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Hannah Martin 05:00, Jan 19 2020

Adam Dickson used to carry a dictionary with his cookbooks, and relied on colleagues to help him read. Now his recipes appear alongside Marco Pierre White and Gordan Ramsay's in cookbooks. The talented chef says help is available for people with dyslexia. Hannah Martin reports. 

Sir David Attenborough once said his was the finest fillet of salmon he's had in his life, he's cooked for Brian May and his mum, and Kylie Minogue remarked he had "fingers of gold" in the kitchen. 

But as a child Adam Dickson was written-off as a trouble-maker. "Thick", disruptive, a delinquent. He was tossed out of class or sent to the principal's office – all because he couldn't read or write. 

"Have you ever handed a pen and paper to a chicken? That's what [my writing] looked like," Dickson recalled.  

It would be four decades before the Kiwi chef was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, a term used to describe a spectrum of persistent difficulties with reading, writing and numeracy, affecting an estimated one in 10 New Zealanders, including 70,000 school children. 

Born in Twizel and raised in Te Kaha, Dickson had trouble reading and writing as early as five. 

Despite being tested for dyslexia as a child, teachers didn't understand and didn't have the time to help. 

"I was the dumb kid, hanging out with all the other 'dumb kids'... put in all the lowest possible classes." 

Dyslexia manifests in different ways due to obstructions or immaturities in the brain's pathways. 

People with dyslexia can have issues with spatial awareness and fine motor skills: writing letters and numbers backwards, running words together without spaces, or start writing on the right-hand-side, bottom or middle of a page.

They can also struggle with poor visual memory of the shapes of letters and words, reversing the order of letters such as 'was' for 'saw', and confusion between letters such as b, d, p, q, and g. 

Speaking difficulties, such as saying 'hopsital' instead of hospital, or 'biscetti' for spaghetti, and difficulty associating and remembering a letter with its sound are also common.

At school Dickson was left to his own devices, and found an affinity for home economics and music.

He developed his culinary skills out of necessity. His family moved to Australia when he was eight, and Dickson would hunt and fish for his younger sister as money was tight. 

After moving back to the Wairarapa, Dickson landed his first job in a restaurant as a kitchenhand at 13. 

He hated school and would wag to wash dishes. 

At 14, he saw an ad for a kitchenhand job across the ditch. He got the gig at the Sheridan Mirage in Port Douglas with $50 in his pocket and a lie about his age. 

Between work and practising his knife skills in his spare time, Dickson attended remedial school classes to learn to read and write properly. 

He transitioned from washing dishes to plating them, and by 18 had his professional culinary qualification. 

Dickson went from owning a hot-dog stand, to running various pubs and high-end hotel kitchens around the world, to owning his own restaurant in Clevedon, Auckland.  

He's since worked in kitchens on oil and gas rigs and was the head chef for events such as the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the America's Cup. 

His recipes appear in cookbooks alongside Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay and fellow dyslexic Jamie Oliver, and he has catered film sets feeding John Travolta and Woody Harrelson​. 

He taught professional cookery at Manukau Institute of Technology, all while battling his dyslexia to write assessments, read reports and record student progress. 

For years he carried a dictionary amongst his cookbooks, relying on mates in the kitchen to help him read recipes and proof-read ones he had written. 

It wasn't until five years ago that Dickson, then 40, "happened upon" information about dyslexia.

He booked an appointment with an assessor at his Auckland home, who diagnosed Dickson's condition as severe. 

Within months he had access to a range of tools which "completely changed my life". 

He uses a smart pen with an in-built camera, which photographs notes as he writes them and records speech to input into a tablet. 

He can also swipe the pen across a page and have the text read back to him – a "godsend". 

Dickson said life with dyslexia means constantly learning and adapting, "pushing yourself and pushing through those barriers." 

He still gets words wrong and writes letters backwards, but is now able to sit and read to his kids, 7 and 9. 

Dickson encouraged people to get themselves or their children tested for dyslexia if they are struggling, and to continue persevering. 

He said awareness and understanding about dyslexia had progressed in "leaps and bounds" since he was a child, and the technology available was "just incredible". 

"Kids [with dyslexia] shouldn't be seen as dysfunctional or dumb. They bring so many other things to the table, it's about working with them to draw that out."

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