“My son was just diagnosed with dyslexia. What is it?”
Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty with reading despite normal vision and intelligence.
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability in children; it is a lifelong challenge that they are born with. Although usually noticed in childhood, sometimes dyslexia may go undiagnosed until adolescent or adult years.
Like most disorders, the severity can range from mild to severe.
Dyslexia is caused by the brain’s inability to receive information from the eyes or ears and translate it into understandable language. That is why it is often referred to as a language processing disorder even though it manifests itself in reading difficulties.
It is not due to vision or hearing impairments. There are no current studies that accurately reflect the percentage of people who have it, but it is estimated to be 5 to 10% of the population.
Definitions vary although all agree that it is fundamentally a disorder in reading. Current definitions from widely known organizations are as follows:
The U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) defines it as, “a learning disability that can hinder a person’s ability to read, write, spell or sometimes speak”.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s definition is, “Dyslexia is a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person’s ability to read. These individuals typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence. Although the disorder varies from person to person, common characteristics among people with dyslexia are difficulty with phonological processing (the manipulation of sounds), spelling, and/or rapid visual-verbal responding. In individuals with adult onset of dyslexia, it usually occurs as a result of brain injury or in the context of dementia; this contrasts with individuals with dyslexia who simply were never identified as children or adolescents. Dyslexia can be inherited in some families, and recent studies have identified a number of genes that may predispose an individual to developing dyslexia.”
The U.S. Department of Education includes dyslexia under the definition of Specific Learning Disability, “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.”
Symptoms or signs that a person may be at risk for dyslexia vary according to age but can be observed from early childhood through adulthood.
- Late talking
- Learning new words slowly or using them incorrectly
- Difficulty rhyming
- Difficulty matching or recognizing letters
- Difficulty pronouncing words (lawn mower = “mawn lower”)
- Difficulty learning common sequences (alphabet, days of the week, numbers)
- Reading at a level well below the expected level for his/her age
- Letter or word reversals (“b” for “d”, “saw” for “was”, etc.) — these are common until around age 7, but may be more pronounced in children with dyslexia
- Backwards or “Mirror writing”
- Problems processing and understanding what he/she hears
- Difficulty comprehending rapid instructions
- Trouble following more than 1 direction at a time
- Difficulty remembering the order/sequence of things
- Difficulty seeing similarities and differences in letters or words
- Unable to sound out the pronunciation of new or unfamiliar words
- Poor spelling (omitting or adding letters/ words are classic signs)
- Trouble learning a foreign language
* A common misconception is that dyslexic readers often write words backwards or move letters around when reading – this only occurs in a small percentage of dyslexic readers.
* Dyslexia can go undetected in the early grades. The child may become frustrated by the difficulty in learning to read which can lead to secondary emotional or behavioral problems.
Teens and Adults:
- Difficulty reading; slower reading rate
- Trouble understanding jokes, proverbs and idioms
- Difficulty reading aloud
- Time management issues
- Difficulty summarizing a story
- Difficulty memorizing
- Difficulty learning a foreign language
- Poor spelling
Dyslexia has been linked to specific genes that control how a brain develops, particularly in the area of language.
It tends to run in families, therefore appearing to be an inherited trait. You or your children are at higher risk of developing dyslexia if you have a family history of dyslexia.
Recent neurological research using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans have demonstrated clear evidence of structural differences in the brains of children with reading difficulties. These studies have also suggested that people with dyslexia have deficits in the brain’s left hemisphere in areas associated with reading.
Although there is no “cure” for dyslexia, with proper educational and emotional support, people with dyslexia can become successful readers and writers.
There are many educational techniques, technical aids, and assistive technology that can be utilized to help manage symptoms (examples: use of spellchecker, books on tape, voice recognition computer software).
Alleviating the stress and anxiety that a person with dyslexia faces can improve their understanding.
The main focus of treatment is education via specific educational strategies geared for the individual’s specific learning problems and on environmental modifications when needed (such as extra time to complete assignments, oral testing, help with note taking, etc.).
A teacher may use educational techniques that involve a multi-sensory approach, i.e. involving hearing, vision and touch, in order to help a child process new information and improve reading skills.
A reading specialist or special education teacher can offer specialized reading programs and tutoring.
There are things you can do at home as well to help your child with dyslexia:
- Address the problem early. The sooner treatment begins, the more favorable the outcome. Early intervention, while language areas in the brain are still developing, is most effective in reducing the long term impact of dyslexia.
- Read aloud to your child.
- Provide a quiet, organized place for your child to study.
- Make sure your child gets enough rest and eats regular, healthy meals
- Work with your child’s school and create a written “Individualized Education Plan”.
- Talk to your child and explain what dyslexia is and that it is not a failure on his/her part.
- Be supportive. Empathize with their frustration learning to read, and teach coping skills to deal with having dyslexia.
- Encourage your child and provide opportunities to demonstrate their strengths and abilities in other areas.
How do I Describe it to Friends?
Helping other people understand dyslexia can be as simple as saying, “I (or my child) inherited genes that make reading difficult for me. I need____ (tutoring, special reading support, or whatever) to help me.”
If your friend wants to know what it is like to have dyslexia, there are an abundance of websites and YouTube videos that simulate the difficulty a dyslexic reader experiences.
There are also books, comic books, eBooks, blogs and even telephone apps for both children and adults that describe or simulate fictional and/or autobiographical characters that are dealing with dyslexia.