Technology & Dyslexia, with Lisa Wood Shapiro | EDB 140

In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman continues his conversation with writer Lisa Wood Shapiro.

Lisa is a contributor to Vogue, Wired, Outside Magazine, Real Simple, and The Hiking Project. She is also the author of the humorous memoir Hot Mess Mom and is currently finishing her second book. She discusses how she utilizes technology in writing, the growing support for people with dyslexia, and how she thinks offices of the future will be more neurodiverse. (27 minutes)

For more about Lisa:

To read her Wired article on dyslexia: “HOW TECHNOLOGY HELPED ME CHEAT DYSLEXIA”


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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi, I’m Dr Hackie Reitman. Welcome to another episode of Exploring Different Brains. Today we’re lucky to have returning to us Lisa Wood Shapiro, the fabulous writer who also just happens to have dyslexia too. Lisa, welcome again to Exploring Different Brains.

LISA WOOD SHAPIRO (LWS): Thank you for having me.

Writing with dyslexia

HR: Many people think of dylexia as the inability to read. They don’t see the flip side of it with writing

LWS: It’s the other side of the coin and Dr. Eden, who is the executive director at the Georgetown Center for Learning, I said to her, “I can read.” Well, I thought I read really fast, so I took the lexfloor task within the piece to but reading had been kind of conquered and I was very, very, very lucky to be in a school system at 8 diagnosed me and put me into a very intensive summer reading program with a speed reader and I think that made me a reader and it came later, l think I wanted to read Judy Blume’s Forever or so I wanted to be part of you know some, and I began to read as a teen for pleasure. Now, the writing thing, I used to think, well when I get older, I’m going to be a better speller, and I’m amazed at the fact that that subset of words and I kind of write the repeat offenders in the piece: definitely, abominable, there’s a bunch, maintenance. These silly words, they continue to bedevil me and I wasn’t, I had this acceptance a long time ago that I was not a good speller. I could not spell well. It didn’t come easy to me. It was part of my dyslexia, but I really just decided to move on and write and deal with it.

HR: Let me ask you about another kind of technology you spoke about a bit which is the emerging technology of diagnosing. Functional MRIs and so forth.

LWS: I just want to also finish those questions. I actually have a better way to say why is spelling the other side of the coin of dyslexia and it’s absolutely hand in hand, and I just want to say that I can get into the functional imaging FMRI that I took, but it has to do with long-term memory and decoding on the other side of the brain. So what happened with me and and it wasn’t ever going to get fixed. So that’s the other thing about dyslexia. Some things won’t get fixed. When I contacted Dr. Eden, I had heard her on NPR and there’s a link in my piece about this where she had talked about our brains.

The last time our brains evolved was 10000 years ago. Reading’s relatively new. It’s 5000 years old, but that was the 1% maybe rabbis, scribes, monks were reading, royal families, then the general population, a literate population, is only a couple hundred years old, maybe longer, you know, and so we’re using a part of our brain that was really meant to say, “That’s an object, like that’s a woolly mammoth.” I mean think about you know, and we’ve hijacked that area and used it for reading. So what happened when I went for my FMRI, the left side when I’m taking a reading test should be, you know, all activated it that’s where I should be doing. But the dyslexic brain and dyslexic brain scan have different patterns the way they look in an FMRI, but mine was pretty standard. All of the reading was on the right side of the brain. And so if you think about someone and the brain’s plasticity when you have a stroke or something it rewires itself. I don’t know why the dyslexic brain does that, but I was shocked by what a classic kind of FMRI was. I didn’t really want to share it in the piece once I saw it, and so there’s two things I could say: The muscle for me to be some great speller. I have use flash cards as a child to try and get there and there’s something going on in the dyslexic brain, at least my brain, where it won’t retain the correction. It might for a little while. I might have a gimmick; I might have a thing, but it’s because the way the brain is activated and what it looks like. It’s really using different areas to read.

Embracing technology with dyslexia

HR: Now, I love the fact that you talk about specific tools such as Grammarly. When I wrote the Aspertools book it was my goal to give specific tools that you can really use, so what other tools. Now, Grammarly, you you said, is your major league writing tool. What other tools do you use in your everyday life, like a GPS?

