Putting the finishing pencil strokes to a carefully shaded and richly detailed drawing of a Tudor street was one of the proudest moments in young Jon Adams’s life.
But moments later the talented 10-year-old was shrinking with shame and fear as he realised he would have to sign and date his impressive work.
A gifted artist, Jon had such problems with reading and writing that he struggled to get his name right and lived in constant fear of being humiliated.
And in this case he was right to worry. After the traumatised lad spelt Jonathan wrong his work was ripped up by his teacher.
Now 52, Jon knows about dyslexia and the reasons he has had such difficulties with spelling all his life.
But back then he was undiagnosed and a failure to understand his problems and the actions of the bullying teacher almost destroyed the lad’s ambitions to be an artist.
‘I was incredibly proud of the picture, it was the best thing I’d done at that point,’ recalls Jon.
‘But I couldn’t spell my name and I had a choice – ask, but I knew exactly what the teacher would say – or make a best guess. So that’s what I did.’
The ripping of the drawing stayed with Jon for decades. ‘It was humiliating. I’d wanted to be an artist since I was six but decided then to give up any idea of that.’
Jon’s problems were also complicated by the fact that he has Asperger’s – also undiagnosed at the time.
People with this form of autism have difficulties understanding the subtleties of communication (like body language) and find many social situations very distressing.
It took many years for Jon to resurrect his artistic dreams but thankfully he is now a successful multimedia artist who addresses dyslexia and Asperger’s in his work and strives to inspire others.
Sat contentedly in his studio at Southsea’s Art Space – a building used by more than 30 artists in the city, Jon says: ‘I want to help other people and give them confidence because that’s a big problem for kids with dyslexia.
‘There’s a danger that people will go through life thinking ‘‘I’m rubbish’’ and that results in a waste of talent.’
People with dyslexia generally have difficulty ‘decoding’ words. They have problems with verbal memory (remembering short lists and sequences of numbers), verbal processing speed (the time it takes to recognise familiar information) and phonological awareness (the ability to identify how words are made up).
There is much greater awareness these days and children are offered support in schools.
But Jon says he spent decades believing he was ‘thick’, and was labelled ‘stupid’ by teachers.
He says he has heard of cases today where children have been treated harshly because their spellings don’t come up to scratch.
‘It’s thinking in a different way. I can learn anything I want to with pictures,’ explains Jon, who has a geology degree and has been awarded a fellowship from the Royal Society of Arts. ‘I find it very difficult to learn by rote, but I understand things. It’s a bit like a bottleneck of getting the information in rather than not understanding.’
Asperger’s has been a significant factor in Jon’s life. People with the condition find it hard to read people’s emotions, take things literally and find social situations a challenge.
‘I was very aloof. The fact I couldn’t spell and my decided oddness made things very difficult at school.’
But he thanks his conditions for his talents. Jon is very visual, easily picturing things in 3D, and says this is quite common among people with both dyslexia and Asperger’s.
He is also good at thinking systematically and this has been great for his scientific and incredibly detailed artistic work.
Autistic children often develop a special interest and for him it was geology. ‘Rocks don’t change, they stay the same, I liked that. And I just wanted to know about everything.’
Not diagnosed with either condition until adulthood, Jon said he got by through determination, learning coping mechanisms and accepted behaviour, and with his natural abilities. ‘Dyslexia masks talent but talent can also mask dyslexia,’ he says.
Married with children, the Portsmouth artist was diagnosed because his son is also dyslexic and says he cried – with relief and ‘because I had all that rubbish at school’.
Thankfully he was inspired to pursue an artistic career while working as a gallery attendant.
After illustrating geology books for many years, Jon embarked on an art project addressing dyslexia.
Books screwed together represented their inaccessibility.
He received grants for further work including sound installations recording the experiences of people with dyslexia and a multimedia project with autism researchers.
An artist who draws, photographs, records and digitally manipulates, he says: ‘For me it’s not just about a pretty picture. It has a subtext, I’m dyslexic but I can do this. It’s helped my confidence a lot. Just one word can take someone’s confidence and that’s a terrible thing.’
And he now sees his conditions as a valuable tool. ‘I wouldn’t want to be normal, whatever that is.’