Arts Dyslexia Trust - a brief history

The Arts Dyslexia Trust was established in 1992 but its history really goes back much further than that, to the early 60’s when the word “dyslexia” was scarcely known in England. A remarkable small independent school (Brickwall, in Sussex) run by a very remarkable head master Malcolm Ritchie, was one of the first in England to recognise dyslexia and to attempt to build up a group of teaching staff who could meet the learning needs of young dyslexic minds. I was fortunate enough to be asked to join this group and became responsible for Art classes there for the next 20 years.

As soon as I got there, I became fascinated by the work that was being created by the boys in these classes. Compared to the work produced in Art Colleges where I had previously been teaching, their creative imagination was simply outstanding.and the results amazing. This, in-spite of a severe lack of equipment and inadequate space - the Art Room was a dark and subterranean ex-cowshed with a chronically uneven brick floor. I remember watching anxiously as snow flakes drifted down through the unsealed roof on to the heads of the visiting inspectors. Fortunately they didn’t notice.

By the time I retired, in 1985, I had become convinced that there must be some reason why a lack of ability with words should so often bring with it a higher than average ability in subjects requiring visual-spatial skills. I took a degree course in Research Methods with the open University, determined to discover the roots of this connection. Of course, I was always being told that such a connection did not exist but I soon found that the evidence was there. From the great Norman Geschwind, his brilliant successor Albert Galaburda, and many others, I gathered the clues to the explanation I was looking for.

There is no room to go into detail here - and any explanation requires illustrations, which necessarily takes up space. However, to sum up the conclusions very briefly: I believe that traditional academic education depends on the use of words and numbers which can only be understood sequentially. The visual thinkers, including many of the talented dyslexics, think three-dimensionally. The differences between these two ways of thinking are profound. They effect all sorts of things, not only the way people learn. I have written several papers on the subject and would be happy to send one to any reader who is interested.

One major source of misunderstanding is that It is not generally appreciated that there are two ways of perceiving, recording and manipulating visual information in one’s brain: two-dimensionally (i.e. as flat pattern), and three-dimensionally. It is the latter form which is most commonly used amongst dyslexics. The fact that none of the so-called “Visual” tests distinguish between these two ways of thinking and very, very few are presented in three-dimensional format explains, perhaps, why there is such controversy on the subject and why there are still so many people who refuse to believe that the dyslexic visual talent exists.

So, the first thing we did when the the Trust was formed, was to mount a big exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London, to demonstrate this dyslexic talent. It attracted enormous support from the art world and elsewhere. Richard Rogers lent us some of his beautiful architectural models; we showed Leonardo prints from the Queens collection at Windsor; pages from Faraday’s illustrated notebooks, extracts from Einstein’s mathematical notes; and a beautiful photograph of one of Yeats’ hand written poems kindly given to us by the current editor of Yeats’ letters. “A first exhibition of its kind” was warmly welcomed by, amongst other people by Roger de Gray KCVO, past president of the Royal Academy, who said, “I warmly welcome the encouragement that this exhibition will give to present dyslexic students and their families, and also hope that it may encourage a fresh assessment on the part of educational authorities on the value of visual thinking”.