LWS: I actually have a fabulous sense of direction, which I’ve also heard from other dyslexics, so I do use Google Maps, but I mean, I don’t know if you feel this way with your your work, but I’m so happy to be alive now. I love, I mean Grammarly is such a, it’s true AI, I mean it really is learning from its users to some degree. Whether how big that is, I don’t know. I mean, Microsoft Word, I use Microsoft Office I didn’t even know the term or think I needed accessibility, like I didn’t use it, or think about that. I’ve never used dictation, but a lot of people dictation and they actually get word like one dyslexic really common and it’s not a cheat, it just works to say the word and have the word be spelled through dictation. And dictation software, like Grammarly, is getting better and better and better Microsoft is making a whole suite part of the Office and you know the Office of the future is going to have all of this tech and you’re going to have one person who has to focus and you’re going to have maybe dyslexia and you’re going to have someone next to them with Asperger’s, or are on the spectrum, are autistic, and they’re all going to have their different tech that brings this Dynamic neurodiverse space together and I think I think that’s what’s probably the thing. And also, this was the thing that hampered me, and I don’t know if this is just me or dyslexics that are now adults. On my best days I felt I had outgrown it or I wasn’t part of any dyslexic community. I never went to a dyslexic website. I should have. I didn’t go to a conference. I didn’t read books on it. I have 3 kids. One child has dyslexia and actually goes to school and uses Orton Gillingham, which is a great way to learn to read, so I felt plugged in.

But had I spent a few minutes Googling “best dyslexic apps of 2018 or 2017” a few years ago, I could have helped myself, and so it wasn’t that I was a self-hating dyslexic, but I felt that I was working along and had the tech I needed with just the word processers like Microsoft Word, and so I would say anyone listening to this, at least you plugged into your tribe. I mean dyslexic people were you know anywhere from 5 to 17% margin. You know there’s different degrees of it. I probably was on the more severe. There’s no scale, but I’ll make one up right now. If you had a scale, 1 being just a touch dyslexic and 10 being extremely, I’m probably a 7. I’m making this up. So I do cringe a bit that I hadn’t thought out better tools for writing sooner and I did happen on it in an organic way, but I think, you know, if you were ever diagnosed as dyslexic and you’re continuing as an adult, it is something I would recommend. It wasn’t hubris, but I definitely didn’t plug into my community. And I think, I also think this is a growth industry. People are seeing their offices as places that want to have this type of thinking. When I talk to other dyslexics and especially with this piece, and we can talk about. The volume of feedback on this team was enormous and it wasn’t just an email, a little email. Life stories and over and over again, you know there’s a theme that comes out, and one of them is, I can’t prove this but I think dyslexic minds are storyteller minds. And we want to tell our stories and so whatever tool can help, whether it’s dictation, whether it’s, you know, or the flip side is you you’re going to have an app on your phone that can snap a picture of text and read it back to you, and I think there’s so many tools out there and I think you can’t wait for you to discover it. Maybe get out a little.

HR: Well I think what’s happening is more and more of every kind of neurodiversity there is are “coming out of the closet” so to speak, and more and more was seeing the advantages to big companies of hiring different kinds of brains, you know. And some of the people I’ve had the honor of interviewing like yourself, Professor Matthew Schneps, is one of the world’s great astrophysicists, is totally dyslexic, not only that, he can’t add up numbers. He has to use a calculator. There’s so many things. None of it occurs in isolation, either, so it’s kind of a mix and match. I would ask you this: have you ever written by using dictating voice-to-text software?

LWS: No, and I never will. It doesn’t work for me. I almost believe if I had an old typewriter, I would do my best work. I love the process of writing.

HR: Let me interrupt you to give you a challenge.

LWS: Ok.

HR: Here’s the challenge: forget about voice-to-text, just dictate a story as though you are writing it. You’re using a different part of your brain and have it transcribed by whatever means you want, and then sit at the computer and write the story yourself, and then hand write it yourself, and you’ll have three different stories because they all use different parts of your brain.

LWS: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s other stuff to, no, absolutely. I…

HR: You love writing the way you write.

LWS: As you can see, I jump around, and it actually drives certain friends crazy. One friend told me the other day, “You hijack a conversation.” And I do try. I have to actively think, “Stay on topic; don’t jump,” when I talk to others, dyslexics, especially like Gilbert Shunney said something interesting to me, and he’s the one who runs the Gershoney out in San Francisco, and he said when he’s in a client, my brain works very, very fast, an idea comes to an idea comes to an idea and it’s a link and it goes faster and faster, and people say, “How did you come up with that?” and I can’t tell you, and he said the most important thing for us is we have to regulate. And I thought that was a good word, like slow it down and I also can make it hard for people work under a micromanager as a subordinate in an office, “How did you come to that idea?” and they might not be able to show the work, the way certain people think. I do believe that’s true I think. I’m smartest, I’m clearest when I’m forced to put something on paper and revise it. You know, every piece I write has probably been revised 8 times, and so…

HR: And you also sound like you have a little bit of something I have, like I got expelled from the Yeshiva. I have authority problems and I think you have a little bit of an authority problem too.

