This webpage tells about my experiences with dyslexia and how it influenced my schoolcareer. When I studied astrophysics at the University of Utrecht, I was 6 years older then the average student who started that year. This story explains why.
4 - 12
When I was still in kindergarten my 6 year older sister taught me how to read and write. She now is a theacher at a primairy school. But then I was her only pupil. For a long time it worked very well but when she wanted to teach me how to write the Dutch word `water' my understanding of language ended. I didn't understand why a word wich sounds like `w-aa-t-e-r' should be speled as `wa-ter'. The spelling of this word was the cause of a lot of fights between us and it really bothered me that I couldn't understand the logic of spelling.
When I was in primary school the real teachers taught me how to read and write. I had to learn all those words which I already knew again. They almost bored me to death. But then they thought me about syllabels and then I finally understood the logic behind the spelling of `wa-ter'. In the dutch language if a syllable ends on a single vowel it sounds like a double vowel (which gets pronounced differently). And I never misspelled `water' again.
But from that day on I was doomed to misspelling words which end with `tje'. In the Dutch language `tje' is used to stress that the thing is a small thing. For example, the Dutch word for car is `auto' and an `autootje' is a very small car. But the problem with `tje' is that it is pronounced as one syllable, so in the logic of syllable it should be `au-to-tje' but it's `au-toot-je'. There are two words which I misspelled frequently for this reason. Those are `beetje' and `chocolaatje' which mean `a little bit' and `chocolate'. I remember being laughed at for those errors for hundreds of times.
During primairy school my reading and writing didn't progress very well. I kept making the same errors and nobody knew why. I also was very slow in preforming other tasks. I could never finish my work in time. It gave the teachers the impression that I was stupid. But the most frustrating thing was that I didn't understand it myself either. I started to believe that I was stupid too. Why couldn't I do all the things other kids could ? Why was I so slow with everything ?
12 - 16
Just befor it was time for me to decide what type of school to go to next my mother heared about the existense of dyslexia and got me tested. The relief I felt when I was diagnosed dyslexic was unbelievable. Finally I knew why I was different. Finally I knew that I wasn't as stupid as everybody had thought. But I still didn't know what dyslexia really meant. And nobody knew how my dyslexia would develope. The answer to the question which type of school I should go to wasn't really answered. My mother decided to play it safe and send me to the type of school which I would be capable of doing in a worse case senario. So I went to an ivo-mavo.
At that age I didn't really understand what my options were and what the consequense might be. Studying below my level didn't realy boost my motivation. Some subjects were far to easy for me and the theorie was repeated over and over again. And other subjects were far to difficult for me. I felt like I was an alien in the classroom. All the other childeren could easily reproduce all the words and terms we had to learn, and I didn't understand how they did that. That felt terrible. It confused me even more.
I lost all my confidence. I didn't get any joy from learning. I used to be a very anxious to learn new things, but school had become something where you were constantly confronted with your limits and the real interested topics were to difficult to discuss. I nearly failed to get my mavo diploma due to this growing lack of interest. So when I got it it was clear that learning wasn't made for me. Later on I discoverd that it wasn't the subjects which were to difficult for me but the learning method which was used which made it all much more difficult for me. But despite of the personal guidance this school provided my teachers couldn't see my potential.
16 - 19
Drawing had always be my favourite hobby so I decided that I wanted to become an illustrator. I didn't really know how to become one, but I heared that there was a school for graphical design (mrto) which offered a diploma for commercial illustrator. Unfortunatly there were to many applicants the first year, so I had to wait for one year befor I could enter this school. During that year I got my lts diploma for graphical technique, which is a practical education.
When I could finally enter the mrto I was very happy. I felt that I was doing something usefull for a start. Half of the time I was drawing all kind of things and the other half I was learning interested things about the history of art, printing technics and the envolved (simple) physics and mathematics. But during the second year drawing became less importand. Every time we had to "produce" a picture we were creating an illusion of a bigger more beautifull world. We were not artists; We were liars. They didn't teach me how to draw they taught me how to manipulate. So when I also discovered that the task of a commercial illustrator wasn't to create illustrations but to produce commercial images as dictated by the designer and draw the more boring product illustrations, I quit this study.
During those tree years I wasn't confronted with my dyslexia that much. The problems that occured due to dyslexia were of a whole different type. I can read as easilly backwards as forwards as upside down, so when I was working with negatives with text I continueously forgot which was the mirrored image and which was the correct one. I also made a few frustrating spelling errors in designs with text, so I soon learned to trippel check spelling for important texts.
19 - 24
Now that I had ended my mrto, I had to think of something else to do. The only alternative during that time to develop your artistic skills was to go to an art academy. But I wasn't sure if that was the path I wanted to take. I did some research and found out that most illustrators developed their skills on their own. Since I needed to get an havo diploma to be able to enter an art academy, I chose to try doing the havo first and see where that would lead me. This way I also bought a little time befor I had to deside what I should do.
I didn't know what to expect from the havo. It had always be very clear that I would probably be too stupid to do the havo. And people around me weren't very supportive. People always tend to be sceptical when someone changes his carrier plans. In a way I had to proof to the world that I had made the right decision. So it almost was the end of the world when I didn't pass that year. Almost everybody adviced me to quit school and get a job. But doing theoretical subjects again convinced me that this was what I wanted to do.
