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Success Stories: Celebrities With Dyslexia, ADHD and Dyscalculia

By Amanda Morin

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Some of the biggest names in movies, music and sports are people who struggled in school with learning and attention issues. Here are a number of the celebrities who found their passion and overcame their challenges.

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Whoopi Goldberg
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Whoopi Goldberg (dyslexia)

Long ago, before Whoopi Goldberg was diagnosed with dyslexia and before she knew how common this learning issue is, kids in school called her “dumb.” But her mother told her not to listen to them. Her mom told her she could be anything she wanted to be. Goldberg believed her and grew up to become a comedian and talk-show host—and one of only about a dozen people to have won a Grammy, an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Tony Award. She attributes thinking differently as a factor in helping her succeed.

Daniel Radcliffe
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Daniel Radcliffe (dyspraxia)

As the star of the Harry Potter movies, actor Daniel Radcliffe can be seen zipping around on his broomstick and saving the day during Quidditch matches. In real life, he has dyspraxia, which can make it difficult for him to tie his shoes. Handwriting also continues to be a challenge. He was 9 when his mother encouraged him to audition for a play. “I was having a hard time in school,” he said. His mom thought acting would boost his confidence. She was right!

Steven Spielberg
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Steven Spielberg (dyslexia)

Legendary film director Steven Spielberg wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until he was in his 60s. School administrators thought he was lazy. He was bullied by classmates, and his troubles in school played a part in his career. Not only did making movies give him a place to channel his energies, but feeling like an outsider helped him cowrite The Goonies, a hit movie about a quirky group of friends who didn’t quite fit in at school. He said finding out as an adult that he has dyslexia was like “the last puzzle piece to a great mystery that I’ve kept to myself.”

Justin Timberlake
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Justin Timberlake (ADHD)

Justin Timberlake is many things. He’s a singer-songwriter, actor and entrepreneur. He’s also one of the many adults—and musicians—in the U.S. who have ADHD. Early in his career, Timberlake costarred on Disney’s All New Mickey Mouse Club with Ryan Gosling, who as a child was diagnosed with ADHD and was bullied before he became a Mouseketeer and movie star.

Photo of Cher
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Cher (dyslexia)

Cher is an Academy Award‒winning actress and Grammy-winning singer. But she struggled in school with undiagnosed learning issues. “I couldn’t read quickly enough to get all my homework done and for me, math was like trying to understand Sanskrit,” she wrote in her autobiography The First Time. “The only way I learned was by listening to the teachers in my classroom.” She didn’t find out about her dyslexia until years later when she took her child to get evaluated for learning and attention issues.

Read more about how Cher triumphed over dyslexia and math issues.

Photo of Octavia Spencer
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Octavia Spencer (dyslexia)

Octavia Spencer has won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her acting. She’s also a children’s author who knows what a challenge reading can be for some kids. That’s because Spencer has dyslexia. She vividly recalls how scared she was as a child when she had to read aloud in class. “I was paralyzed with fear because I kept inverting words and dropping words,” she has said. However, she stresses that dyslexia shouldn’t prevent kids from pursuing their dreams. “[It] doesn’t really mean that you’re not intelligent—it just means that your brain functions differently,” she has said.

Read more about why dyslexia can’t stop Spencer’s success.

Tim Tebow
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Tim Tebow (dyslexia)

Former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has dyslexia. His father and brother do, too. Learning issues can run in families. He was diagnosed in elementary school and found ways to work around his reading difficulties. Tebow is one of many NFL players who have been open about their learning and attention issues. “It has to do with finding out how you learn,” he said. “I’m not somebody that opens a playbook and just turns and reads and reads. So I just made flashcards. I take each one, and then boom, when I’m traveling, I just flip through it. That really helped me. Writing it down, flipping through and quizzing myself, that was a great way for me to do it.”

Michael Phelps
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Michael Phelps (ADHD)

Swimmer Michael Phelps holds the record for winning the most Olympic medals. He has ADHD and was hyperactive as a child. “I was always the kid who was running around,” he said. “I literally couldn’t sit still.” His mother used his love of swimming to help him focus.

Read more about how Phelps used ADHD to his advantage.

Henry Winkler
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Henry Winkler (dyslexia and math issues)

Henry Winkler is an actor, director and author who has dyslexia and difficulty with math. On Happy Days, he played “The Fonz,” a role so iconic that his character’s jacket now hangs in the Smithsonian. But a new generation of fans may know him better for coauthoring the best-selling Hank Zipzer children’s series. Like Winkler, Hank struggles with learning issues but doesn’t let them get in the way of his dreams. Winkler also visits schools to talk about learning issues. To honor his educational work, the Queen of England made him an Honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2011.

Kiera Knightly
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Keira Knightley (dyslexia)

After Keira Knightley was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 6, she used her love of acting to help motivate her to read. Knightley struck a deal with her parents that if she worked on her reading every day, they would agree to hire her an agent. The Pirates of the Caribbean star made good on her half of the bargain, using movie scripts to practice reading. She went on to become one of Hollywood’s highest-earning actresses.

Anderson Cooper
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Anderson Cooper (dyslexia)

CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper hasn’t let dyslexia stand in the way of his success. He also won’t allow his reading issues to stand in the way of his love for books and literature. His own book, Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival, was on the New York Times best-seller list.

Read more about why Cooper no longer hides his dyslexia.

Jamie Oliver
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Jamie Oliver (dyslexia)

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has built an empire with his best-selling cookbooks, prime-time TV shows, restaurants and cookware. He also has dyslexia and said he didn’t finish reading his first book until he was 38. “I get bored easily,” he said. But the sci-fi sequel to The Hunger Games managed to keep him engaged. “I read Catching Fire. I loved disappearing into a story.”

Headshot of Lisa Ling
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Lisa Ling (ADHD)

Award-winning TV journalist Lisa Ling struggled in school from the time she was a child all the way through college. She eventually dropped out of college, went on to become a producer, special correspondent and, eventually, an investigative journalist with her own show. While reporting on ADHD, she discovered that her own struggles are because she, too, has ADHD. It was a relief and allowed her to look at herself in a new way. “In a strange way I do feel like it has helped me. I can hyperfocus on things that I am excited and passionate about,” she has said.

Read more about why Ling was relieved by her ADHD diagnosis.

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9 Presidents Who Made a Difference in Education

U.S. presidents have always had a say in education. President Thomas Jefferson, for instance, thought public education was key to creating a strong country. Here’s a look at nine recent presidents and how they made a difference in education—differences that continue to have an impact on students with learning and attention issues.

Game Changers in History Who May Have Had Learning and Attention Issues

Historians speculate that many major figures from the past may have had learning and attention issues. We can’t know for sure whether someone from an earlier century had these issues. And for many—especially women and people of color—there aren’t enough records to let us guess. But here are some accomplished individuals who made a big impact on history—from centuries past to more recent times. They overcame challenges and may inspire your child to do the same.

About the Author

Portrait of Amanda Morin

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

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