must take place. Text-to-speech readers may be helpful. Extra time accommodations aren't necessarily an advantage to such students, so much as a way to help level the field. But making sure their strengths are valued is also key. Hopefully, a strength-based approach to your interactions with these students will help them see the value in their differences.

3.     Conclusion

Dyslexia makes me a better advocate, but only because I've learned to capitalize on its strengths and cope with its weaknesses. Hopefully you can help your students, associates, or yourself do the same by following some of these tips.


Further Reading

Made by Dyslexia - Website with tests, instructional videos, and teaching tools

Taylor, H and Vestergaard MD: 'Developmental Dyslexia: Disorder or Specialization in Exploration?' Frontiers in Psychology (June 2022).


(Photo attribute: Bill Sanderson, 1997. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0)

Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, Science | Permalink


Thank you for this insightful series! I plan to share with my colleagues and students.

Posted by: Jayne Woods | Jun 27, 2024 5:43:58 AM

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