Every day I talk to people about their lives.  

I hear people talk about their struggles with work, family, friends, difficulty communicating, childhood trauma — you name it, it has likely been talked about in my office.  One of the characteristics people have noticed about me is my ability to see their concerns and conceptualize what their symptoms mean, where they came from, and visually map a flow chart of patterns.  

Truth be told, I can’t help it.  I can’t help the way I visualize what people say.  I can picture what people wore at their last session and review mental pictures I took when we were talking.  Sounds cool, right? But this ‘gift’ that I use every day to help people has its roots in a struggle that, from an early age, defined my school experience.

Let’s rewind.

When I was younger, I couldn’t say certain letters.  I could read books if I really liked them, but rarely read books that were assigned for school.  I remember in high school sobbing because I had to read a book for a class and had waited until the last minute.  I desperately wanted to get good grades but often just laughed off the bad grades like I didn’t care. I became resourceful in figuring out content in books, in being able to memorize what teachers said in class and also failed math three years in a row.  During tests, I needed a completely quiet environment — if nobody moved, sighed, coughed, sneezed, if the teacher was silent, and nobody was working at what I perceived as faster or slower than me, I could perform (now I know that these symptoms are also because of the curious dyslexic mind).

But that rarely happened.  Needless to say, I wasn’t a model student in high school.  I basically gave up. I did anything to get by, to get out of class, and eventually to ease the anxiety from this behavior.  

Somehow, I made it out of high school, and I went to college.  It was a ticket to freedom, so I made it happen. But college came with even harder demands. Often, my boyfriend (now husband) would read to me, reteach me in a way I could understand, and came to meetings or appointments with me because sometimes I just couldn’t articulate what I was visualizing into real words.  One of my college classes, abnormal psychology, was so interesting to me, I never missed a class. I could memorize whatever the professor said and the way he taught and engaged us helped me learn. I was able to get nearly an A+ in the course.

For the first time in school, I felt like I had potential.  Another psychology class, biopsychology, was taught the same way.  I found it fascinating that I was “actually smart” in the way I always wanted to be.  Up until this point, I just assumed nothing caught my interest. Although I was diagnosed with ADD at 11, I didn’t really do much with that, really it was never talked about again. But there was no prescription, no therapy and no explanation of what that diagnosis meant.  

However, due to my interest in the topic and sheer brute force of will, I was able to get a bachelors in psychology, a bachelors in therapeutic recreation, and a masters in education with varying grades. Fast forward 15 years.  I was trying to finish my dissertation, a lengthy research investigation necessary to complete my Ph.D. I allotted plenty of time to complete it, but most of the time when I went to work on it, I couldn’t get the words down. I could talk to anyone about the research process and my investigation but to write clearly and concisely was excruciating.  

At this time, one of my kids was struggling with nearly the same issues I had as a young girl.  We were proactive and got him tested for everything that could be causing his struggles. I worried because I didn’t want to find something “wrong” with him.  He was already perfect. He had a huge empathic heart, creative mind, and an amazing ability to recall his memories and share them in a way that made you feel like you were with him in that memory.  

His diagnosis came back as dyslexia and he was also gifted. I was shocked because he could read, so the dyslexia diagnosis was confusing for me. But as I did my research, my world came crashing down.  

Not only did my son have dyslexia, but I found that I do too.  It’s largely a genetic neurological problem. It took some time to comprehend what all this meant.  I grieved. I grieved for my lost childhood. That I hadn’t known, that I had struggled so much and thought it was “just ADD” or “I just wasn’t interested”.  I grieved my lack of knowledge on dyslexia.

I then had two of my other kids tested.  More shock and grief. One of my children, who was early on identified as gifted, had hidden her difficulty with math as anxiety and perfectionism. She was diagnosed with a type of math dyslexia or dyscalculia.

But along with all these challenges come gifts. Remember how I could visualize a client’s life? Photographically remember a client’s disposition the last time we met? Understand the root cause of what someone was saying? These gifts are the gifts of dyslexia.  As for my kids, don’t get me started on their gifts. Their kind souls, their ability to see the big picture, their ability to play any musical instrument or speak in front of large crowds…I could go on forever.

As I have been learning more, and processing what this means for my family, I see the world so much differently.  I want to make sure we are accurately diagnosing clients of all ages. I want people to see their strengths, not just a diagnosis.  I don’t want any client at our practice to be misdiagnosed with these common overlapping symptoms of ADD, ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, and more.  If we can name the concern, we can help treat it, and enhance the gifts of it.

What I can tell you is that because of, not in spite of my life experience, I am committed to helping as many other kids as possible.  I don’t believe any child wants to feel stupid, like they can’t read, like they should just “try harder” even when every fiber of their being is pushing hard every single day.  I don’t want a learning issue to become a mental health issue. Do you have a child who is having anxiety or trouble learning in school? Give us a call – perhaps they need to be tested.  If nothing else, we want you to understand how your child learns best.


~Dr. Jen Yensel – tycounseling.com