Opinion: Comics offer divergent ways of thinking about and knowing dyslexic experiences

Thursday 12 October 2023

By Dr Ruth Gibbons.

School of People, Environment and Planning Lecturer Dr Ruth Gibbons.

"If your child is struggling with reading, get them to read comics, they’ll start 'real' reading when they’re ready."

I’ve heard this phrase and variations of it many times from parents, teachers and specialists.

Comics are often seen as a way into 'real' reading, almost as if there is a hierarchy of types of reading. But comics and graphic novels are so much more.

I do not believe that dyslexics can’t read, as through my research I’ve learned dyslexics have a different relationship to text because they perceive the world differently. Words are relevant to language because they are understood as metaphors - so if your experiences are neurodivergent because of different experiences, this impacts on your relationship to words. How you use and interpret the metaphor is going to impact your experience of the text.

Some well-intentioned people will recommend comics to dyslexics because of all of the pictures, explaining that it will make language more accessible, but they do so without understanding the complexity of comics and graphic novels.  

When you start looking at and studying comics and graphic novels, the complexity of the storytelling becomes clear and the types of engagement required by the reader can be seen.

In my research, I can see how comics and graphic novels reflect a more dyslexic understanding of the world, especially as I work to communicate dyslexic experiences through graphic novels myself. From the way the page is read by layers (first the whole page is seen, then the different cells), the way time appears on the page and the way information can be juxtaposed, giving additional meaning to what may be initially assumed, all reflect dyslexic ways of paying attention to and thinking about the world.

In talking with adult dyslexics, the feeling of having no boundaries between them and the world means that their experiences are very sensory and complex.

Adults may learn to use their way of paying attention to the world, but younger people often do not. This way of paying attention to the world means that experiences are multi-linear rather than singular. This is where graphic novels, which are multi-linear, connect with dyslexic understandings of the world.

Comics are starting to be more valued within academia. In anthropology, comics and graphic novels are being published as scholarly outputs. But still, the comic is regarded as 'less' in spite of often complex interplays of media, time and place that take place on the page.

I’m currently getting first-hand knowledge of these complexities as I write a graphic novel based on my research on dyslexic thinking, and another on dyslexic time. As a visual researcher, I had thought that this would be a more comfortable way for me to be able to communicate what I learn, but the reality has been different. Writing comics is hard!

I need to consider the words I put on the page, but also where the words are on the page because format also communicates information.

A graphic from Dr Gibbon’s graphic novel representing the sensory discomfort of managing 'clock time' when your experience of time is different.

For the visual work, the type of line I use needs to be considered alongside the images as part of the communication process. A thick solid line communicates different information from a dotted or thin one, not something I have to consider when writing text. Theoretical discussion steps beyond the words on the page onto the whole page and the layers of information placed on it. As an academic, as I change my medium I have to change my thinking – asking new questions and thinking about complex representations of that information.

Expanding what is recognised as reading and the complex forms of reading that are graphic novels opens new ways to explore and think about the world.

To truly embrace neurodivergent people, we need to go beyond the existing boundaries of what is ‘normal’ and provide new ways to engage with diverse and divergent ways of knowing the world and telling our stories, because what we think affects how we think.  

Dyslexic people often love graphic novels, and while this has been attributed to the visual clues on the page, I think this belittles the complexities and diverse knowledge being communicated that dyslexic people love.

Graphic novels offer the opportunity to become part of the story, to fill in the gaps between the cells. In a graphic novel, the visuals or the text can communicate multiple juxtaposed ideas because of the visual links.

So, rather than looking at comics as being second-class citizens and easier for learner readers, remember that there is so much more happening on the comic book page than may be seen at face value.

The experience of being in environments which constantly seem to tell you that you are not good enough has consequences, and putting comics into the category of not as good as real books does not recognise dyslexic ways of thinking.  

Comics and graphic novels provide new ways to engage with diverse and divergent ways of knowing the world. A dyslexic reader of comics and graphic novels will be taking the information in and engaging in deep and complex reading.

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