What do Edison, Einstein, Churchill, Rodin and Disney have in common? These great men made history while battling a developmental disorder called dyslexia. The disorder is fairly common, since dyslexia affects about 10% of the population, with 1 or 2% of those cases being severe. Boys are three times as likely as girls to be dyslexic, and the condition is also more common among left-handed individuals than right-handed ones. Despite its high prevalence, dyslexia remains largely unknown among the general public.
What is dyslexia and what are the various types? What are some of the common signs and causes of the disorder? How can you help a child affected by dyslexia? This column will provide an overview of a developmental disorder that people know too little about.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is defined as a learning disability affecting the areas of reading, writing and spelling. The affected child typically has trouble decoding, a difficulty that can be seen at various levels and intensities. It has been established that the disorder can occur despite a standard education, normal level of intelligence and a socio-cultural environment that promotes reading.
Children with dyslexia will feel its disruptive effects throughout their life because certain skills will never become entirely automatic. For example, a dyslexic child can take two or three times longer than normal to read a text and could require six to eight hours to read a text that other children might read in three hours.
Research on dyslexia has shown that the disorder can manifest itself in motor, visual or phonetic forms. The motor form, which is called dysnemkinesia, is characterized by difficulty distinguishing between letters as well as memorizing the symbols that represent letters and numbers. Dyseidesia is a visual form in which the child finds it difficult to recognize the visual expression of words and to recall it when writing. The phonetic form of dyslexia is called dysphonesia. In this case, the child has difficulty decoding unknown words.
Most dyslexic individuals present with the three forms of the disorder concomitantly. This explains why we usually group these three specific conditions under the umbrella term dyslexia, which actually refers to the different forms of this learning disability, whether they be oral or written.
What are the signs of dyslexia?
Dyslexia usually presents as reading and writing that lacks flow and accuracy. Persons affected have difficulty decoding letters and words, which results in many pronunciation or spelling errors. The most common sign of dyslexia involves the inversion of “mirror” letters (such as d and b, p and q), which might be perceived as a single letter. Dyslexic children might also confuse sounds, such as ch and j, t and d, g and k, b and p. They might alter letter sequences (per, pre, bra, bar, pain, pian), omit letters or syllables, and have trouble matching sounds to their corresponding letters. This results in slow, halting and hesitant reading.
Some dyslexics may have trouble memorizing the alphabet, months and days of the week, whereas they have no problem remembering events. Dyslexics may also display varying degrees of poor handwriting and speech, hyperactive tendencies, lack of concentration and coordination, trouble in arithmetic, stuttering, chronic time management problems, a very fertile imagination, spatial orientation issues, delayed physiological and psychological development, as well as trouble memorizing. In fact, dyslexia is characterized by the combination of these signs in a single individual. The severity of a case is determined not by the number of signs present but rather by their intensity.
Because reading and writing are more challenging for dyslexic individuals, they often favour oral communication over other means of communication. Although oral communication is much more natural to someone with dyslexia, it can still entail certain problems. The most common mistake observed at the oral level is the incorrect pronunciation of certain words as a result of inverting or adding syllables (e.g. spychologist instead of psychologist).
What causes dyslexia?
Very little was known about the causes of dyslexia until quite recently. In the past, its manifestations were mistakenly attributed to psychological or affective disorders. Recent research findings point to entirely different causes, with neurological and genetic explanations being favoured at the moment.
By studying the human brain, we can gain a better understanding of the workings of language. Language and decoding are very complex systems that call upon countless components involved in higher levels of brain function. Dyslexia is thought to be caused by poor functioning of basic processes pertaining to language acquisition and usage. Active brain imaging has shown that dyslexics use different parts of the brain when reading. Certain zones that are normally used for reading are under-activated, which explains the various problems experienced by dyslexic individuals.
