In honor of National Learning Disabilities Awareness Month (or ADHD Awareness Month or National Disability Employment month depending on who you speak to), I’d like to talk a little bit about learning disabilities and literacy, and how they may coexist. Without question, a learning disability can interfere with one’s ability to learn how to read or write. Particularly, we refer to this particular type of learning disability as dyslexia, which you may have already been exposed to at one point or another in your life. After all, dyslexia is one of the more common learning disabilities that affects roughly 5 to 6 percent of children, both male and female. However, this figure is not entirely reliable as most epidemiological studies sample typically more affluent families in the Western world. We have yet to ascertain the true prevalence of dyslexia, and other learning disabilities, even though people are becoming more and more aware of them. But, this is a positive trend as people are becoming more aware of learning disabilities than ever before, resulting in diagnosis at higher rates than was ever before seen.
Now, what is dyslexia? Dyslexia is a lifelong neurological disorder that affects one’s ability to read, write, and spell that is not the result of or related to an intellectual or developmental disability. Those with dyslexia have average or above average intelligence. Dyslexia is classified as a language-based learning disability. The signs and symptoms of dyslexia range from early language difficulty, difficulty learning to read, understand the meaning of words, understanding auditory directions and explanations, and a fear of school. The cognitive deficits typically associated with dyslexia range from speech perception, language acquisition and mastery, and verbal memory, among others. The causes of dyslexia have genetic and neurobiological components, however there are also associated environmental risk factors that the expression of symptoms. Those with dyslexia typically have parents that have similar difficulties. Abnormalities in chromosomes 6 and 15 have been identified as possible avenues by which dyslexia may transpire. Abnormal brain structures in the left hemisphere of the brain are often present and subsequently, the neurophysiology of a dyslexic’s brain is accordingly abnormal. Dyslexia frequently occurs with other learning disabilities such as dyscalculia (arithmetic learning disability), ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome. Behavioral problems may also arise as a result of dyslexia.
In everyday life, language is a central component to an innumerable amount of daily activities. So, dyslexia can invoke disruption and disorder in a range of daily activities. Contexts that involve language are vast, and dyslexia can be pervasive. We notice the difficulties resulting from dyslexia primarily in academic and work situations, however we also see it elsewhere. People who have gone on to achieve things that are generally not easy to achieve, like master’s and doctoral degrees, have trouble getting to work every morning because they can’t read a map or simply don’t remember the route that they took the day before. Dyslexia may promote stress, anxiety, or depression as a result of prolonged and unmediated frustration due to these difficulties. Behavioral problems may arise (mainly in children and adolescents) because these frustrations have no other outlet. As a result, some school children may avoid certain activities (e.g. reading or writing) that they may find difficult, or they may avoid school all together and focus on other activities. While most people with dyslexia and other learning disabilities grow to be fully functioning adults that develop language within a normative range, these trends may continue into adulthood. Early troubles is school, work, or early development generally as a result of dyslexia may motivate adults to make certain life choices within the realm of work and other performance-dependent activities.
Aside from the fact dyslexics have reading, writing, and language difficulties, dyslexics also have tremendous strengths that set them apart. Essentially, dyslexics can achieve just as much as every other person. There is nothing that perpetually sets them back. Typically, dyslexics are very creative people. As I have mentioned before, dyslexics can achieve advanced degrees, just like everybody else. There are people with dyslexia who are scientists, doctors, artists, business executives, community leaders, economists, lawyers, public servants, politicians, writers, journalists, teachers, and athletes. In general, people with dyslexia are just as capable of achieving, and they do.
However these are generalizations that have empirical backing, this may not be true of all people with dyslexia. As I have said above, most people with dyslexia develop to become fully functioning and contributing members of society, in all spheres of life. Nothing truly separates dyslexics from the average human being, aside from neurological differences. There are certain genetics characteristics that set a person with dyslexia from a person without dyslexia, but dyslexia, as are other neurodevelopmental differences, is within the dimensional range of genetic diversity we know as the human genome that has promoted the evolutionary survival of the human species. So, can we say that dyslexia is truly that estranged from what is typical? I hope this raises questions in your mind, as well as potential answers. Without a doubt, we have experienced dyslexia in our lives. Be it in a family member, friend, classmate, or ourselves, we have experienced dyslexia in some fashion because reading, writing, and language difficulties are alien to almost no one. I rest my case.
Resources on Dyslexia:
If you have time, below is the 3-minute trailer for the documentary “Left from Write”:
Full length film (45 minutes) at: leftfromwrite.net