What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate, fluent reading and spelling – literacy and language related skills. The word “dyslexia” comes from the Greek and means “difficulty with words”.
There are many theories around what dyslexia is. Research is pushing forward the boundaries of our understanding all the time. We know that it is likely to be present at birth and life-long in its effects, so it affects people of all ages. Current thinking tells us that there is a neurological root to dyslexia – it is a “processing difference” in our brains. Scans show us that the brains of dyslexic individuals are different to people without dyslexia, especially in the way that signals pass between different parts of the brain. Around 1 in 10 people are thought to have some element of dyslexia.
The effects of dyslexia can be generally described and include strengths, as well as weaknesses! Importantly however, each dyslexic person will experience dyslexia in their own unique way. Some may have mild problems with just one aspect, while others have multiple effects and more profound difficulties. Furthermore, “outside” factors can increase or reduce the effects of someone’s dyslexia – for example, if a person is under stress, or tired, or attempting a particular task. Dyslexic people will therefore often experience the frustration of “good” and “bad” days. Tasks that seem easy one day can seem difficult the next.
Are there any positives to having dyslexia?
The differences in brain structure that cause dyslexic people to process information differently mean they are often talented in other areas, for example practical and problem-solving skills, lateral and creative thinking, “outside the box”. More specifically, this could include:
The ability to visualise: “Being dyslexic, I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learned how to create mental images in order to comprehend what I read.” (Tom Cruise, Hollywood Actor)
The ability to see the big picture and think strategically – “blue sky thinkers”. Entrepreneur Richard Branson confirms, “Being dyslexic can actually help in the outside world. I see some things clearer than other people do because I have to simplify things to help me and that has helped others.”
Good verbal communication – think of Winston Churchill’s speeches!
High levels of motivation and persistence:
“It is not surprising that many … high achieving celebrities and well known faces are dyslexic. Although dyslexia affects an individual’s ability to master skills such as reading, spelling and writing, many compensate for this with outstanding creative or oral skills and innovative thinking.””Many dyslexic individuals are incredibly determined after facing a number of frustrations and challenges. Once they find their natural talent and overcome barriers many excel in their field.”
“Research has shown that dyslexic people make up almost 20% of the entrepreneurial population in the UK, with the US figure being even higher at 35%.”British Dyslexia Association
What about the weaknesses?
There are three areas in which dyslexic people may have a specific weakness:
Visual – difficulties with processing visual information– what you see – effectively particularly text. This difficulty can affect someone’s visual memory (remembering what you have seen) and make learning to read and spell extremely difficult. Some people will find that they see things differently – for example the words on paper seem to move around. It can also be hard to “track” the movement of objects such as a ball being thrown, so hand-eye co-ordination may be affected.
Phonological – difficulties with processing sounds effectively – what you hear. This difficulty makes it hard to learn to read and spell because it is hard to notice the different sound components in words and put them together. This deficit or weakness can affect a person’s memory and sometimes make it hard to recall a specific word.
Memory – difficulties with short term and working memory and automaticity (developing skills to the level at which they become fluent and you don’t have to consciously think about them). A practical consequence of memory issues is that a dyslexic person may find it difficult to organise themselves and their time. For example, they may forget where things are, what they have been taught, or where they’re supposed to be next. They may find it hard to absorb instructions, or pick up information quickly. They may find it hard to recognise words instantly on a page and have to consciously “unpack” their sounds and blend them together again to decode the word’s meaning.
These three main effects of dyslexia, where the dyslexia is undiagnosed as the root cause, or is just misunderstood, can often lead to a dyslexic person being labelled as “slow”, “clumsy”, “lazy” or even “stupid”:
“The biggest problem with dyslexic kids is not the perceptual problem, it is their perception of themselves. That was my biggest problem. ” – Bruce Jenner, Olympic Gold Medallist
Perhaps one of the most damaging, if indirect, effects of dyslexia can therefore be in undermining someone’s self esteem. As Tom Cruise poignantly explained:
“My childhood was extremely lonely. I was dyslexic and lots of kids made fun of me. That experience made me tough inside, because you learn to quietly accept ridicule.”
How do I know if I’m dyslexic?
There are a range of “symptoms” that might indicate you have some form of dyslexia. You may have one or several indicators and these could include:
- Difficulty in reading, writing and spelling
- Problems with memory, focus and organising your workload (childen may have concentration problems, or difficulty in remembering sequences such as days of the week, or the alphabet)
- Problems with understanding instructions or following directions
- Difficulty with gross and fine motor skills (for example, catching a ball or holding a pencil; for children getting dressed, or tying shoelaces)
- Operating below your potential at school or uni, with no obvious explanation
- Dyslexia often runs in families, so think if you have a history of poor readers, spellers or writers in the family
- Difficulty with numeracy
Can I overcome dyslexia?
You can’t lose your dyslexia, or grow out of it, but you can work positively with it once you understand it and how it affects you.
For children, an early diagnosis backed up by well-founded interventions can literally make a world of difference. Experts use checklists, screening and specialist assessments to identify a child’s specific learning difficulty (SpLD). Once this is established, teachers and parents can approach teaching that child in a different way – one that takes account of his or her need to learn differently.
Multi-sensory, integrated teaching methods such as those used by Children Will Shine reap steady benefits. Children can also be taught to develop memory aids and coping strategies. They can make use of the huge array of assistive technology (AT) to help in work and life. Their self esteem can be rebuilt, feeding back into improved learning and creativity.
Adults who have battled with undiagnosed or misunderstood dyslexia may find their root-dyslexic problems amplified by poor self esteem. Nonetheless, there is still a lot you can do to make life more manageable and less stressful. Understanding the true nature of your difficulties and recognising your strengths is a start, while huge advances in AT in a variety of applications can make a positive difference in your daily life.
Where do I go from here?
Of course, one of the best ways to overcome any difficulty is to join forces! Get in touch with PaCDDA via our Contact Us page or come to events we hold. If you want to go a step further you can become a member of PaCDDA. Just and get in touch via our Contact Us page and we will send you a membership form and details of how to join – click here to go to that page.
Your experience of dyslexia, whether as a parent, child, teacher or employer is hugely valuable to us in our work to raise awareness. You will undoubtedly have skills, abilities and the commitment to help us, if you so wish, in any number of practical ways. And we will do whatever we can to help you, whether that means making connections, providing information and impartial advice, putting you in touch with workplace trainers, or bringing Children Will Shine into your life.