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World Champion Sonnon advocates for dyslexia education reform

Scott Sonnon, right, launches his new book, "A Mountain Stands: Confessions of a Suppressed Genius" by kicking off a speaking tour in Michigan.
Scott Sonnon, right, launches his new book, "A Mountain Stands: Confessions of a Suppressed Genius" by kicking off a speaking tour in Michigan. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Scott Sonnon couldn’t stop writing backward.

At the age of 4, everything Sonnon would write came out looking as if viewed in a mirror.

Once a physical representation of his dyslexia, Sonnon, 44, has used the mirror writing as a metaphor for inverting the negative experiences in his life to find a way he can benefit from them; for how he can grow.

This is the message Sonnon, a Bellingham resident and world champion in five different disciplines of martial arts, is portraying in his new autobiography, “A Mountain Stands: Confessions of a Suppressed Genius.”

His speaking tour, which started Aug. 11 in Brighton, Mich., gives Sonnon an opportunity to provide outreach for those, especially children, with dyslexia, Sonnon said.

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that usually affects specific language skills such as reading and writing, according to the International

Dyslexia Association.

It is thought that around 15-20 percent of the population has some form of dyslexia.

The “suppressed genius” Sonnon references in his book title are the advantages outside the verbal/linguistic realm many dyslexics experience, such as learning through motion or visual/spatial, Sonnon said.

The “suppressed genius” is the tradeoff of dyslexia, Sonnon said, and the goal is to flip the fixation of dyslexia as a “learning problem,” to instead see its advantages.

Sonnon said dyslexics also have the ability to make distant connections, bridging thoughts to create innovative ideas.

For Sonnon, his kinesthetic learning style helped him in martial arts, where he felt time slow down as he processed tightly condensed kinetic information while learning.

“It gave me an advantage in physical life,” he said. “When somebody grabbed a hold of me, they might have seen my face as a two dimensional target, but I saw every line of tension in their body. I could feel where they would move and the direction they were headed.”

His ability to make distant connections led him to develop exercise routines and techniques that used swinging clubs, which helped Sonnon stay fit despite a degenerative joint disease that would shred connective tissue as he lifted weights.

Sonnon is also using his tour to rally support for dyslexia education reform — a subject that is quite personal to Sonnon.

He was hospitalized at a psychiatric institution at a young age for being “disruptive” in the classroom as a result of his dyslexia, and wants to make sure that never happens again to any child.

“We have to advocate for educational reform that will allow families with dyslexic children to create the space for them to have their own processing speed,” Sonnon said.

Sonnon is working with Decoding Dyslexia, a grassroots parent organization for dyslexia education, to bring his tour to the Decoding Dyslexia chapters in 18 states.

He wants to spread the word about House Resolution 456, a resolution sponsored by Representative Bill Cassidy (R-LA) that calls for educational agencies to recognize dyslexia and its educational implications.

The resolution is already through the House and in the hands of the House Education and Workforce Committee.

The five time world champion Sonnon has many accolades, including being named one of the top 6 most influential martial artists of the 21st century by Black Belt Magazine. His exercise routine, TACFIT, was named the “World’s Smartest Workout” by Men’s Health Magazine in 2014.

But those accolades mean little to Sonnon, he said.“They’re just titles. People gravitated toward the way I teach because life has humbled me so much that people can relate to how I present challenges,” he said.

Sonnon and his wife moved to Bellingham in the spring of 2001 to raise their son, Kai.

Kai has given Sonnon an entirely new reason to start his campaign for dyslexia education reform.

Sonnon was exercising one morning when his son Kai, 9, asked to join him. They started with TACFIT pushups, an exercise Sonnon developed for the government when training federal agencies for physical therapy exams to prevent shoulder injuries.

They planned to do 15 repetitions in 30 seconds, and after the 30 seconds were over, Kai looked at his dad, puzzled.

“Dad, why did you do 20 pushups? I thought we were doing 15.”Sonnon explained that he needed a few extra repetitions to challenge himself. Then, momentarily taken aback, Sonnon asked his son how he had kept track of counting both repetitions.

Kai said he had kept track of both at the same time, like numbers flipping on a scoreboard, a sign of a particular ability for those with a form of dyslexia.

Sonnon has not had his son tested for dyslexia. Instead, Sonnon has talked to his son about the tradeoffs of having a different brain organization and has been working with his son by providing knowledge to enhance methods of learning that aren’t verbal or linguistic.

“He’s excelled in the classroom as a result of these alternative learning educational approaches as well as the fantastic school systems that we have in Bellingham,” Sonnon said.

These alternative educational experiences for Sonnon are a direct result of his mother, a single mom with four kids, who worked as one of the first steelworkers in Pennsylvania.

As Sonnon moved through elementary school experiencing isolation and violence as a result of his condition, his mother fought with the school system to help Sonnon find equal opportunity.

When she received no response, she took matters into her own hands.She exposed Sonnon to chisenbop, an old Korean style of finger counting, which helped Sonnon form a physical representation of math through movement.

Now, Sonnon is passing her message to his son and the millions of other children with diagnosed or undiagnosed dyslexia.

“She speaks purely through me,” Sonnon said in a text message. “She was the original advocate of dyslexia.”

Now 35 years after his incarceration, Sonnon feels the time is fast approaching for the education system to implement measures to accommodate different styles of learning.

One-hundred and five of the necessary 100 representative co-sponsors have backed Resolution 456, including Representative Rick Larsen [D-WA] of Washington’s second legislative district, which encompasses Bellingham.

Five of the ten Washington representatives have backed the resolution.“[The time] is now. All we have to do is approach the representatives in our states and ask them to get behind this simple legislation that will help educators help our kids,” Sonnon said.

He looks at his son as an example of what education can be for other children with different learning styles.

“I’m learning from him what life could have been like,” Sonnon said. “All I can do is do my best as a parent to not repeat the generational hazing that our ignorance about brain organization caused me.”

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