LWS: If I had to be, I could be a good waitress sometimes. I think that also comes from some part of dyslexic because it almost makes you an entrepreneur. You’re like, “Well, I think I’m going to not be able to be good in that position. I’ll start my own production company.” I started a production company in my mid 20s that made stuff for Viacom within a year. I mean, I do think there’s that. Not to say I’ll never get a job after. Not to say I’m very good at what I do writing-wise, and I don’t have an issue and also I’m a good collaborator, but maybe it comes from being a little until they couldn’t do things, you know, and that fine line between where agencies as well. I’m going to do it anyway. of course I’m going to be a writer. Oh, this was in the piece. Used to be, and it might still be you’d get a career survey when you were 13, when you’d take certain aptitude tests, and I put down literary, and they said, “Ehh, between your tests and your answers to the question, maybe you should look into something else,” then I was like, “Ehh.”

HR: McDonald’s is looking for people like you, you know.

LWS: I think I do think the way, well, it gets back to neurodiversity, like I actually like the way people think and I’m fascinated by that. I did just read the book, Deep Work because right now I’m working on a new book and I’m not great when I’m in the shallows and checking Twitter or answering a phone call. And I really, the book talks about how can you get that really deep cognitive work as a knowledge worker. As a writer, you need to do that if you’re coding. He says as a novice, when you first start, “Okay I’m going to, no interruptions, no distractions, you can do an hour,” and I thought, “I’m sure I could do more than an hour,” and on my first day where I was clocking it was 45 minutes. I’m trying to get to four to six hours, but I, it’s the paradox you talked about. I think no matter what you have you still also, that’s the one muscle I will continue to work. I’m not going to have flash cards with spelling but getting to that deep, deep work, because I’ll get a lot more done in 4 hours than I will in 2 days in the shallows. That’s a hard thing for me, and maybe that’s my own ADHD. I mean, I don’t believe in multitasking anymore, for me at least.

HR: Again, what we’re trying to do at is get everybody to look through the prism of “each of our brains is different,” like my daughter said, they are like a snowflake; no two are alike, and to harness the strengths of however that individual’s brain works. You’re obviously smarter than the average bear, okay, whatever labels you might have, whether it’s ADHD, OCD, dyslexia, and again, nothing occurs in isolation. But if we just look through the prism of harnessing each of our strengths, helping that individual maximize their potential, then people have a better odds, if they get exposed to all different things, to find what they love doing, they’re good at doing, they get paid for doing, they’ll help other people while they’re doing it, and that’s the perfector, if you can do it. You seem to have found it. You found motherhood. You love writing. Your whole body language changes when you talk about writing. You’re happy to be alive, you know, and your brain is different. Big deal. G-d gave you a smart brain, you know. Some people get high octane brains like yours and other people don’t, but whatever you have to do, that’s your brain.

LWS: True, and I will say that I also think what a lucky time to be alive. The thing that gives me that idea is when I saw a photo of Jane Austen’s writing desk and it was a quill, ink, and a little table and I thought that wouldn’t have worked, well, not for me.

HR: Well, you wouldn’t have had all these distractions like being interviewed for an episode of Exploring Different Brains. You would have been writing and doing something productive, you see.

LWS: So that’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m about to use August to finish a book now and I’m actually in a couple days going off to a fishing village where I know no one. That’s going to be my next project for a couple weeks.

Dyslexia in the family

HR: Tell us about your children.

LWS: So I have three children. I have one child, they’re now 17, 15, and 12.

HR: Oh boy.