The next year was very hard. My school didn't permit pupils to redo a whole year during the daytime. Instead I had to do the subjects which I had not passed in evening classes and the subjects which I did pass in the next grade in dayclasses. Because now I didn't do a full daytime study I didn't get student funding and I had to work besides my studies. Try to find a job when you are supposed to be in school during the daytime and the evenings... Luckally I got a job at the schoolcafeteria. I almost lived there. Somedays I was at school from 08:45 in the morning untill 22:15 ! It was a great challenge to finish that year succesfully. This motivated me very much.
During the havo I learned a lot about what dyslexia means for me. The schoolsystem isn't designed for dyslexic pupils, so I had to find my own ways to absorb new information. Some things are just too difficult to master as a dyslexic. I had to find out what my priorities should be. What knowledge do I absolutely need to pass this subject ? Which types of information will be usefull for the future ? Does this way up against the investment I need to do to master it ?
For a dyslexic even the most basic knowledge which laks a certain logic like the order of the characters in the alphabet, the months of the year, or the difference between left and right, needs to get continueous attention. Not all types of information are worth such a big investment. But sometimes you need to invest in mastering a certain skill only for the purpose of passing an exam while other skills are needed in a day to day basis. For example, once in a while I forget which way to turn a tap to close it, or how to open a bottle. This can be very frustrating.
I developed my own learning method adjusted to my capabillities and limits. This worked very well. So when I had passed the havo I had enough confidence that I could go even further and try doing the vwo. I really liked learning. I had always been very curious about everything, especially scientific topics. But as a child I never thought that doing the vwo could be a possibility for me. If I was able to do the vwo this meant that I could even go to university. This was a very exciting idea. It opened up a lot of new possibilities. I may even go study the subject which had fascinated me all my life: astrophysics.
I strated doing vwo in one year, which is a combination of the last two years of vwo compressed into one year. Unfortunatly doing the vwo confronted me with a new aspect of my dyslexia which I didn't expect. I made just as much spelling errors in mathemathical notations as in normal text. Because of this I couldn't pass for math and physics. An expert on dyslexia of the Dutch association of dyslexia "woortblind" tested me again and looked for ways in which he could help me. In most cases dyslexic people can be helped by boosting their motivation, but in my case this wasn't a problem. And since I had already developed a very efficient way of studying there was nothing that he could do for me.
But this didn't stop me from trying to pass the vwo again during the next year. I studied very hard. The only limit which could prevent me from passing my vwo was my dyslexia. I tried to bend this boundary as far as possible. And it worked. That year I passed the vwo and I was ready for university. Everybody was very proud about me. My school even contacted the local paper with this story. This resulted in a big interview of me about my school carrier with my picture in the Saterday edition of the `Eindhovens Dagblad'.
24 - ...
It took me a while befor I could realy belief it was really true: "I was in University studying Astrophysics !" Unfortunatly the first year didn't go very well due to personal reasons. But I made a new attempt the second year. I soon discovered that dyslexia was a bigger problem than I had expected. The new learning methods of university brought a new range of dyslexia problems. I had hoped that the influence of dyslexia would get less for complexer and abstracter subjects, but this wasn't the case.
The first problem I face when I have a new course is absorbing the studie material in time. I read very slowly and I need to be fully concentrated, so reading takes a lot of effort. It is importand for me that I am familiar with the studie material before I can succesfully make the exercizes. I need to have a global understanding of the subject befor I can get into the details. This commenly causes me to fall behind with the exercizes from the beginning of a course.
The second problem is making exercizes whithout writing errors. I make a lot of writing errors. It doesn't matter if I am writing normal text, math, or formulars. I will make writing errors. And most of them are very hard to spot. The only thing which helps prevent writing errors is concentration. I need to be fully concentrated while making exercizes and constandly be aware of possible errors. This slows me down very much, so I need a lot more time for an exercize then other students.
Checking my work for possible errors is very importand. If the answer to the exercize is wrong I need to find out if I made an dyslexia error or if I do not yet master the material well enough. I have a list in my head with common dyslexia errors I make. This helps me to find possible dyslexia errors. But because I make a lot of reading errors too, it is very difficult to find errors.
Because everything takes me more time I can't keep up with the standard program. I do almost half the courses of a standard university year, so it takes me at least twice as long to finish university. Because I never know in advance how much extra time I need for a course, I have to constandly adjust my personal program. This is very difficult and I am not allways succesful in finishing studying all the study material in time for the exam.
At the faculty of physics & astronomy of the University of Utrecht I get one houre extra time at exams which normally take three houres. At most exams I need this extra time very bad. I need it to stay fully concentrated, to prevent making dyslexia errors, and to find and correct errors if I did make them. Unfortunatly staying fully concentrated for four houres without any breaks is very hard. After an exam I need a full day to recover from it. This means that I can't take more then one exam in two days.
I belief that we should be able to have a break during a four hour exam. I also think that I should be provided with more flexable exam dates. Those things could make my life a lot easier. Having dyslexia means that you are different and most of the time this means that you don't fit into the system. Beeing different means that you have to constantly bend and adjust yourself to fit into a system which wasn't made for you. But you must not forget that this system can sometimes be bend as well.