Learning disabilities, including dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, and autism can be life changing and debilitating. Many students struggle in school and switch to a more flexible learning style — such as online programs — or drop out altogether. But for others, a learning disability may be a gift, requiring them to work harder and achieve more, or have a special focus or talent. It is for this reason that so many high achieving people have learning disabilities, including Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Although those with learning disabilities typically have trouble with communication, many writers are also in the high achieving, learning disabled club. We’ve highlighted 25 of them here: famous authors and writers who suffer, or thrive from, a learning disability.
Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all time, with about four billion copies sold and translations into at least 103 languages. She is best known for her detective novels and short story collections. But at the same time, she couldn’t even balance her own checkbook due to her learning disability, believed to be dysgraphia. She had a hard time spelling correctly, as a self proclaimed “extraordinarily bad speller” and was not good about remembering numbers, but her learning disability did not hold her back.
Stephen J. Cannell was an American writer and novelist, as well as TV producer and sometime actor. His most celebrated work was crime drama scripts, with writing credits including The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, The Rockford Files, and The Greatest American Hero. He suffered from dyslexia and struggled in school, but he graduated from the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon . Cannell used his fame to speak out about dyslexia, and discussed his experiences in the documentary Dislecksia: The Movie.
As one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, as well as many short stories. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, F. Scott Fitzgerald is believed to have had a learning disability which was mostly likely dyslexia. It’s reported that he was kicked out of school at the age of 12 for not focusing or finishing his work, and he had a very hard time spelling, but he succeeded as a writer despite his disability.
Originally from Windham, New York, the man behind the comic strip Dilbert self-diagnosed his dyslexia. He was working as a bank teller and noticed that his totals didn’t balance at the end of the day. But dyslexia does not seem to have hindered his success, as Dilbert is well loved, in addition to his books, restaurant ownership, and appearances on TV shows. Adams also suffers from focal dystonia, a condition that causes involuntary muscular contraction, as well as spasmodic dysphonia, but he is able to work around all of his conditions.
JF Lawton is a prolific screenwriter from California, with screen credits including Pretty Woman, Under Siege, and DOA: Dead or Alive. But before he became a popular screenwriter, he suffered from severe dyslexia. The disability made school life difficult, and Lawton had to work hard to overcome this obstacle to become a writer. He credits his father, author Harry Lawton, with the support he needed to succeed– something that families of dyslexics should keep in mind.
Dav Pilkey, author and illustrator of the Captain Underpants book series, was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia at an early age. His disabilities caused him to act out in class, and he spent lots of time banished to a desk in the school hallway. It was at this desk where he created Captain Underpants, the character that made him famous as an author and illustrator of children’s literature. For Ohio-born Dav Pilkey, dyslexia and ADHD helped launch a career.
The famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote more than 60 plays and is the only person to be awarded an Oscar as well as a Nobel Prize for Literature for the same film, Pygmalion. It’s believed that Shaw suffered from ADD (attention deficit disorder). Although he was a co-founder of the London School of Economics, he did not like formal education, noting that “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parents.”
Award winning author Jeanne Betancourt is beloved for her Pony Pals book series. Two of the characters in her books, Brian in My Name is Brain Brian and Anna in the Pony Pals, are both dyslexic. She has publicly spoken out about her dyslexia, sharing that she believes being dyslexic helped her as a writer, and explaining that, “Since learning to read and write was difficult for me growing up, I paid more attention to the world around me. I watched and listened carefully to people for clues to what people were thinking and feeling.” As a dyslexic, she better developed her skills as a storyteller.
Richard Ford is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and a dyslexic. He’s famous for The Sportswriter and its sequels, as well as his short story collection Rock Springs. He has mild dyslexia, but he did not let his disability keep him from developing a love of literature. In fact, he believes that dyslexia actually helped him become a better reader as the disability made him slow down and be thoughtful about the books, sharing that “being slow made me pore over sentences and to be receptive to those qualities in sentences that were not just the cognitive aspect of sentences but were in fact the “poetical” aspects of language…those qualities in language are as likely to carry weight and hold meaning and give pleasure as the purely cognitive, though of course we can’t fundamentally separate those things, although the information age does its best.”
Jules Verne pioneered the science fiction genre and inspired steampunk. He is most famous for his novels, including A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. As a student, he was more interested in writing than working in other subjects. He didn’t do well in school, and often complained of having a hard time focusing. Although undiagnosed, it’s believed that Verne may have had a form of ADD or ADHD.
One of the most important figures in 20th century literature, this Irish poet and playwright suffered from an undiagnosed learning disorder. He recalls: “Several of my uncles and aunts had tried to teach me to read, and because they could not, and because I was much older than children who read easily, had come to think, as I have learnt since, that I had not all my faculties.” Yeats’ father attempted to teach him as well, but without much success: “”My father was an angry and impatient teacher and flung the reading book at my head.” He did eventually learn to read, and attended the Metropolitan School of Art (now known as the National College of Art and Design) in Dublin. He remained poor in spelling for the rest of his life, but Yeats achieved greatness beyond excellent spelling as he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
Children’s author and illustrator Patricia Barber Polacco is a prolific writer, although she didn’t start her first book until the age of 41. She didn’t do well in school, and wasn’t able to read until the age of 14. Patricia suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia until a teacher recognized her disability. She recognized this great teacher in the book Thank You, Mr. Falker, which shares the story of what happened when he discovered her dyslexia.
Although Fannie is an actress and comedienne, she is best known as the author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which was made into a movie and earned her an Academy Award nomination for screenplay adaptation. She is a talented writer, but she felt her dyslexia challenged this talent. She felt discouraged and embarrassed because she couldn’t (and still can’t) spell. She put her writing career on hold for many years, working as an actress instead, but returned to writing in the 1980s, much to the celebration of Fried Green Tomatoes fans.