LWS: When one of my children, my middle child I knew, I don’t want to say too much because it’s his story, but I did know he was similar to me, and I immediately got an evaluation. Now, dyslexia, you can’t get that evaluation until a little later, but by 5 I enrolled him in a school that really was for a special unique learner. There were 12 kids in the class. There was a smart board. Also there was sensory, audio processing, there was a bunch of stuff that I probably also had as a child. Dyslexia is highly heritable, 40%, so I knew, and it was interesting, and I don’t know if you noticed in the Wired piece, they also made a short film. They did an excellent job. It’s about 6 minutes and I showed it to my 12 year old, who goes to a typical learner school in New York City. We live in New York City and my kids go to public school. And he turned to me at the end of the movie and said, “I think I might be a little dyslexic,” so everyone has you know probably, and then I’ve got one child who can spell anything and that’s the one I’m like, “Hey, how do you spell?” The other thing is, you know, I’m Jewish. I always thought Hebrew was always very challenging for me. I had a Bat Mitzvah and so you know, so I was the added bonus of being dyslexic and Jewish.

HR: Going right to left and left to right.

LWS: Makes it even more fun. So I was there and really supportive about it. I would say our home has a lot of neurodiversity and I’m very aware of different things that we can all do well. I wouldn’t say we’re a great camping team anymore, after the last camping trip, but it’s funny to me. Only recently am I talking to people that had dyslexia. I’m totally jumping around this conversation, but I was going to say one of the more interesting conversations I had right after this piece came out was a friend of mine that I that I’ve gone to school with since I was in 7th grade, sat next to me, and he didn’t know I was dyslexic because I was by 7th grade doing everything I could to hide it and doing really well in honors, and then messing up on an aptitude test, and then he was in college and a professor did it and he really wanted to talk. We had a conversation. I thought how funny that we sat next to each other for 6 years in school and you didn’t know I was dyslexic, and you didn’t know you were dyslexic, and we were all taking in information, and I think it was probably harder for him and I think you know, we live in a time and also that Lexfloor test, I mean we live in a time where diagnosis can happen early and efficiently. I think the meanest person on Earth is a parent or someone in that person’s orbit when they ask for the a word, give it to them. Don’t make them sound it out. Don’t make them go get a dictionary. That book does not work if you’re too far off of a spelling. What lesson are you teaching them by shaming them about not spelling? Or if they take in books better through an Audible book, let them. You know I think whatever, and that might be a throwback to other generations, but people take in information in different ways and more and more we’re going to see that. The most interesting thing that Dr. Eden said is she doesn’t know if we’re going to be reading in 2000 years. Maybe we’ll take in information through a different way.

HR: How do people find out more about you?

LWS: My website links to a lot of things. It’s Also my Twitter is @LisaWShapiro. You can find me there and I also often will post about the pieces I’ve written. I’m on Amazon. You can get Hot Mess Mom and the Wired story is still easy to look up and it’s How Technology Helped Me Cheat Dyslexia.

Living and succeeding with dyslexia

HR: Is there anything we have not covered today that you’d like to cover, Lisa?

LWS: I think, well there’s a couple of things I can talk about the feedback. I noticed that dyslexia can be devastating. It can be devastating for people that didn’t have a supportive school environment or were in a vulnerable position at a young age and were told they weren’t going to be any, like, the letters I got were not sad or tragic, but people that really had to overcome were people a generation above me, baby boomers, people who might not have had that kind of luck of getting an early diagnosis or had been in a school system that didn’t support them or told them they weren’t going to do well, and whether that person has agency to overcome that and be like, “Screw you; I’m smart!” Not everyone has that, and so those, I was surprised by that. I was also surprised by people that are getting a late diagnosis. They suspect something was up, you know, especially if you’re mildly dyslexic, so you can kind of get through. You didn’t have the bells and whistles. I had a lot of bells and whistles I guess as an 8 year old, so that was interesting. I think now more than ever, people are aware of it. I also think the dark side of this is there is s market of “cures” for dyslexia, and I think the most vulnerable person is a parent who doesn’t know a lot about dyslexia. And I’m not going to say exactly what the cures are, and people reached out to me to cure me. There is no liquid that you can put in your body. I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but you know there is no cure and I think there was a dyslexic association that I’d been Googling and they had a poster up for parents saying, you know, “Do not fall for any of these gimmicks,” and so one of the things that parents that have gotten a diagnosis of a child about dyslexia, it’s not an easy fix. Basically, someone is going to tell you life is going to be harder for your child and that’s a very hard thing for a parent to hear, but I would say the flip side of that is this is the challenge, and if your child can overcome this challenge and kind of love this challenge, what a gift that’s going to be, and be very aware that there is a market that preys on vulnerable people trying to tell them they can cure it, and you can’t.


HR: Lisa Wood Shapiro, it’s been a pleasure having you here on this episode of Exploring Different Brains. Thanks for coming back again.


LWS: Thank you for having me. This was great.