Deciphering Dyslexia: The Paradox of the Differently-Wired Brain

dyslexia

By Daria Costello

Dyslexia has long been a generic term, even a terminological catch-all, encompassing a range of classifications, symptoms, and diagnoses. It’s remarkable how much disparity there is in understanding dyslexia and its causes and treatments, despite having been first identified and labeled by doctors in Europe over a century ago.[i] Generally recognized at its core to be a learning disorder affecting reading, research has evolved over the past several decades leading to a better understanding of this complex condition and how to better help those affected realize their potential, and perhaps innately distinctive abilities.

There is no “one-size-fits-all” diagnosis or definition of dyslexia. Symptoms can range in severity and scope and overlap with other issues either independently or as a result of the challenges faced from dyslexia. Imagine a child who is struggling with an undiagnosed and misunderstood learning disorder; it’s not surprising that emotional and behavioral issues can, and often do crop up. Supportive early intervention and personalized services are vital in avoiding the stigma that can plague those with brains who process information in a way that is not yet fully understood by both science and academia.

Defining Dyslexia: Interpreting symbols, words and letters

Google the definition of dyslexia and you’ll find that it is “a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.”[ii] The truth is that the way dyslexia manifests can vary widely from person to person, and affects those with high IQ and average intelligence alike.

Dyslexia is extremely prevalent, affecting one in five people, and representing 80% of all learning disorders.[iii] There are also conflicting theories about whether there is a correlation between gender and dyslexia; it was previously believed that boys were far more likely to be dyslexic than girls, but that has been hotly debated over the past decade. There is new research studying the brain chemistry and gray matter volume of boys and girls to discover exactly how dyslexia manifests differently along gender lines.[iv]

To make things even more perplexing, there is no universally accepted definition of dyslexia. Some sources, such as the U.S. National Institutes of Health, define it specifically as a learning disorder. Other sources, however, define it simply as an inability to read in the context of “normal” intelligence and visual acuity. Two other leading sources—the International Dyslexia Association and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)—use this working definition:

Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.[v]

The important things to take away from this definition:

  1. Dyslexia is a neurological in nature; people with dyslexia have brains that function differently from typically-developing ones, and so traditional methods of classroom instruction are largely ineffective, especially for young children attempting to attain basic language abilities.
  2. It is often baffling to educators when otherwise gifted students are unable to grasp what seem to be the most basic of skills. Ultimately, dyslexia is not an issue of intelligence (on the contrary, many people with dyslexia are of above-average IQ).
  3. Challenges in reading fluency and comprehension can, logically, lead to a reduced reading experience that affects how the student acquires vocabulary and absorbs knowledge.

Website Accessibility

Nearly all of us rely heavily on the internet to run our lives. We go to the web for everything from work to shopping to entertainment, communication, academic pursuits, and the list goes on and on. People with dyslexia can experience significant challenges when negotiating computers and internet as a medium, just as they do in print and with the written word. Web accessibility refers to the ability to use the web as a resource regardless of disability or impairment. [xii]

For people with dyslexia, there can be several things to consider when navigating the internet:

  • Fonts

Serif fonts, underlining and italicized text are two examples of typography that can be complicated for readers with dyslexia to negotiate. Fonts that clearly distinguish between letters like p and q, and the number 1 and the lowercase letter l are important factors to consider. Spacing, rounded letters vs. open letters and clearly defined ascenders and descenders (letters that extend above or below the text line) can all contribute to readability.

There are open source fonts created specifically to reduce the perceptual errors caused by the disorder, such as OpenDyslexic.

  • Formatting

Justified text can be tough to read on the web, primarily because it can form spaces between words that creates a “river effect” for people with dyslexia (lines of whitespace running down screen, hindering readability). Double-spacing after periods can also cause the river effect (and is an outdated convention anyway).

Long blocks of text without breaks can be taxing as well. Use graphs, bulleted lists, and site maps whenever possible if you are writing to an audience of disproportionately dyslexics.

  • Design

Background color should be considered as part of web accessibility for people with dyslexia. For instance, black text on a white background can create a blurring effect. Grey font on a neutral (light yellow or beige) background can help alleviate the distortion.

There are a growing number of online tools available that can help web designers and content creators test the accessibility of their work. In a very basic way, these sites give a cursory checklist intended to address the most common roadblocks that people with dyslexia or other processing disorders might experience.[xiii]

Compatibility with tools like text readers and even having an individually customizable website are hugely helpful modifications in making websites accessible to all users.

