Go ahead, say the word out loud: Dyslexia. Dr. Sally Shaywitz says part of the problem in dealing with this learning difference is that people are reluctant to use the word. By using the term, the learning difference becomes something tangible that can be dealt with. Indeed, as a result of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), scientists have “taken a hidden disability and made it visible”.
What, exactly, is Dyslexia?
Most people I’ve spoken with tend to think of dyslexia as a difficulty with reading. They are correct, to a point, but there is more to the definition.
Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in reading, in relation to intelligence, motivation, education or professional status. (S. Shaywitz)
This “unexpected difficulty” is what makes life frustrating for children and adults who have dyslexia, because people with whom they interact – parents, teachers, colleagues – often do not understand dyslexia. A common response on the part of a parent or teacher is that the person [who has dyslexia] is not trying hard enough, or needs to do more work. Further complicating the issue is that dyslexics tend to be intelligent and can have a high IQ but a low reading score. Thus, someone who appears to be intelligent but not able to keep up with the work load is branded as being lazy or not interested. (The data for this comes from an ongoing longitudinal study, conducted by the Shaywitzs, that measures reading and IQ over time.)
What causes Dyslexia?
Dyslexia can be, but is not always, genetic. The odds are that if someone in a family has dyslexia, a parent, sibling or child may also have it. No one specific gene has been identified as the dyslexic gene, and it is thought that a number of genes each “contribute a tiny amount”. The result, as seen in countless fMRIs, is that specific areas of the brain are impacted by simply not turning on in the process of trying to read, and this “disruption of the posterior reading system is universal” across cultures and languages.
Humans are hard wired for speaking but not for reading. Someone with dyslexia can pick up information using modalities other than reading (hearing, seeing, touching…), process that information and learn from it, remix it, and make use of it. It is when they try to use reading as their source for taking in information that their difficulty manifests itself.
Our brains are plastic!
I’ve written extensively about brain plasticity. What it means is that our brains are able to change; indeed, they change as we learn. What this means for dyslexics is that intervention can change the brain of a dyslexic, and the earlier the intervention, the better. The process of reading is broken down into myriad steps, and there are specific programs designed that teach non-readers how to tap into these specific steps.
The parts of the brain that are impacted (“disrupted”, as the Shaywitzs call it) deal with being able to read rapidly, automatically, and engage in pronunciation, spelling, and meaning. These last three are in the occipito-temporal area, which is the rear left side of the brain. “Non-impaired readers tend to base their reading on sound; dyslexics base their reading on memory.” Just imagine how overtaxed your working memory would quickly become if you had to rely on it for the bulk of your reading. If you can imagine that, then you can begin to understand why intelligent people who are dyslexic can readily become wiped out from the process of reading, particularly within a demanding school environment.
Good teaching can change the brain the way neuroscience cannot – non-invasively. (B. Shaywitz)
Additional Resources provided on a conference handout by the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity:
• Parents Education Network – “coalition of parents collaborating with educators, students and the community to empower and bring academic success to students with learning and attention difficulties.”