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Dyslexic confessions of a Dad

I have a confession to make, it’s time that i told a little bit more of my story, which is really our story and what I’m tinkering with in my art studio this past year. Almost a year ago I dropped everything I was doing in my studio, the paintings, the children’s books and focused on one thing, a game I’m making to help my son (and others like him) with his dyslexia.

This is not a super easy subject to talk about, although dyslexia is somewhat common there is still a lot of judgement of both the child who has dyslexia and even the parents. The child is often judged as not being smart at all, unteachable is a word used, and the parents are judged as neglectful.

What people often fail to realize with dyslexia is that we have people who have brains that clearly work differently than others, and dyslexia is just one example of this. This doesn’t mean dyslexics are not smart, often they have ways of contributing beyond what others can because of a unique way of thinking.

One example is Jack Horner, the noted Paleontologist who has been the inspiration for the paleontologist in Jurassic Park, he graduated high school he says, with a D–. You may not be able to see that correctly, that is a D-minus-minus. In his words his teacher said that he “Failed, but I never want to see you again.”

Alongside the dyslexia is the fact that my wife and I homeschool our sons. We left Los Angeles, now almost ten years past, so that I wouldn’t spend countless hours working on film visual effects and have no relationship with my family. Over the years we have learned to juggle and share family life, and work life.

I moved from putting all my time in the entertainment industry and more time with my sons exploring museums and doing art with them. This is when I began to see the way we educate our children in museums differently, and started to come up with creative ideas for educating them visually, and interactively. I began sketching out ideas of how to use my visual effects skills in this way.

Like my son, I’m a very visual thinker and a tinkerer. Right now I like to think of more dynamic ways to get information across to people, especially when a museum display or some other form is failing to make people see it, and as a visual thinker I do think people have a failure of imagination when it comes to visualization what the world, and universe around us looks like. Listen to this veritasium video to get an idea of how the education system can fail to really inform us about just how vast our universe is for instance.

My family started out on a sometimes frustrating journey with my son’s dyslexia, which makes his own interaction with the world sometimes difficult, and can make even the smartest kids, feel like failures. It can lead to loving family members or friends being shaming and judgmental. It can lead to parents pushing their kids and asking why they “aren’t trying?”

Dyslexia is not related to the intelligence of a person, as we see with many very prominent dyslexics like Jack Horner and Richard Branson. Branson talks about his Dyslexia in the video below, and he like many see it as a positive, not a negative. I want to make it clear, I see my son as gifted, super creative, and his dyslexia as the most obvious unfortunate label that often gifted and creative people receive, making them feel unteachable and like they aren’t smart. Labels like this can undermine a person and make them give up. This is because we live in a world that only has one metric for determining intelligence (generic tests that squash creativity).

As an artist, I am well aware that the world has one metric for judging intelligence, and leaves out wide swathes of others whose brain works vastly differently.

Imagine for a second an alternate universe where instead of children being tested in school for math, memorization, and punctuation, they are encouraged to be creative, open, explore and be funny. They get to do art, build things, play music, and play and there is no test because you can’t test the best way to bring an individual’s gifts out. When you graduate you have to show your gift, a demonstration or sharing without judgement.

Perhaps in an extreme version of this alternate universe if you can’t draw, or play an instrument, make an invention out of a pile of stuff, or do an improv play then you fail. In this universe math, punctuation and memorization are not used as the metric to determine your intelligence, there is a celebration of many kinds of intelligence over memorization of facts.

Perhaps in some way in education we squash that internal education that may have been passed down over many generations. What if we are going against the very nature of a child and family that specializes in something over generations. The family of musicians, or the family that loves to study nature by scuba-diving. What if for every graduate we suppress another Mozart, another Cousteau. This isn’t about saying that we have a “genius” among us, or putting people who think differently on that specialty pedestal, but honoring something deeper in them, a specialty that their brain and spirit are working towards.

My point is that we often test people and give them the feeling that they are less than others based on tests that favor a particular brain type, a particular calling.

