Dyslexia's Special Club: Actor Orlando Bloom Speaks Out

Dyslexia's Special Club: Actor Orlando Bloom Speaks Out

What do Charles Schwab, David Boies, Tom Cruise, Nelson Rockefeller -- and it's suspected even Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison -- have in common?

They are all famous, yes. And also dyslexic.

Of course, considering 15 to 20 percent of the population is affected with a language-based learning disability -- and dyslexia is the most common of these -- purely statistically a handful of dyslexics are going to make it big. But research suggests it goes deeper than that: Experts are discovering a link between dyslexia and success.

In the spirit of raising awareness, the Child Mind Institute, an organization devoted to children's mental health, hosted a lecture series on dyslexia last week in New York City. President of the institute Harold Koplewicz, M.D. interviewed one such dyslexic-turned-success, actor and all-out movie star Orlando Bloom.

"It was a struggle. It was a lot of work," Bloom told the audience at Rockefeller University. "I had to work three times as hard to get two-thirds of the way.

"I was frustrated with that learning disability. It makes you feel stupid."

A great relief came for the actor at age seven, when he was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia, and also told he had a high IQ score. It was a blessing to get that diagnoses, he said. He knew he wasn't dumb.

A blessing indeed it was. The generation before Bloom's didn't fare so well. For decades the learning disability has been misunderstood -- or not understood at all -- and dyslexics knew only that they weren't "normal." They couldn't keep up in class, couldn't spell or read properly. They were called stupid or lazy -- and too often, they believed it.

The 1990s marked a crucial turning point, when scientists discovered the disability was linked to neurological differences in the brain -- differences that had nothing to do with cognition, IQ or intelligence.

Technology became available that enabled scientists to observe the brain while a person read, spoke or processed phonological structures of language -- i.e. what the brain is doing when we "sound out" words, or make links between the way a word sounds and what it looks like on a page. Scientists discovered the sections of the brain that process language work differently in people with dyslexia.

Nowadays, research is showing not only that dyslexics aren't stupid; they're often exceptionally bright in other areas. With reading, spelling and organization a constant struggle, dyslexic children (and adults) are forced to find alternative, innovative strategies to learn.

They often rely on creativity, reasoning, problem-solving and empathy to achieve their goals -- building skills that can serve them well in life beyond the classroom, explained Sally Shaywitz, M.D., co-founder of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity and author of Overcoming Dyslexia, at the lecture series.

"Creativity is the key for any child with dyslexia, or for anyone for that matter. Then you can think outside of the box," said Bloom. "Teach them anything is attainable. Let them run with what you see is whatever they need to run with."

Growing up, he was able to capitalize on his acting talent, his natural leadership (captain of the school soccer team, of the hockey team ... ) and his "way with the ladies" (he sheepishly admitted he could often get by with "a wink and a smile").

"I'm lucky," he conceded. "I've always been lucky."

But many other children aren't as lucky, and the low self-esteem brought on by dyslexia often takes an unrecoverable toll.

"Obviously, most people don't turn out like Orlando," said Dr. Koplewicz after his interview with Bloom. Many people don't make it through school. They end up with substance abuse problems and addictions, or even in jail, he said.

Youth with untreated dyslexia are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school (36 percent of students) and become unemployed, underemployed or incarcerated, according to the society for neuroscience, 2004.

Children who are bright and talented often won't see it come to fruition because the dyslexia stands in the way. And a big part of that is self-esteem. Proper diagnoses can bring peace of mind. It can also mean getting the appropriate attention, extra time and special help needed to manage the challenge.

The earlier, the better: There's a big difference between beginning special training in kindergarten or first grade versus third grade or later. By the third grade 74 percent of kids who are already poor readers will remain so into adulthood, research has shown.

"It's not something that ever goes away," said Bloom. "But you learn how to manage it."

He offered advice to children: First, don't be shy or ashamed. Ask for help. Say, "I have dyslexia. I need some extra time on this test or homework assignment."

Also, don't see it as a problem, but a gift -- a special club. "It's not a disability; it's a challenge," he said. Even an opportunity.

Dyslexic children grow up to be brilliant doctors, lawyers, actors, writers and inventors. Bloom encouraged kids to never give up on their dreams: "Take this obstacle and make it the reason to have a big life."

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