Signs and Symptoms: Cues In Childhood and Beyond

The impact and acuteness of dyslexia varies from person to person, so detecting clues can be challenging, particularly in preschool-aged children. Undue effort mapping letters to sounds can be an early sign that some form of dyslexia is at hand.

School-aged children with dyslexia may exhibit signs of difficulty with phonological awareness, or the ability to focus on and manipulate units of language like words, syllables and rhymes. Recognizing individual sounds in words is referred to as phonemic awareness. For example, the word “cat” has three sounds, or phonemes: /c/ /a/ /t/. Children with dyslexia may also show exertion in segmenting words into individual sounds and blending sounds when producing words. Both phonological and phonemic awareness are the “building blocks” of reading; trouble with these can be an early indicator of dyslexia.[vi]

Other warning signs of dyslexia include:

  • Delayed onset of speech
  • Difficulty learning letters and matching to corresponding sounds
  • Struggle to recognize sight words
  • Speaking vocabulary that does not match reading fluency
  • Problems with reading comprehension

It’s important to note that adversity in reading mastery doesn’t automatically equal dyslexia, nor can a child develop dyslexia as a result of delayed reading. If a child has dyslexia, he will have many of the indicators, and very well might have trouble with other forms of communication including spelling, auditory processing and memorization.

Like most aspects of dyslexia, experts differ on classifying official “types” of the disorder. Specialists have attempted to codify commonly understood forms of dyslexia that are linked to different areas of the brain, although it is important to note that few people have just one type. Dyslexic forms often overlap and develop differently. This can actually turn out to be a benefit rather than a hindrance to intervention, as diagnosis requires focus on the individual and his or her specific challenges and strengths when developing a diagnosis and plan for treatment.

In broad terms, experts have identified a few distinctive types of dyslexia:

  • Phonological Dyslexia

This is often what people are thinking of when they talk generally about dyslexia; those with phonological dyslexia have trouble breaking down individual units of language and matching them to written symbols, making “decoding,” or the process of translating print into speech, more arduous.

  • Surface Dyslexia

This makes memorization of sight words tricky, e.g., like, the, be, if, this, and. These are words that typically can’t be sounded out easily, or words that don’t follow normal rules of corresponding pronunciation like “laugh” and “debt”. Children with dyslexia may have particular trouble with words that don’t sound the way they’re spelled, and may take longer to be able to recognize words by sight, thus slowing reading fluency.

  • Rapid Naming Deficit

People with this classification have trouble naming letters and numbers quickly. The consensus from experts is that rapid naming deficit is affected by the part of the brain that regulates processing rate and reading speed.

  • Double Deficit Dyslexia

This is not an issue with tongue twisters! Experts believe that issues with naming speed are separate from problems with phonemic awareness, but some have both. The “double deficit” refers to a mix of phonological dyslexia and rapid naming deficit. People with this type have trouble isolating sounds and quickly naming letters and numbers. This can create a form of dyslexia that is particularly challenging to treat.

  • Visual Dyslexia

Visual dyslexia refers to what is known as “surface dyslexia.” Students with this disorder can’t recognize whole words by sight, most likely because their brain finds it difficult to remember what the words look like.

Some also refer to something called math dyslexia. This actually a brain-based math learning issue also called dyscalculia.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Just as dyslexia is multifaceted and complex, diagnosis can be as well. Testing for dyslexia involves a full diagnostic assessment by a range of experts, including but not limited to physicians, teachers, reading specialists, optometrists, and mental health professionals. In the same way, forming a diagnosis and treatment involves a team of people to synthesize results and develop an approach that will best address insufficiencies in reading and processing while capitalizing on existing strengths.

Testing differs for children and adults, but typically involves a full review of reading skills, memory, spelling aptitude, ability to follow directions, and IQ.

The student being tested should be reassured that an evaluation is an important fact-gathering process, not an indictment for insufficiencies. Understanding exactly what symptoms are being experienced, how the problems with reading, etc. have manifested, what measures have been taken to remedy is the most comprehensive way to meet the student where they are and establish a path forward that offers the best chance for success.

books and learning

Parents and others can expect the following information during an evaluation:

  • Early development and medical history
  • Everyday home life and routine
  • Language evaluation
  • Set of educational tests
  • Vision, hearing, and brain activity screening
  • Psychological testing

Depending upon the diagnosis, experts may recommend a number of therapeutic approaches to address problems. Unfortunately there is no “magic pill” to correct dyslexia; it is a life-long challenge. However, early detection, a thorough intervention plan and ongoing advocacy and support can be hugely beneficial to a successful outcome.

