May 25, 2024

Dis cover i have dyslexiaand most likely dyscalculiaraised many questions for me later in life, not the least of which was whether a childhood diagnosis would have changed the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally.

Over the years I suspected that I might be dyslexic. I also thought that I made excuses for myself when I faced certain challenges. It wasn’t until last year that I decided to seek an assessment to confirm either way. I was relieved to read in the first paragraph of my diagnostic report that my literacy difficulties matched the specific learning difficulties dyslexia.

Growing up in the late 1970s, I, like most of us, knew nothing about educational classifications. I have never heard of dyslexia, dyscalculia or neurodiversity. I struggled throughout my school years. I was a daydreamer and a slow learner, although I masked it with my lively and bubbly personality. I was the class clown and spent significant amounts of time outside the classroom door, banned for distracting my friends and talking too much. Back then, I put my poor spelling, trouble remembering words, and stumbling in my reading down to the fact that I really was a “thicko.”

How different would my life have been if I had known about dyslexia? Would this knowledge have freed me, lessened the pressure I put myself under to prove I could succeed? Alternatively, would I have used the information to limit myself – would I have given up, stopped striving? In other words, where is the line between a label that restricts and an understanding that sets us free?

Fortunately, I like questions. As a story coach, I encourage participants to sit with the questions they have about a story, no matter how insignificant, because once we have an answer, we stop our inquiries and move on. I believe the treasure lies, not in the answers, but in our questions, our curiosity to find deeper understanding.

I am curious to explore whether or not a diagnosis of neurodiversity is liberating, or whether these labels can limit and forbid us. Certainly I know that the stories we tell ourselves, and those forced upon us by others, have a powerful effect on how we define ourselves and how we live our lives.

Recently I met a woman who confided in me that, after 35 years of marriage and with four grown children, she had been diagnosed with ADHD/ASD and dyslexia. After a lifetime of being angry with herself, she said: “I can’t explain it, it all just fell away in an instant. All the disgust I felt about myself is gone.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m also beginning to understand how my lifelong questions – like why I seem unable to learn certain things, to process and remember dates, names, directions, instructions – have turned into statements. Did I turn these inquiries into a story that I imposed on myself and that others reflected back to me?

As a child I took piano lessons, which I hated. I could never remember the notes, even when I developed a complicated system for myself, repeating, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favours” as I counted on my fingers. My teachers were upset. I felt like a failure, struggling to read music when others seemed to find it easy.

Many years later, determined to learn an instrument, I found a kind and patient recorder teacher. Slowly, slowly, as I practiced every day, I began to play a series of tunes, rejoicing and enjoying this small victory. One day I casually mentioned my method of remembering the notes on the page linked to the fingering on the recorder.

“That’s not how you should do it”, said my teacher and explained how I could “fix” it. I was confused, unable to take in what was so obvious to her. I put the recorder down and made excuses, to myself as well as her, about why I had to cancel my upcoming lessons. That day I confirmed my own story, that I cannot learn to read music.

While I may struggle with music, I have always loved words. I like to communicate. I am a self-confessed chatterbox and feel at home sharing oral stories, making up spontaneous stories. In my 20s, through various twists of fate, I found myself working in theater administration. When I became general manager for several theatres, I struggled to keep up with all the reading material: reports, research and policy documents, general and industry news. I felt overwhelmed, and when more paperwork came in, I panicked, anxiety welled up in me, scattering my thoughts and clouding my judgment.

I never told anyone, but I woke up early and stayed late to catch up. I was in an almost hyper-vigilant state, and had to listen with every fiber of my being to find ways to understand. If I was any good at my job, it was because I could spin a great story, I could watch and I could listen.

When I first started a theater production company in partnership with John Miller, who later became my husband, I asked him to edit my writing, my letters and stories. I would email him copies of my writing and in the subject line I would always write, “Please weave your magic on this.” In response, he rearranged paragraphs and removed my excessive flourishes. Long sentences were interrupted and shortened, my spelling corrected.

One day, maybe a year before he died, I emailed John and, as always, asked him to weave his magic. His reply was quick and contained only four words: “No more magic needed.” Slowly, ever so slowly, I learned. He didn’t preach, he didn’t go through anything with me, he just showed me by example how to be a better writer.

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Unfortunately, John died before I started writing my first book, Seven Secrets of Spontaneous Storytelling. When my publishers asked me to write a bibliography, to acknowledge the books that inspired and inspire my work, it was immediately clear that what I learned did not come from the written word. It was all down to experiential learning, from courses, from listening, absorbing what was going on around me in all its forms, from talking to and with people.

I am a quick person by nature. I can make decisions and react quickly to situations – that’s probably why spontaneous storytelling is one of my favorite genres. I follow my impulses and instinct, which have served me well.

As I discovered more about the way my brain works, I gave myself permission to pause, allowing my mind to catch up with my instincts. Now I am less hard and more demanding on myself and I am reaping the many benefits that come with this more relaxed state of mind. So much is opening up for me, including the wonderful discovery of graphic novels and voice memos. To gain a better understanding of how I learn and work, I can embrace the gifts that come with the diagnosis: for example, quirky, creative thinking and a playful, often childlike imagination. I recently read that I am in good company. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world, including Walt Disney, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, have been diagnosed with dyslexia.

For as long as I can remember, I have masked what I consider serious flaws in my character, believing that I should know more, be better. Now, as I move into being a human, I’m not so afraid to ask for help where I need it. I understand my desire to have a dialogue over the phone rather than a series of monologues via email. I accept more easily that I don’t have to be more than I am. As I drop the mask, I can feel anxiety fall away and joy increase in my life.

At the end of my diagnostic testing last year, my assessor noted that she had seen me use a range of strategies to navigate her questioning. She even suggested that I could help others if I shared my processes. I did feel comforted knowing that these coping mechanisms helped me navigate my life.

Dyslexia is part of who I am, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that this diagnosis informs me rather than defines me. I have more tolerance for myself and have thereby discovered new compassion for others. Do I wish I had known earlier? My gut tells me that I would have followed my dreams much earlier, but, like Sliding doorsI got here anyway, and that’s the most important thing.

Seven Secrets of Spontaneous Storytelling by Danyah Miller is published by Hawthorn Press at £14.99. Join Danyah for a Lunchtime Storytelling event at the RSA on 16 May; to book a visit

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