These 5 Historical Persisters Struggled With Learning Difficulties (Nevertheless, They Slayed)

In recent years, neuroscientists and researchers have worked towards lifting the social stigma associated with learning disabilities.

In The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, Dr Gail Saltz examined the latest scientific literature and the cases of overachievers who had been diagnosed with disorders such as dyslexia, ADD, autism and schizophrenia.

Explaining the idea of “brain difference”, Saltz argues that every brain shows different kinds of connections between its inner structures. Some of these differences can sometimes entail symptoms likely to cause disorders. However, struggles in some mental functions can originate enhanced abilities and talent in others.

“[…] We have tended to think of different as bad, and what I’m trying to explain in my book is that symptoms can be bad, and they can definitely make us suffer, and they should be understood and treated, but at the same time, when you have a difference, there’s often a tie to very particular hard-wired strength”, she said in an interview with Scientific American.

Individuals who became acclaimed geniuses were often born with learning difficulties. And the cognitive areas they struggled with have been those in which they left an indelible mark.

Here are some notable Persisters who were reported to have a learning difficulty:

  1. Agatha Christie

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Historians think that the best-selling mystery novelist— whose books have been translated into at least 103 languages— may have had Dyslexia or Dysgraphia. The latter is a learning disorder affecting penmanship, spelling and even arithmetics, meaning she struggled to write legibly. Christie claimed to have been the “slow one in the family.” She explained: “It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.” The youngest of three sisters, during her childhood she was homeschooled by her mother; since she often felt bored, making up stories became a way to overcome her sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem. “Writing is a great comfort to people like me, who are unsure of themselves and have trouble expressing themselves properly”, she said. Matthew Pritchard, the writer’s grandson, recalled that his grandmother “used to dictate her stories into a machine called a Dictaphone and then a secretary typed this up into a typescript.”Agatha Christie’s ability to write such an impressive body of work despite her condition has been also studied by the American Psychological Association.

2. Leonardo Da Vinci


Scientists have argued that the Renaissance master is believed to have shown symptoms of Dyslexia and ADHD. One key element is his handwriting. Da Vinci used to write his notes in reverse, from right to left, in a mirror image. This peculiar trait usually characterises people with Dyslexia, who find this way of writing more natural. In addition, his spelling was often incorrect. Researchers from Middlesex university linked artistic talent to high visuospatial ability following an experiment which aimed to test the processing of 3D information. Participants with Dyslexia scored better results on many tests, including remembering and reproducing designs. This better understanding of space can usually compensate for linguistic problems. The fact that Da Vinci left many of his project unfinished contributed to the idea that he may have suffered from ADHD as well.

3. Pablo Picasso


Following the Middlesex University research, it is arguable that the Dyslexia that affected the painter of Guernica during his whole life might also have made his most important works stand out. He used to see his subjects upside down or backwards and managed to convey this altered perception of reality in groundbreaking art pieces such as the Cubist paintings. As a student, he struggled to differentiate the orientation of letters, finding general difficulties in many fields. He was described as “reading blind”, a condition studied in the 1870s by German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul; this term was then replaced in 1877 with the name “Dyslexia” by the ophthalmologist Rudolph Berlin.

4. Henry Ford


The founder of the Ford Motor Company boosted the American industrial sector when he installed the first assembly line for the mass production of automobiles. Yet during his childhood, he struggled with a severe form Dyslexia, being unable to properly write or even recognise his own middle name. His talent in engineering— when he was 13 years old he managed to take apart and reassemble a pocket watch his father had gifted him— and methodical approach helped him cope with the issue, leading him to overcome his disorder by repeating particular actions in order to effectively master them. This system may have contributed to the conceptualisation of the mass production manufacturing strategy known as “Fordism”.

5. Woodrow Wilson


The 28th President of the United States and recipient of the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize had a rough start in life. Affected by Dyslexia, he only learned to read when he was 10 years old. To compensate, his father taught him the arts of oratory and debate, skills that proved fundamental for his political career. He attended the Davidson College in North Carolina and was later admitted to the John Hopkins University, where he studied political science. The same man who was deemed a poor student during his childhood eventually served as President of Princeton University and then as the Governor of New Jersey before becoming president in 1913. Knowing the importance of developing resilience to overcome challenges, he once said: “The man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of it.”

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