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Joel McHale opens up about what living with dyslexia is really like

It took actor Joel McHale more than four decades to realize he had dyslexia, when one of his sons was diagnosed with the learning disorder.

“So my sons are also dyslexic. One has been diagnosed and the doctor goes … she’s describing all the symptoms, and I’m like, ‘That’s what I have,’” McHale said during the latest episode of the podcast Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard.

McHale said he struggled in school and repeated grades. At the time, he was told his problem was that he was a “slow starter.” Shepard was able to relate: He’s also dyslexic and revealed that he didn’t learn to read until the fifth grade.

Dyslexia affects as much as 20 percent of the population, according to Sally Shaywitz, M.D., co-director of the Yale Center for Creativity & Dyslexia, who says that “far too often” schools fail to identify children who are dyslexic.

While McHale was able to get by in high school and college (by cheating, he admitted only half-jokingly), Shaywitz said there’s an achievement gap between dyslexic readers and normal readers as early as first grade, which is why getting screened and a diagnosis early on is so important.

Shaywitz went on to explain to LIVESTRONG.COM that dyslexia is “an unexpected difficulty,” meaning that people with the disorder often have high IQs, but read below their level of intelligence. For most people with dyslexia, the problem is related to their phonological processing skills — the ability to connect sounds to letters. That’s why people with dyslexia also tend to be horrible spellers.

Fortunately, with certain accommodations — extra time for tests and assignments being one of the most important — students with dyslexia can succeed along with their peers. “The whole purpose of an accommodation is to level the playing field,” Shaywitz said.

Without a diagnosis and accommodations, students with dyslexia often struggle with self-esteem issues, noted Shaywitz. That could have easily been the case for McHale if he hadn’t discovered acting and performing, which he said gave him confidence.

“I really dove into that, and school always became secondary,” he told Shepard. “And I knew that I could tell jokes in class, and that always did well.”

That doesn’t mean McHale’s dyslexia has been a nonissue for him over the years. “When I started ‘The Soup’ back in 2004, I was so anxious because I can’t really read, and I had to read teleprompter,” admitted the comedian.

Although reading is an obvious challenge for dyslexics, they often excel in other areas, including critical thinking, problem-solving and “seeing the big picture,” said Shaywitz. In fact, plenty of famous writers, artists and scientists have been dyslexic: Chuck Close, John Irving and Albert Einstein, to name a few. So you could say that McHale is in pretty good company!

Read more: 12 Celebrities Who Struggle With Anxiety and Depression