by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy

Typical symptoms

If you don’t have dyslexia, but you need to work with someone who does, it can be very helpful to get some idea of what is going on for them. If you yourself have dyslexia, it is important to know that others have similar experiences.

No two dyslexics seem to have exactly the same symptoms. If you have been diagnosed with dyslexia, you will know that your dyslexia is probably different from the next person’s and you will have your own set of difficulties. In fact, most of us are probably on a scale somewhere between having problems with just a few written words to finding words virtually impossible.


Take a look at What is it like being you? and see how you rate yourself or somebody you work with.

This gives you some ideas about how your experience with words will differ from that of others.

What’s it like?

Here are some things that people with dyslexia report as their experience:

  • Letters are jumping around on the page
  • I am searching in my brain to see if I have ever seen the word before
  • Everything goes blank
  • It’s like one of those old ‘flick books’ where you see characters moving on a page
  • I don’t want to look; the letters and the words are backwards
  • I can see some of the letters of the word and there are others lying around trying to push in on the act
  • I just ignore any punctuation marks; I don’t understand them
  • I feel really sick when looking at words that I cannot associate with a picture, such as ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘who’; the feeling comes on quickly and can take some time to fade away
  • The same thing happens with a number of symbols, such as commas, speech marks and so on [these are known as triggers]
  • I can read capitals, but lower case words get muddled
  • The lines go wavy and change places
  • The letters and words are backwards [and, interestingly, the person knows this]
  • Individual letters swap, or some of the groups of letters in a word turn around – for example, ‘ea’ becomes ‘ae’ and ‘b’ becomes ‘d’, ‘bread’ gets swapped into ‘draeb’
  • Words get replaced with something similar – so if I am struggling to read ‘their’, I may think it is ‘chair’ [the words have nothing to do with each other, but their shape is similar in the person’s mind]
  • In maths, I find I ignore symbols such as + and = [and maths certainly makes no sense without symbols]
  • The letters are jumping around [this seems to be because people quickly look at a word from many different angles, like in a flick book]
  • I use a ‘working out words’ technique to spell; there’s a dialogue in my head, such as ‘the word bat is like cat’, so I take off the ‘c’ and add a ‘b’; I do this every time I want to spell a word – just imagine how much effort goes into every written word and how tired it makes me feel
  • My work is found half way through a book, or even upside down, never starting at the beginning of the book and working forward.
  • It is difficult to keep my mind focused on the page with so many other thought processes going on.

In primary school you see children turning around individual letters, and their attention and behaviour starts to deteriorate. By secondary school, whole words may be moving and if you feel ill when you look at words, school is the last place you want to go.  If you are lucky enough to enter the workforce you may enter certain manual trades, emergency services, and caring roles that attract people who believe that they can get away with covering up their literacy shame. 

As you can imagine, having any – or several – of these feelings and experiences when you are faced with words or figures is highly unpleasant. Add to this the fear of being thought stupid, and it can become very difficult to enjoy your work or show your full potential.

What do dyslexics want?

Dyslexics say they want to

  • Be better at spelling – spelling problems may range from having no idea how to spell a word to just transposing letters (often vowels), frequently making the same mistake, or even spelling the same words different ways on every occasion
  • Be able to read better, without missing words or having the words on the page moving around and getting jumbled up
  • Be quicker at reading and find it easier to make more sense of the words and remember the content
  • Find it easier to get the ideas out of their head and down on paper
  • Find it easier to read large documents, which may be particularly difficult straight from a computer screen
  • Lose physical manifestations, such as feeling sick when they look at words (especially when using the computer’s scroll facility)
  • Make mental arithmetic much easier and stop using their fingers to count
  • Be able to remember things better, especially getting them in the right order
  • Get better focus on one task at a time.




to confuse, disorientate or puzzle thoroughly, often by numerous things happening or moving at the same time or in rapid succession.

A word that seems to encapsulate the experience of many people with dyslexia is ‘bewildering’.

To try and imagine what it is like when you come across a word that is ‘bewildering’; think of a sentence such as

The son of the old man kicked the dinner of the dog.

If ‘the’ and ‘of’ are both trigger words, they will cause a ‘bewildering’ feeling every time you meet them and you will mentally skip these words. The sentence now reads

Son old man kicked dinner dog.

The picture you are constructing in your mind’s eye of what this sentence means may even go blank, to get you out of a feeling you don’t like. This is a positive personal reaction to protect you from further ‘bewildering’, but it has a disastrous effect on your understanding and hence your ability to recall or do any comprehension test.

This tends to be a downward spiral, as bewildering creates stress, which is likely to create even more bewildering. It may take someone only a few moments to get over whatever feeling they have or it could take much longer, depending on the individual and the strength of the feeling.

The particular ‘bewildering’ someone has depends on all sorts of triggers, including the size of the words, whether or not they are in capitals, whether there are lots of words on the page without much spacing, the font used or the type of the word.

I was one of the ‘puzzle’ children myself – a dyslexic, or reverse reader – and I still have a hard time reading today.

Nelson Rockefeller, statesman, former governor of New York