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What The Simpsons Tells Us About Dyslexia

A common discussion point around dyslexia is: are you born with it, or does it develop during your lifetime? Traditionally, society has assumed that dyslexics are born dyslexic. This assumption naturally leads to something I call the What-A-Shame approach to dyslexia: you were born with a learning difficulty; if you try really hard, and if we give you lots of support, you might be able to reduce its effects, but basically — you have a lifelong disability.


The reverse position — that dyslexia develops during your lifetime — is riddled with all sorts of explosive dilemmas. If you weren't born with a learning difficulty, then whose "fault" is it that you ended up with it? Yours, for being "lazy"? Or was it your teachers who "damaged" your learning — or perhaps even your parents?


But what if the truth is actually somewhere in the middle, and much more nuanced? One of the phenomena I have seen again and again in my client families is something I call the "Simpsons factor". If you know The Simpsons, you'll know that Homer and Marge Simpson have three children: Bart, who — despite remaining unlabelled in the cartoon — has all the hallmarks of dyslexia and ADHD; Lisa, his academically top-achieving sister; and baby Maggie, who barely speaks but shows all sorts of non-verbal signs of having a genius IQ.


Time and time again, I find myself working with a bright but struggling dyslexic child — a "Bart" — who has an academically brilliant sibling — a "Lisa". To cite but one example: a recent client, now a teenager, was struggling to learn spellings at the age of 8. So his elder brother, who was 10 at the time, wrote a computer programme to help him learn through a more visual interface. Even during my own schooling I remember two identical twins, one of whom was in the top sets for all subjects, while the other was in the bottom sets.


If two individuals, who share between 50% and 100% of their genes and are raised by the same parents in similar circumstances, can develop with polar-opposite educational outcomes — and if this is happening time and time again — what is going on?


a brain with puzzle pieces

Ron Davis, himself dyslexic, has developed a model for dyslexia that explains what may be occurring here. Dyslexia is neither "nature" nor "nurture": dyslexics are born with certain innate talents — or "puzzle pieces" — that can produce either giftedness or problems. Dyslexics themselves usually present a "spiky profile" of areas in which they excel, and areas in which they struggle desperately. Their sibling who is doing so well at school may have the same puzzle pieces, but different outcomes.


The puzzle pieces for dyslexia that Davis identifies are:


  • the person thinks in pictures much more than in words

  • the person is able to shift their perception and "take a walk" in their mental pictures, experiencing and recording them as if they were reality. This ability is known in Davis as disorientation and will be the subject of a future blog post in its own right

  •  the person is highly sensitive to confusion.

What then happens to these puzzle pieces in the person's life is crucial in determining whether the person will develop dyslexia as a learning difficulty — or not. This is something that Davis calls the Anatomy of a Learning Disability.

picture thinking and confusion graphic


In a nutshell, a person ends up being taught to read and write that don't mesh with the way they think and, therefore, learn. Most commonly, this occurs when the person is expected to learn to read using phonics. These methods work really well for auditory word thinkers — but for picture-thinking dyslexics, they lead to confusion and mistakes.


Imagine what it feels like to make mistakes again and again, over a period of years, knowing that you are making them but with no idea how to fix them. The anguish and frustration causes the person to adopt coping strategies: memory tricks, avoidance, or a form of concentration that essentially forces the mind into compliance. Tragically, it is these very coping strategies that cement the learning problems and create what the world then sees is a lifelong learning difficulty.


Thousands of people who have completed Davis Mastery for Dyslexia know that this is not the case. A richly experiential approach to reading and writing that plays to an individual's strengths, combined with the Davis Orientation tools that give a person control of the processes that have been causing the confusion and the mistakes, gives back to dyslexics their fundamental entitlement: that reading should be easy.

a young boy sitting at a desk with books and is smiling

"Michael is reading Harry Potter. On a kindle with dyslexia font on it. He’s read half of it in a week! And interestingly he said he’s able to read the sentence only once and absorb the information.


I can’t believe he’s reading HP. We have given him the kindle to use for all reading.


It’s one hell of a magic trick you did Richard.

Thank you so very much.

Mike wants to thank you himself at some point. He’s so happy with himself now."


Fiona Green, mother of Michael, aged 15.



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