What is Dyslexia?
…and how it can be helped.
It is estimated that 1-in-10 people have dyslexia, and many of them don’t even know it . Dyslexia is a reading disorder and many people misunderstand it to be associated with lower-than-average intelligence. This is not true. In fact, dyslexia is often described as a gift when properly understood, and many highly intelligent people have had dyslexia (including Albert Einstein).
But what exactly is dyslexia, and what makes it a gift?
A Brief History
The history of dyslexia is rich with various theories, tests, and outcomes. Here we will look at the genesis of the term and a few of the main observations that led up to how we understand it today.
In the 1870’s Adolph Kussmaul, a German neurologist first used the term “word blindness” to describe his patients who had problems reading, particularly putting words in the wrong order. Then, in the 1880’s, a German ophthalmologist, Rudolph Berlin, used the term “dyslexia,” which is Latin for “difficulty with words.” It was in the 1890’s that the first case of dyslexia was reported in the British Medical Journal . With these began the belief that dyslexia was prominently an issue with visual processing.
Fast forward to the 1920’s, where an American neurologist, Samuel Orton, theorized that dyslexia was actually happening in the brain, not the eyes. He proposed that it was an issue with brain dominance, which is still a widely accepted theory today. In the decades following, multiple discoveries were made and new theories formed that led to a more comprehensive understanding of what dyslexia could be. I say could because there are some people who believe that it doesn’t exist—that is, the subtleties of dyslexia lead some to believe that the term shouldn’t be used to describe a specific reading disorder, but rather that all reading disorders should be treated equally and not given different labels.
However, a problem arises if one tries to do away with the idea that dyslexia is, in fact, a unique reading disorder, and that it affects more than just reading. That is why there are still various, reliable neuroscientists and theorists, like Dr. Eden, who continue to do research on dyslexia specifically.
Some children struggle with retention of letter sounds, reading fluency and comprehension, but the dyslexic child sees in dimension. Ronald Davis, the founder of Davis Dyslexia Association International (DDAI), says: “The symptoms of dyslexia are the symptoms of disorientation, so once the dyslexic knows how to turn the disorientations off, he can also turn the symptoms off” (The Gift of Dyslexia). It’s important for understanding the giftedness aspect of dyslexia to realize that the ability to be disoriented should not always be turned off. This is because it is the ability to disorient that causes the dyslexic child to see in dimension, and essentially see things from multiple aspects at once. This ability caters to things like engineering, art, music, working with the hands, and learning new things quickly.
But in the two-dimensional world of letters and words, this dimension-seeing can create problems. The brain will turn and move letters all different ways, sometimes causing b’s to look like d’s, the word “form” to look like “from,” and even omission of lines when reading.
While Dyslexia is a gift in many ways, it also creates problems. Aside from the difficulty to see and decode words, the auditory system is also compromised from an early age. If a child can’t adequately see and understand a letter, then associating the proper sound (phoneme) with that letter will be difficult.
This is why dyslexia is also considered a phonological learning disability. Some studies have shown that the parts of the brain that have to do with reading (the temporoparietal lobe is responsible for language, and the occipitotemporal cortex is responsible for visual processing) are under-activated in the dyslexic brain . It is also thought that the corpus callosum (CC) is often not functioning optimally in people with dyslexia . The CC is responsible for communication between the left and right sides of the brain. That means that when you read, the CC is what gets all the information to the appropriate sides of the brain. If the left side—the side responsible for decoding, segmenting, storing and rehearsing phonemes—isn’t getting accurate information that it needs at the right time during a reading activity, reading is difficult.
At Pathfinders Learning
If you do a brief search on dyslexia you will probably find multiple and often conflicting theories. This is due to the ongoing research being done, as well as the high complexity of the brain, which is constantly being understood in new ways. At Pathfinders, we use the most effective methods proven to help change the dyslexic brain. Here are a few ways we do that:
- Awareness and attention to the two hemispheres. As noted above, the right and left hemisphere of the brain have unique functions, and the left is primarily responsible for reading. We take note of brain dominance in a student and use bodywork to make sure that the student is exercising and integrating both sides of the brain to ensure optimal function when reading. Exercising the brain with bodywork also works the corpus callosum!
- Phonological/auditory training. In the article “Rewiring the Dyslexic Brain,” Michel Habib reports that “improved reading abilities have been observed in children who were previously trained in phonological exercises, and these observations are the basis of the widespread use of oral language exercises for the rehabilitation of reading and spelling disorders.” At Pathfinders, we use the most effective phonological training programs with intensity to yield the results that Habib reports in his article.
- Reading and comprehension. Our phonological training programs include reading and comprehension. They move from developing and solidifying foundational phonemic awareness to enhancing reading expression, fluency, and comprehension to truly create an independent and happy reader.
- Further auditory training through music sound therapy. Sound therapy is very effective for all people, and especially for those with learning and processing disorders. It is a powerful tool, streamlining acoustically modified sounds that target certain areas of the ear and brain to exercise and refine auditory processing. This exercise can help dyslexic students in particular because it causes the brain to work with synchrony. Dr. Tomatis, a leading researcher in sound therapy, says “We read with our ears … the ear is the organ of language, the pathway to language assimilation, the key that controls it, the receptor regulating its flow.” Thus strengthening the ear’s ability creates better readers.
These are just a few of the methods that we use to help our students be the best that they can be. Dyslexia is a difficult and complex condition of the brain. It provides abilities and gifts that the average person can’t quite relate to, but it also creates problems that must be overcome. For a further understanding of dyslexia, please see the references below.
- Austin Learning Solutions. “Dyslexia Facts and Statistics.” Retrieved from http://www.austinlearningsolutions.com/blog/38-dyslexia-facts-and-statistics.html
- Dyslexia Awareness. “History of Dyslexia.” Retrieved from http://www.dyslexia-aware.com/dawn/history-of-dyslexia
- Emanuel, Gabrielle (2016, November 29). “How Science is Rewiring the Dyslexic Brain.” Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/503693391/researchers-study-what-makes-dyslexic-brains-different
- Reading from Scratch. Retrieved from http://www.dyslexia.org/what_causes.shtml
David, Ron D. (2010). The Gift of Dyslexia. New York, NY: Perigee.
Habib, Michel (2003). Rewiring the Dyslexic Brain. Elsevier 7 (8). 330-333.