Researchers also suspect that dyslexia has a hereditary component, since several members of a single family often share the same specific symptoms and difficulties. Although it is estimated that nearly 10% of the general population suffers from dyslexia, the odds increase to 50% among children with one dyslexic parent and to 70% among those with a dyslexic twin. British researchers recently reported that they have discovered the gene that causes dyslexia, adding to the belief that this disorder has a genetic component.
Screening for and diagnosing dyslexia in children
Let’s begin by mentioning that it is perfectly normal for a child to have problems learning to read and write. This does not mean that the child is dyslexic. Children who face a real learning disability stand out not only for the combination of errors made and problems encountered, but also through the frequent and persistent nature of those elements. Dyslexic children commonly present with decoding problems that go far beyond those usually encountered at their given age.
During the early years of elementary school, parents and educators should be on the lookout for some of the tell-tale signs of dyslexia: slow, laboured reading, along with spelling difficulties, in children who are otherwise interested in oral expression and good in math. Serious cases usually manifest themselves in grade school. Milder cases, however, can go undetected in childhood and be noticed only in later years.
The earlier children are diagnosed with dyslexia, the sooner they can be given the tools and means to promote written language acquisition. If teachers, parents, a family doctor or any other person suspects this type of disorder in a child, it is imperative to see a physician. It may be appropriate to see an otorhinolaryngologist or ophthalmologist to rule out a functional disability that may be the underlying cause of the problem. A speech-language pathologist or speech therapist should then be seen in order to establish a complete profile of the situation before diagnosing dyslexia and undertaking the appropriate reeducation.
Once dyslexia has been diagnosed, it is important for the various persons involved to closely monitor the child in order to ensure proper development.
How to help a dyslexic child
Dyslexia is a major cause of failure in school and can also have ongoing negative repercussions on a person’s professional and social life. When poorly managed, the disorder can have devastating consequences on the dyslexic individual’s human development.
Dyslexic children who lack the proper support will progressively develop an aversion to writing and become disinterested in any subject that requires language-related skills. The time required to read texts will bring about problems doing schoolwork, possibly leading to failure. Moreover, people’s lack of knowledge and understanding for the disorder can lead to negative comments that diminish the child’s self-esteem. All these conditions create a very difficult learning environment for dyslexic children, so for the sake of their healthy development, it is important to deal with the disorder early and properly.
Recognizing and diagnosing dyslexia is the crucial first step in helping children with this disability. If the problem is accurately targeted, teaching and evaluation strategies can be modified so that these children are on equal footing with others. Various methods can be used to develop language skills and foster a love of reading among dyslexic children. In order to achieve this objective, there must be a close partnership and follow-up among educators and family members.
Dyslexic children can work on exercises to develop their phonological awareness (i.e. recognizing sounds that correspond to letters and word units) and can benefit from multisensory teaching techniques that seem to work best with children affected by this disorder. Some reading reeducation may prove necessary. A remedial teacher or speech-language pathologist can help with sound processing and reinforcing the integration of the written code.
More than anything, it is important to give dyslexic children the tools for success, to focus on their strengths and to remind them that despite their problems reading and writing, they are intelligent and can succeed as well as anyone else.
Providing a positive and stimulating environment that focuses on these children’s strengths and making sure they receive the necessary follow-up during crucial development years can help them develop their skills normally and avoid the stigma that can be associated with this type of developmental disorder.
Experience has shown that with the proper environment and support, mild effects of dyslexia can practically disappear over time. In more serious cases, a slight weakness at the written level may persist, without being too big a handicap in daily activities.
To summarize, dyslexia is a common learning disability that affects nearly one out of every ten children. These children experience difficulties specific to decoding written language, which has repercussions on reading and oral communication. However, dyslexics have a perfectly normal level of intelligence and are often gifted in other areas such as engineering, mathematics, art and music.
By gaining a better understanding of the signs and causes of dyslexia, we can better identify this common disorder, avoid preconceptions about this little-known condition and, most importantly, help provide an environment that is favourable to a dyslexic child’s development!