Octavia Spencer is taking Hollywood by storm. The star has been acting for more than 20 years but is best known for her more recent roles. Some of her films include Hidden Figures, Insurgent, Zootopia and The Help. And she’s received many awards, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar.
Spencer has also been making a name for herself as a children’s author. Now with two books out, she can proudly call herself a successful writer. But that wasn’t always the case. That’s because she has dyslexia. But the actress doesn’t let that slow her down. In fact, she’s become outspoken about it.
Read on to learn how Spencer’s learning differences have shaped her into the successful woman she is today.
Support From the Start
Spencer grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. She’s called herself a “small-town girl.” She and her six siblings were raised by a single mother who was strict but supportive.
“I had a very strong mom who made me and my sisters understand that there were no limitations on our lives except what we placed on ourselves,” Spencer has said.
She credits her mother for keeping her grounded and positive as a child. That was especially helpful when school was challenging.
“Reading aloud has always been a problem for me, because I had a learning disability that I didn’t realize was a disability,” Spencer has said about her dyslexia.
She remembers how scared she was in the first or second grade when she had to read aloud in class. “I was paralyzed with fear because I kept inverting words and dropping words. I didn’t want to be made to feel that I was not as smart as the other kids—because I know that I am a smart person.”
While reading was hard for her, Spencer found she did have other skills her classmates didn’t. Her teachers helped her with her learning differences and pointed out her strengths. And Spencer was tested for her school’s gifted program, because she was such a strong auditory learner.
Evelyn Moore was Spencer’s high school guidance counselor. And she remembered that Spencer was a good student who “never said no.” She has shared that the actress “knew what she wanted to do and she stuck to it.”
“I just remember thinking differently,” Spencer has said. “I could solve puzzles quicker than the average child. I would start with the mazes at the end and go to the front and be done in, like, 30 seconds. My deductive reasoning was very important.”
Making It in Show Business
In high school, Spencer dreamed of working behind the camera. Never one to give up, at 16 years old, she landed her first film job as an intern. She worked on the set of the movie The Long Walk Home, which was shot in Alabama.
Spencer has said she was persistent and determined to get that internship. “I called every day. And then when I found their offices, I just showed up every day. And they’re like, ‘You’re not going to stop, are you?’”
Spencer went on to graduate from Auburn University. She majored in English with a double minor in journalism and theater.
Since then Spencer has acted in numerous movies and TV shows. She’s even started to produce for the screen. And just like with anything she does, Spencer doesn’t let her dyslexia get in the way.
“I’m a puzzle person,” she has said. “I’m dyslexic, and the way that I learn through my process is very different. Everything is a puzzle. And that’s the way I see producing.”
Breaking Into Books
Spencer published the first of two books in a series for middle-school kids a few years ago. The Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective series is a set of mysteries. “I’m reading today because of Encyclopedia Brown,” she has said. She also includes Nancy Drew books among her childhood favorites.
Spencer is glad she created a book series. “Writing is an outlet that I never thought that I would actually share with people, whereas acting—I hoped I’d get to share that,” she has said. “This is a wonderful reward that I’m getting to do both and share both.”
But her dyslexia still affects the process. “That fear of reading aloud has never escaped me,” Spencer has said. When she recorded the audio version of Randi Rhodes, she found the process to be a bit hard. “It was bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter.”
Spencer will never forget those moments as a kid reading aloud. “Any child that reads will know that I know exactly what they’re going through when they’re reading aloud.”
Speaking Up About Her Dyslexia
Spencer isn’t shy about talking about her reading issues, especially in interviews.
“I was a dyslexic child and am a dyslexic adult,” she has said. “That doesn’t really mean that you’re not intelligent—it just means that your brain functions differently.”
Spencer hopes kids who struggle with any kind of issue won’t give up on their dreams. She has said, “It doesn’t matter your situation in life; your path is what you choose it to be.”
Find out what to do if you think your child might have dyslexia or if he was recently diagnosed. Learn about more Oscar winners with dyslexia. And explore more dyslexia success stories.
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About the author
Lexi Walters Wright is the former community manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.