Ultimately, the underlying mechanisms of dyslexia point to a misfire within the brain’s ability to process language. Dyslexia is diagnosed through a series of tests of memory, spelling, vision, and reading assessments; the goal of treatment is to adjust the teaching method to meet the needs of the student (not the other way around) and emphasize other, perhaps as yet underdeveloped, strengths.

There are resources in place for students who are diagnosed with dyslexia and other learning disorders. The US Department of Education[vii] has information regarding programs and projects, and how your child might be protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Adults can get help from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with processing disorders.[viii]

Associated Conditions, Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia, and Others

Because dyslexia is fundamentally a complex neurobiological condition, it can be linked to a number of associated disorders (known as comorbidities) also affecting motor skills and impulse control.

Concomitant diagnoses with dyslexia can include:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder, with or without Hyperactivity (ADD | ADHD)
  • Dyspraxia, or developmental coordination disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Dysgraphia, a deficiency in writing ability
  • Auditory processing disorder

Secondary to the organic disorders that can accompany dyslexia, emotional issues can develop as a result of the shame, isolation and perhaps ridicule that can result from dealing with a learning disability. Depression and anxiety are common, especially in those who have gone long undiagnosed and have had to create elaborate coping mechanisms in order to cover up what they believe to be embarrassing intellectual shortcomings.

It cannot be emphasized enough that dyslexia is not an issue of intelligence, but rather emerges as early reading instruction methodologies do not serve the dyslexic child’s learning style. Frustration and confusion can mount, and if the disorder is not addressed, a vicious cycle emerges with the student underperforming in relation to their actual intellectual ability, and feeling constantly discouraged as a result.

Research and New Technologies

There is no cure for dyslexia. This can be a daunting thought for anyone struggling to come to terms with a disorder. On the bright side, there is more awareness than ever before of the science behind dyslexia, and how people can remedy the deficiencies they experience and go on to thrive.

Experts are advocating for more awareness of the scope of dyslexia, increasing knowledge of the scientific research behind the causes of dyslexia, and emphasizing the need for early identification of students with dyslexia. It is important to give dyslexic children critical, evidence-based resources to succeed in school and beyond.[ix]

Along with therapeutic interventions, advances in assistive technology and educational software are a major part of creating a system where people with dyslexia have help with reading, organization and listening. Accommodations can include text readers, note takers, text enlargers, organization tools, talking word processors and digital texts, and digital pen scanners. Allowing people with dyslexia to use technological adaptations is critical in increasing their independence and personal agency over managing the disorder.[x]

The pervasiveness of tablets and smart phones, while irritating at times, has created pathways for people with dyslexia to record, photograph and otherwise digitally augment material that they need to absorb. Apps like Learning Ally, SnapType Pro and Audio Dictionary can be significant scaffolds to the cognitive processes used in reading comprehension, spelling and writing. [xi]

The Benefits of the Dyslexic Brain

People with dyslexia are forced to interpret the world differently. Aside from the obvious hurdles that dyslexia can present, it can also drive one to seek alternative solutions and answers that may not be apparent to the typically-functioning brain. There are experts who contend that there is a direct link between dyslexia and creativity.[xiv]

Science is beginning to understand not only the brain mechanisms that lead to difficulty with traditional methods of reading and writing instruction and how to remedy, but also the advantages that differently wired brains might possess. Drs. Brock and Frenette Eide, authors of The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain and The Dyslexic Advantage, contend that there are hidden benefits of dyslexia.

According to Dr. Frenette Eide:

One of the biggest misconceptions is that dyslexic brains differ only in the ways they process printed symbols, when in reality they show an alternative pattern of processing that affects the way they process information across the board. Dyslexic brains are organized in a way that maximizes strength in making big picture connections at the expense of weaknesses in processing fine details.

