Dyslexia is used by some people as a convenient excuse for failure: Why is the common wisdom of the disorder so wrong?
A family member of middle age recently announced at a gathering that she now knew what her problem has been all these years: She has dyslexia. No wonder she wasn't a good student. No wonder.
I bit my tongue and kept quiet so as not to burst the sparkling, hopeful bubble of her excuse for what was apparently a mediocre academic performance back in her student years. As a speech-language pathologist, I spent thirty-two years of my life diagnosing and treating language and learning disabilities and the "symptoms" she used to describe her dyslexia fit nicely with the received common wisdom about the disorder: seeing things "backwards," her eyes jumping around on the page.
And this morning on NPR online, there it was again. In an interview with a business school professor about why an inordinate number of successful business people have the disorder, Steve Inskeep, the host, defined dyslexia as "seeing things backwards." Not so, Mr. Inskeep, not so.
Here's the definition of dyslexia I used when describing the disorder to parents:
Dyslexia is difficulty learning to read given normal intelligence and adequate instruction.
So, say a child reaches third grade, has had good, consistent teaching, and testing indicates at least average intellectual abilities, and that child still has great difficulty reading, he or she, by definition has dyslexia. But is that child just seeing words "backwards?" Unfortunately no; that might be an easy fix.
No, true dyslexia almost always is not problem with vision or your eyes not able to "track" words on a page. Dyslexia is a problem processing and associating sounds with symbols. It is primarily an auditory processing disorder. Here's a good description of the symptoms. I found it on line at PubMed:
A person with [dyslexia] may have trouble rhyming and separating sounds that make up spoken words. These abilities appear to be critical in the process of learning to read. A child's initial reading skills are based on word recognition, which involves being able to separate out the sounds in words and match them with letters and groups of letters.
True dyslexia is much broader than simply confusing or transposing letters, for example mistaking ”b” and “d.".
In general, symptoms of [dyslexia] may include:
•Difficulty determining the meaning (idea content) of a simple sentence
•Difficulty learning to recognize written words
[Dyslexia] may occur in combination with writing or math learning problems.
You notice that rhyming is mentioned twice here and that can be a first indicator of looming dyslexia. When a kindergartner seems to be having trouble learning those critical sound-symbol associations and also seems to have trouble rhyming, alarms should go off (gently but insistently).
It is critical with dyslexic children to get a diagnosis early and to get help sooner rather than later. When a young student falls behind in the acquisition of reading skills that delay will quickly widen as his or her peers move forward. The critical skill to learn in school is how to read and when a child's reading skills lag, the results can be disastrous.
But as for adults using "dyslexia" as an excuse for failure in life, remember this: a diagnosis of dyslexia should only be based on tests administered by professionals in the field. If you had a terrible time leaning to read as a young student, yeah, maybe your disorder was missed and you are a dyslexic. However, if you were an unremarkable student who nonetheless progressed normally through school and learned to read for meaning by the end of third grade, you may just have, heaven forbid, "average" intelligence. And that might be the only thing worse than dyslexia as we try to compete in this high tech world that worships those with gifted minds.