Academy Award-winning screenwriter and novelist John Irving is a popular author, with bestsellers including The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules. But John Irving’s dyslexia made him somewhat of an underdog, although as his high school wrestling coach said, “An underdog is in a position to take a healthy bite.” Which is exactly what Irving did. He gave himself more time to work on assignments, kept a list of frequently misspelled words, and rewrote constantly in school. He was able to work through his disability to become the celebrated writer we know today.
Acclaimed Mexican-American writer Victor Villasenor is famous for Rain of Gold, a New York Times bestselling novel. He has spoken out about his dyslexia extensively, including his experience with the disability in Burro Genius: A Memoir. In this book, he describes dyslexia as a gift that allowed him to see things differently, relating that dyslexia “allowed me to see patterns that other people couldn’t see. In high school, it was very difficult at first for me to learn how to play chess, but then once I learned, I quickly became the best chess player at our whole school, even beating our faculty and some of them thought they were great chess players.” Victor Villasenor turned his disability into an advantage and went on to become a famous novelist.
Linda La Plante is famous for writing the TV crime series Prime Suspect, for which she won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. She has worked on several TV series, as well as novels, but La Plante has not been without challenges. She had trouble writing, and was uncomfortable until she learned to use a typewriter. Even now, though, she is careful to never send anything out without first having it checked by an assistant.
Octavia Estelle Butler was one of the few African-American women in the field of American science fiction, but she was also one of the best, as the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1995. But Octavia, often known as Junie, was diagnosed as a dyslexic. She also loved to daydream and was very shy. She dealt with her shyness by working past her dyslexia and losing herself in books, as well as writing her own stories as early as 10. She developed an interest in science fiction at age 12, sparking a lifelong talent as a science fiction writer.
Bestselling American author Sherrilyn Kenyon is best known for her Dark-Hunter vampire series. She has gathered an international following, with bestsellers frequenting New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly lists. She relates that dyslexia has impacted her writing, sharing, “The first book I wrote, most of the letters were backwards and much of it is horribly misspelled, but it didn’t stop me.” Kenyon persevered and followed her dreams to become a bestselling author, but minces no words explaining that “the dyslexia is a bummer, as my copy-editors will tell you.”
Eileen Simpson was a noted memoirist, sharing insight into her husband John Berryman and the poets that came into their lives. Although she was expected more to be a writer’s wife than a writer herself, she nonetheless became a celebrated author. In addition to social expectations, Simpson overcame acute dyslexia to become a writer, a condition that was diagnosed by Berryman, but had impacted her in school years earlier as she only pretended to read and write. She clearly overcame her disability, becoming the critical acclaimed writer we know today.
Don Mullan is a bestselling Irish author, best known for his book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, which sparked a new Bloody Sunday Inquiry. He was an eyewitness to the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry at the age of 15. His book inspired the award winning film Bloody Sunday, for which he was a co-producer, source writer, and actor. He is very open about his dyslexia and outspoken about the condition. He’s written and edited several books and documentaries on dyslexia, is a member of the International Dyslexia Association, and was a former keynote speaker at the International Symposium on dyslexia in Dublin.
Bernard Taylor is a celebrated British author and playwright. His work includes horror, true crime nonfiction, suspense, and romantic fiction, as well as theater plays, radio, and TV. He has won the Crime Writer’s Association’s Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction Award for Perfect Murder, and his novels The Godsend and Mother’s Boys have both been made into film adaptations. He discovered his dyslexia at midlife, living 38 years undiagnosed. Taylor seems to be largely unruffled by the disability, but he does note that it sometimes slows him down, sharing that “it takes me dozens of rewrites to get it grammatically correct. But the creative juices keep me going. I am a big out of the box thinker.”
Avi is beloved for his middle grade reader historical fiction novels. With a half-century writing career, 50 books, two Newbery Honors, and a Newbery Medal, he has had a major impact on the world of fiction. But Avi’s writing hasn’t always been easy to deal with: his teachers complained of messy and careless writing. His sloppy work was due to dyslexia, and Avi had to take on special tutoring sessions after failing out of his first high school. It was during these tutoring sessions that Avi was inspired to become a writer, and he developed a love of reading and writing voraciously.
Bestselling Irish fantasy novelist Caiseal Mór is known for his The Wanderers series and The Watcher’s trilogy. He’s created several music and spoken word CDs, and he is also famous for his autobiography, A Blessing and a Curse, which discusses his life on the autism spectrum. Before his autobiography was released, he kept his disability a secret from the public. He was diagnosed as a child, not speaking until he was four, and was taught to be ashamed of his autism, worried that he’d end up in a mental hospital if people knew. Caiseal still struggles with conversation as an adult, and he much prefers the written word, making his career as a novelist a good fit for him.
Gustave Flaubert is a French writer considered to be one of the greatest Western novelists. His first published novel, Madame Bovary, is the basis of his fame. He was known for his perfectionist style, and spoke out about his dyslexia, explaining, “I have the handicap of being born with a special language to which I alone have the key.” Although he struggled with the written word throughout his life, he was able to accomplish greatness as a writer.
John Elder Robison is best known for his memoir, Look Me in the Eye, which shares his life experiences as a sufferer of Asperger’s syndrome. He’s also the older brother of Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors. Robison was unaware of his condition until he was 39 years old, but has nonetheless become an active participant in the autism community. He serves as a volunteer spokesman for the Graduate Autism Program and as a public reviewer for autism research with the National Institute of Mental Health. In addition to his memoir, Robison has written Be Different, a guide for people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, explaining how to handle social situations.