Before someone jumps in to suggest the many teaching approaches to “resolve” dyslexia let me say that we have tried several different approaches with professional tutoring that are very involved and take a lot of dedication from all of us, as well as mind/body exercises that are supposed to help balance the brain etc. I’m not saying that all these techniques shouldn’t be used, but so far for us, some have resulted in more frustration, and others in tears being shed. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of great information out there, and a lot of good techniques that have resulted in very good results for children with dyslexia, or that we have stopped trying. I however am very skeptical when I hear that someone thinks they have the cure for dyslexia.

While trying these tutoring programs for my son, I began to tinker in my studio with a video game idea to help kids who struggle. This wouldn’t be a game like “reader rabbit” but a game more like Myst, that i hoped would be something a child would just want to play, and that in a way I could hack their brain by just getting their interest.

I dummied up a test of the game, in software I was just learning (Unreal 4) and showed it to my wife and son. I didn’t show too much, and although I felt I was on to something, I dropped it and returned to writing, while we tried yet another approach for the dyslexia.

After another round that was frustrating for all, my wife asked me one day, what about that game idea I had. I dusted off the game and dove into it fully putting all my energy into learning the software, and trying to bring my visual effects skills up to speed in this new arena.

I’ve worked hard on this game, and I test it with both of my sons, who enjoy playing it. There is still much I’m not saying about my approach except to say this, the idea is that I want my son to have an experience that is fun, that is enjoyable.

I am trying to build an entire world in support of his struggle, but also to celebrate him and other dyslexics like him.

I personally see my son. I see him as smart, I see him as gifted, amazingly creative. If I have problems thinking through programming problems sometimes I talk to him about it to get his insight into other ways of thinking. My son is endlessly creating, he is always learning, he is not afraid to try new things, I see his intelligence each day, and I know there is no way this is going to hold him back in life.

I don’t see my game as an end all to approaches for dyslexia, i’m hoping it can be used as another tool, hopefully a fun one, to engage a child’s brain and creativity rather than pushing them to memorize and work through frustration. I’m not even judging the various approaches to working with dyslexia, but like the variation in personalities and brains, they don’t work for everyone and I just want to tinker with this a little.

There is a lot I’m not saying in this opening confession, what else I’m doing in the game, what some of the goals are. I’m hoping to make something that is artistic, and helpful, but it’s a long slog, especially when you are creating alone. I work daily with sometimes self imposed goals, like how can i make this beautiful, but also have it playable even on not very good computers? How can I make this enjoyable and keep drawing the child in for the ride?

I still have much work to do, but I realize at this point it might be the time to begin talking about this game, and how a visual thinker is trying to work with something I perceive as a visual thinker problem.

2 comments to Dyslexic confessions of a Dad

  • Caleb Howard

    Hey Daev! Thanks for sharing this. I was – early on – suspected of being dyslexic. Later they called it something else. I never paid too much attention, though, and it was never a problem past the age I was being marked on my letter formation and spelling. When I was 13 and got my first computer, I was set.

    Having fled L.A., and VFX as well – for the sake of family (thank’s to Sony who finally and clearly rendered the industry intolerable) – I am glad that you got out as well. I always had the inclination that games (I’m now at EA) would be the logical next step when the VFX gravy train finally went off the rails. Now – in games – I can see there’s likely another decade for me here before it goes south, and I believe that the next big growth market is edutainment… and that VR is a thing as well. I’ll be watching that market closely, and will be ready when the time is right to make that career adjustment.

    Anyway. Just to say thanks for a good story, and that I think you’re on a good track. Perhaps we’ll meet again down the road. 🙂 Be well!

    • Daev Finn

      Hey Caleb,

      Thanks for responding to my blog. Glad to know that my articles sometimes find readers. 😉 I agree I felt early on that games were the next logical step, and yes I sensed that we were chasing a fleeting spring that seems to recede each year more. Edutainment really fascinates me, I hope to finish this game at some point and then turn my attention to more museum displays and possibly even things like the hololens to make an augmented reality while in a museum. I have done work with the Oculus, and as I get this game more in shape I’ll be testing it with the Oculus again to make sure it works well, but overall the Oculus has become a bit of a beast in terms of cost, and requirements from computers. It’s hard to justify making an Oculus ready game, when I suspect most of my audience will have computers four or five years old that are not compatible.

      I think if i can get through the next phase of my development I’ll know which direction to go in, and maybe think about trying to get it out.

      -Daev

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