I recently heard a radio programme about dyslexic students at the Royal College of Art. I was surprised to hear that while 5 - 10% of the general population are dyslexic, around 28% of UK art college students are.
This caught my interest for a couple of reasons: firstly I was screened for dyslexia as a child and found to be "probably normal". Secondly, I've heard anecdotal evidence from fellow permaculture teachers reporting a lot of dyslexics on their courses.
So I wondered if dyslexics are similarly over-represented in permaculture, and if so, why that might be.
I was fascinated to hear that many dyslexics not only struggle with reading and writing, but with drawing as well. While many dyslexics struggle with reducing complex, inter-related thoughts and ideas into a linear, sequential language (and even more so with written representation of language), some also struggle to reduce complex 3d objects in their mind's eye to 2d representations of them.
I did a little more research and found an excellent film by Feargal Ó Lideadha called Left from Write. The film explores what dyslexia is, the things dyslexics struggle with, and most interestingly, some of the advantages that dyslexia can bring, such as an apparently innate ability to see the big picture, strong visual and spatial skills etc.
In the film, John Stein, professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University Medical School and Chairman of the Dyslexia Research Trust explains that dyslexics are often better at "holistic kinds of processing".
He goes on "and that's why they make good architects, artists and even entrepreneurs... very often dyslexics are highly creative"
In the interview below - The Gift of Dyslexia - Stein explains that there are not only more artists, but also more architects, entrepreneurs and engineers than in the general population.
He notes that in these disciplines "you have to have a holistic outlook on life rather than being good at sequential things" and that artists, for example "need to see a whole scene and how all the bits fit together, and dyslexics are much better at that than sequential things".
He goes on to challenge the argument that dyslexics must be forced into disciplines like art because it requires less reading, and says that the balance of evidence suggests that they are actually more talented in these disciplines.
Later on, Stein also describes cases of famous dyslexics (including Albert Einstein) who were much better at seeing patterns than non-dyslexics.
Although there is currently insufficient evidence to support it, the theory predicts that during childhood the left hemisphere of most people's brains develops to become specialised at linear sequencing. A side-effect of this is that the left hemisphere's capacity for visuospatial processing is reduced in most people.
However, in dyslexics this specialisation doesn't happen, and so both sides of their brains are excellent at the more holistic forms of processing.
So why might this make dyslexics potentially talented permaculture designers?
Well, one of permaculture's axioms is the need to move away from linear thinking and towards more holistic perspectives. As Chris Smaje notes in his article Of Holism and Reductionism: Permaculture and the Science of Hunches:
"Permaculture emphasizes holism. It addresses problems through wider relationships and patterns scaled at different system levels, avoiding the reductionism that isolates a problem within a specific sub-system of the wider whole and tries to solve it narrowly at that level only. The science from which it draws most inspiration is ecology, the biological discipline par excellence of relationships, systems, and levels."
And of course, permaculture designers are often working in the real world, designing places and spaces, so visuospatial processing is important here, to help designers visualise how a design will fit into a space. And as I have written elsewhere, permaculture makes extensive use of patterns as a design tool.
So, if permaculture emphasises holistic thinking, requires visuospatial skills and pattern recognition and application, then surely all dyslexics will be naturally good at it, right?
Sadly it isn't that simple. Permaculture design also has sequencing aspects. Designers need to consider the phasing of implementation plans, and design maintenance schedules.
A fairly regular criticism of permaculture is that much of the technical information about it lives in densely written "bibles" like Bill Mollison's Designer's Manual, implying lots of reading for anyone wanting to learn permaculture.
And I've heard some dyslexics bemoan the academic langauge used to describe permaculture's design principles: "apply self-regulation and accept feedback"; Integrate rather than segregate"...
And then there are all those latin plant names which, according to botanical convention, should be italicized or underlined, which many dyslexics find harder to read.
Designing with living - or otherwise evolving - systems requires the designer to think about how the system will change over time as, for example, trees & plants grow, wild nature interacts with our systems and so on.
It requires, if you will, visuospatial-temporal processing. And It is less clear whether there's been any research into this.
Also measuring & surveying, estimating quantities, calculating rainwater storage capacity etc. can be extremely challenging for people with dyscalculia, which often co-presents with dyslexia.
So while superficially, permaculture might seem like a perfect fit for dyslexics, challenges remain for the dyslexic permaculture designer.
But perhaps most importantly, dyslexia is diverse: each individual has a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses. While there may be general trends - more dyslexics end up in art, architecture etc. - it by no means follows that every dyslexic person will have the particular strengths and weaknesses to be a great permaculture designer.
And yet, with around 35% of my permaculture diploma apprentices identifying as dyslexic, it certainly seems like there's something going on. There is clearly a need for more research.
I'm interested to see what existing dyslexic permaculture designers think about the relationship between their dyslexia and their ability as designers - if there is a link.
And as both a teacher and the Learning Coordinator for the Permaculture Association, I'm keen to explore the implications for permaculture teaching practice.
So, I've set up a simple survey to explore these questions.
If you're dyslexic and practicing permaculture, or if you're a professional who works with dyslexics, I'd love to hear from you. Please visit my survey here. It only takes a few minutes.
The first results of this survey will be the subject of my next blog post.
Dyslexic learners in the UK generally report very positive experiences of permaculture design courses. However, I'm designing and running an explicitly Dyslexia Friendly Permaculture Course in September, with the aim of supporting these learners even more.
It will be based on the findings from the survey and other research I've been conducting into dyslexia and learning. And the feedback from learners on that course will be fed back to the UK permaculture teaching community to inform practice.