Could you be dyslexic and not know it?

When Shae Wissell first started university she had no idea she was dyslexic. She struggled a lot in her Bachelor’s degree, failing subjects and thin...

When Shae Wissell first started university she had no idea she was dyslexic. She struggled a lot in her Bachelor’s degree, failing subjects and thinking she was “dumb.” In her final semester, a lecturer suggested that she may be dyslexic: “My lecturer didn’t know how I’d made it through school, passed year 12, let alone gotten through most of my degree!”

Dyslexia is a type of reading difficulty that we often think of in children. However, it also affects many adults, and some don’t find out until they reach work or university. This is because they have slipped through the gaps of childhood detection methods and developed their own adaptive strategies to get through school. But the demands of university and work are very different from school, so old strategies may not work anymore.

Dyslexia is common

Dyslexia affects approximately one in 10 people. However, less than one in 200 university students declare a reading difficulty when they enrol. The most obvious explanation is that very few people with dyslexia may be going to university. It’s also likely that some arrive at university without knowing they are dyslexic, and others may already know they’re dyslexic but choose not to disclose this to the university.

We don’t know exactly how many people with dyslexia live in Western Sydney or in Australia, or how many attend Australian universities, because this data has not been collected. However, we do know that reading difficulties run in families, so if one of your parents, or a brother or sister, or another relative has trouble reading, you could also be affected.

Dyslexia has many faces

Key difficulties for people with dyslexia relate to reading speed, accuracy, and understanding. There are many types of dyslexia and everyone’s experience is different. Some people see the letters or words “move” around the page, while others read words incorrectly, and yet others read text fluently but have trouble absorbing the meaning.

What Shae did about it

During her undergraduate degree, Shae had private tutoring and her mum also proofread all her work. She joined study groups at university and hung out with high-achieving students. She then progressed to a master’s degree. “During my masters, after my diagnosis, I had assistance from the Equity and Diversity Unit. I received assisted technology support, exam assistance, and extra time to submit my assignments. I also saw a psychologist to help get me through,” she said.

Shae says the key to her success was getting a formal diagnosis, and not being afraid or ashamed to ask for help.

Chris’s experience

Chris Saville’s experiences were very different. He studied public services and audio technology at TAFE. He already knew he was dyslexic when he started TAFE but still faced challenges, which he tackled in his own way. “I was a bit nervous like most people, and the written assignments were something I was dreading, but I made friends pretty quick and that seemed to ease the tension a bit,” he said.

The main things that helped him were keeping his overall goal in mind, breaking tasks down into small chunks, focusing completely on the task at hand, tools like spellcheckers and having a passion for what he was studying. This became a great source of motivation for him.

How you can tackle it

Firstly, you need to understand that success at university is possible. You don’t need to drop out! Of course, this is one option, and it is not necessarily “wrong”, but there are also many other ways you could go. For example, you could defer for a semester while you gather more information and work on your study skills. Or you may be able to drop just one subject to ease your load.

Of course, you could continue with your studies with the help of creative study strategies. There will also be services available through your university’s equity and diversity unit. However, most universities will require you to already have a formal assessment report to be eligible for such services, so this can require some planning.

It can also help to seek information and support from others who’ve been there before you. Facebook groups are great for this. The Specific Learning Difficulties Associaton (SPELD) office in your state is another valuable source of information and advice.

Chris believes the key is to embrace dyslexia and get it to work for you rather than against you. He advises dyslexic students to “Focus on each bit of work as it comes and celebrate small wins along the way until you hit that big win – course completion!”

Don’t forget to breathe

Now, take a deep breath. You’re not alone. Talk to family and friends. Ask advice from other people with dyslexia. Cry if you need to. It’s ok, emotions are healthy. Remember that you’re strong! You made it through primary and high school, and you can make it through university too.

It’s time to sit down, decide what you want to do, then work out how to do it. You’ve got this!

Shae Wissell is now a speech pathologist and also runs the Dear Dyslexic Foundation and a podcast series. Chris Saville is a video sound technician and runs Savvy motivation. The author of this article, Lois MacCullagh, has just started her Master of Research at Western Sydney University. Despite her own reading difficulties, she’s dedicated to doing further research to help people with dyslexia reach their full potential. You can find free resources on her website and follow her progress on Facebook.

Author: Lois MacCullagh


Lois MacCullagh on her graduation.