It’s a huge mistake to regard a dyslexic child as if his or her brain is trying to follow the same pathway of development as all the other kids but is simply doing a bad job of it. In reality, the brains of kids with dyslexic processing styles are actually developing in a very different way. They establish a different pattern of connections and circuitry, creating a different kind of problem-solving apparatus. The difference is global, not just in certain areas of the brain.[xv]

Experts who follow this philosophy agree that people with dyslexia may carry with it certain brain functions that are advantageous in a few key ways[xvi]:

  • Seeing the “Big Picture”

Some experts contend that dyslexic brains focus on the “whole” rather than the individual parts, thus people with dyslexia tend to excel in tasks that require virtual 3-D rotation and spatial reasoning.

  • Interconnected Reasoning

The ability to nimbly shift perspective and view an object or event from multiple perspectives is a skill that experts believe might be more prevalent in people with dyslexia. This skill might also be further developed by life circumstances, and needing to formulate techniques to cope creatively in an otherwise rigid environment.

  • Narrative Reasoning

Studies show that people with dyslexia have an enhanced capacity to recall facts as experiences rather than abstractions, and are more able to learn from these experiences. Writers, salespeople, lawyers and even teachers all rely upon the facility to construct compelling narratives to be effective.

  • Dynamic Reasoning

The knack to reason well in dynamic settings when the facts are incomplete or changing is also a skill that people with dyslexia seem to have in abundance. Fact-finding, straightforwardness in the face of open-ended questions, and making predictions based upon past events are all features of dynamic reasoning.

Like most aspects of dyslexia, the science of the dyslexic advantage is difficult to narrow down and compartmentalize, which is why defining the disorder can be both vexing and fascinating at the same time.

Whether the answer is a true difference in the functional capabilities of the dyslexic brain, or an elaborate and genius coping strategy developed to survive in an established, standards-focused system, the takeaway is the same. It is imperative that scientists, educators and advocates continue to work toward a system that not only serves all students, but celebrates and recognizes the range of talents and abilities that tend to flourish among out-of-the-box thinkers.

In physics we know that an engine is capable of productive work only when there are differences in temperature, hot versus cold. It’s only when everything is all the same that nothing productive can get done. Neurological differences similarly drive the engine of society, to create the contrasts between hot and cold that lead to productive work. Impairments in one area can lead to advantages in others, and it is these differences that drive progress in many fields.[xvii]

[i] History of Dyslexia. Dyslexia Awareness: A Dyslexic’s Website for Dyslexics and their Supporters. http://www.dyslexia-aware.com/dawn/history-of-dyslexia

[ii] Google Search. Google. 14 January 2018. Web. 14 January 2018.

[iii] “Statistics on Dyslexia.” Dyslexia Center of Utah. https://www.dyslexiacenterofutah.org/

[iv] Gentry, Richard J. “Are More Boys than Girls Dyslexic?” Psychology Today. 8 April 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spellers/201404/are-more-boys-girls-dyslexic

[v] “Definition of Dyslexia.” International Dyslexia Association. https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/

[vi] “Phonological and Phonemic Awareness.” Reading Rockets. WETA. http://www.readingrockets.org/helping/target/phonologicalphonemic

[vii] https://www.ed.gov/

[viii] https://www.ada.gov/

[ix] http://dyslexia.yale.edu/articles_directors/us-senate-help-committee-hearing/

[x] https://www.dyslexicadvantage.org/3-technology-must-dos-for-dyslexia-at-school/

[xi] http://dyslexiahelp.umich.edu/tools/apps

[xii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_accessibility

[xiii] Glaser, April. “What the Internet Looks Like to Someone with Dyslexia.” Wired. 9 March 2016. https://www.wired.com/2016/03/internet-looks-like-someone-dyslexia/

[xiv] Rhodes, Margaret. “Dyslexic Designers Just Think Different – Maybe Better.” Wired. 29 August 2016. https://www.wired.com/2016/08/dyslexic-designers-just-think-different-maybe-even-better/

[xv] Venton, Danielle. Q&A:” The Unappreciated Benefits of Dyslexia.” Wired. 20 September 2011. https://www.wired.com/2011/09/dyslexic-advantage/

[xvi] Quinn, Taylor. “Dyslexia Benefits in the Workplace.” Lexercise. 8 April 2016. https://www.lexercise.com/blog/dyslexia-benefits

[xvii] Schneps, Mathew H. “The Advantages of Dyslexia: With Reading Difficulties Can Come Other Cognitive Strengths.” Scientific American. 19 August 2014. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-advantages-of-dyslexia