A Dyslexic and an Autistic rowing the Atlantic

27 November 2018
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Dyslexia Scotland News release - A dyslexic and an autistic row the Atlantic, an unlikely pair

One has dyslexia and the other has autism and together they are rowing the Atlantic in their boat ‘Blue Steel’ as part of this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. This unlikely pair, named the Atlantic Albatross team, met for the first time in August for a week’s training. Mark Agnew, a 27 year old with dyslexia, comes from Scotland but is currently working in Hong Kong. When his other teammates dropped out, the organisers put him in touch with Lizzie Gill. Lizzie, a 43 year old with autism living in Surrey, was in a similar situation and after a long international skype, they decided that they were indeed a good match. They can both be described as having “neurodiversity”, an umbrella term first used in the 1990s and ironically highlighted in The Atlantic Magazine 1998 in which it was described as a variation of wiring in the brain.

So how is Mark Agnew wired? He struggled with reading, spelling and concentration at school and university but despite that he is a journalist in Hong Kong, writing for the extreme sports section of the South China Morning Post. His spelling continues to be unreliable and he describes spell check as “the devil” as it confuses him by suggesting similar words to the one he wants. He says that his two biggest difficulties in life are firstly transferring sequences of numbers from one form to another and despite checking and rechecking, he still gets them wrong. Secondly he is disorganised and has to work in his own way and to his own schedule to avoid getting stressed. So how will he be on the boat? He says that he may find it difficult to transfer numerical bearings to the steering gear; to write down longitudes and latitudes received orally from the satellite phone or from compass readings. “It is when I am taking in numbers and then out again, a number then another number, perhaps with a decimal point, they get scrambled in my head” says Mark. He will also find it difficult to keep the boat ship-shape, “I know it will annoy Lizzie and with so little room but I will have so few possessions which may make it easier”.  However he is flexible, an extrovert, sensitive and hopes to be able to think creatively in a crisis!

So how is Lizzie Gill wired? She was diagnosed with autism only 5 years ago despite finding that “the biggest challenge I faced growing up was loneliness and an overwhelming feeling of "not belonging". Social interaction with her family was difficult and even more so trying to form and maintain friendships. However she was academically successful and is now a maths teacher. Because of the relationship between teacher and pupils, she finds the classroom easier to handle than the staff room. “What I still find challenging are the inter-personal relationships with other staff, and any social interactions outside of the normal routines” says Lizzie. Hence it would have been easier for her to row the Atlantic solo but Lizzie wanted an extra challenge as “it would not have tested my ability to work closely with someone else in a dynamic and constantly changing environment where communicating and supporting each other will be vital. I wanted to test that side of myself and I know I will find it challenging!” In particular she finds it difficult to express and process her emotions and, as she says, “will often cry simply because I cannot process everything that I feel - not that I am upset or unhappy - just that the emotions of that moment are too difficult to process quickly”. Communicating her emotions to Mark and processing them under duress may be her biggest challenge but alternatively she will be organised, and will act methodically and logically.

How will they function as a team on Blue Steel? Firstly Mark is grateful to Lizzie for taking over the extensive administration. Mark was the leader of his previous team and was being smothered by the administration, “people kept telling me that I needed spreadsheets but I was just crashing about”, he says. Meanwhile Lizzie is planning everything meticulously and labelling everything in the boat.  She acknowledges that she will be unable to read Mark’s moods so he will tell her how he is feeling. “This will become my new normal”, says Mark, “as it is what we should all be doing anyway instead of a stiff upper lip but sometimes it is difficult because we’ve been socialised, particularly in Britain, not to talk about feelings”. He will try to keep the boat tidy particularly in their shared cabin. Lizzie will check the bearings and logs and Mark hopes to be able to think broadly in unexpected situations. They are setting out with the concept of mutual support for the things that they find difficult and to capitalise on their individual strengths. For example, Lizzie says “sometimes my logical, organised approach may help to manage a situation or provide reassurance in the boat and equipment. Or Mark's ability to think through a situation differently to me may mean that we find a better solution to a problem”. But despite the empathy and openness to each other at present, adding to their dyslexia and autism will be sleep deprivation, physical and mental stress, blisters, hunger, dehydration, and perhaps fear. In these conditions, their reactions will be unpredictable, as would anybody’s, but perhaps more so considering their individual neurodiversities.  

Mark and Lizzie in their short partnership appear to have found a lot in common. Considering that they both have neurodiversity, this is not entirely unexpected although academics generally refute any genetic link between autism and dyslexia. However it is acknowledged that many of those who have neurodiversity have several diversities, for instance they may have both autism and dyslexia and possibly other diversities as well. Although this is not the case with Mark and Lizzie, multi-diversity implies that there is common ground among those with autism and dyslexia, if not common genes. Scottish Autism describes autism as being “a lifelong developmental condition that affects the way a person communicates, interacts and processes information”.  Similarly Dyslexia Scotland’s definition of dyslexia covers a wide spectrum of possible difficulties which commonly concern reading, writing and spelling.  Like autism, dyslexia is lifelong and is associated with difficulties in processing information, short-term memory, oral skills, sequencing, directionality and organisation, any of which can lead to poor communication skills.  The common ground between autism and dyslexia appears to be processing and communication in their broadest senses. Despite having common ground, equally Mark and Lizzie are opposites. In a personality test Mark was assessed as being an extreme extrovert and innovator but unstructured. Whereas Lizzie was described as organising, controlling and advising. Despite these opposites, and indeed perhaps because of them, the test claims that they are an excellent match which bodes well for their potential 55 days together in the Atlantic. 

This unique two-person Atlantic rowing team leave from the Canary Islands on 12th December aiming to arrive in Antigua in early February.

You will be able to follow their progress from 12th December on this website and our social media pages.

Meanwhile, Mark and Lizzie are looking for sponsorship ([email protected]) and donations to Dyslexia Scotland www.justgiving.com/fundraising/mark-agnew2

Their website: www.atlanticalbatross.com