An audio file of this post is available here.
Dear Friend with dyslexia,
I am not an expert on dyslexia – nothing of the sort – but I did recently attend a summer institute on the neuroscience of reading. The institute was primarily focused on dyslexia. I’d like to pass along to you some of the information that was shared. I hope that much of this is information that you already know. I think, however, that it might feel good to hear someone else validate it and to remind you of the presence of legitimate research to support the information.
Let me begin with one of the most crucial pieces of information: In no way does having dyslexia indicate compromised intelligence. You already know that, don’t you? I hope, dear Friend, that you haven’t been fighting against that truth for years, but unfortunately some of you carry with you the scars of comments and stigmas of untruths surrounding this.
Let me elaborate a bit. Those working in the field of dyslexia have little agreement as to the criteria for establishing whether someone has dyslexia. The most agreed upon criteria, however, is a gap between intelligence and reading ability. More simply put, the very fact that you have dyslexia indicates that your intelligence is just fine, but that your reading ability does not match what one would expect for your intelligence.
Dyslexia is not related to intelligence. What it is related to, however, is the way that your brain works. Neuroscientists are doing some really interesting work with people with dyslexia. They are able to have them go in an MRI scanner, have them complete a task while in the scanner, and then see what parts of their brain they are using to complete the tasks. This generates a picture of the individual’s brain, and the parts of their brain that they are using light up in the picture. When the same tests are done on people without dyslexia, it becomes very apparent that people with dyslexia use entirely different parts of their brain to complete reading and reading-related tasks. This is crucial information for you to know. It means that your reading deficits are not related to effort. Your reading deficits are not related to the reading instruction you received or didn’t receive. We’ve already established that your reading deficits are not related to intelligence. Your reading deficits exist because your brain is wired to work differently than people without dyslexia. Regardless of how hard you try or how much instruction you receive, your brain can’t be rewired to process reading differently. There are certainly things that can be done to help make reading be less difficult for you, but your brain will still use alternate systems to read.
When people without dyslexia read, they are primarily using the back areas of their brain. The front area of the brain, which is the thinking area, is not utilized during reading for those without dyslexia. This is rather convenient. It means that, while reading, a person can be using the thinking area of the brain to be thinking about what they are reading: connecting it to their life, asking questions, making predictions, and so on. This is part of what makes reading be so engaging and enjoyable. In contrast, when you read, one of the dominant areas of your brain that is being used for the reading process is this front area of the brain. This is unfortunate. It means that your thinking area is dominated by the act of reading and thus it isn’t readily available for you to be thinking so much about what you are reading. There are other areas of your brain that you use when you read, too. In fact, you use more areas of your brain to read than people without dyslexia. Your brain is working much harder to complete the reading. Again, this is a fact that you already know, at least to some degree, don’t you? Reading is tough for you. It’s tough because your brain doesn’t use the areas that are most efficient at reading and processing language. It’s tough because you use more of your brain to read than people without dyslexia – this shows, in concrete form, that it takes much more effort for people with dyslexia to read than it does for people without. It’s tough because your thinking area is so occupied with the process of reading that you don’t have the luxury of interacting with your reading in the same way that non-dyslexic readers can. Reading is tough for you, and science backs this up: your brain lights up light a light bulb on the MRI scanner when you’re reading.
There is good news in this, though. One of the great things that science shows us is that our brains have a lot of plasticity. Plasticity is the ability to change and develop. We would expect this of a child’s brain, but the adult brain shows no less plasticity than a child’s. What this means is that we can continue to grow and develop our brains. We can establish more connections within our brain, thus allowing brain systems to work more efficiently. The simple message from this is: don’t give up. You always have the capacity to continue to learn and develop, even in terms of reading. Though you can’t rewire your brain, you can continue to develop ways to compensate and make the reading systems that you use work a little better for you.
There’s other good news, too. When our brains have deficits in one area, they often make up for it in other areas. You have probably heard stories of people who lack one of their senses but another sense is incredibly strong as a result. For example, perhaps they can’t see but they have an incredible sense of hearing. Have you considered that the same principle applies to you? When your peers were learning to read and were growing and developing the areas of their brain that typically process reading, you were probably growing and developing another area of your brain. Perhaps you have an incredibly powerful memory. Or maybe you’re very skilled in music, art, or another area of fine art. Memory and/or fine arts are often areas that, for whatever reason, end of being extra developed in people who have reading deficits. Your skills in this area have likely developed to this degree because you have dyslexia. They are an important part of what makes you be you – and they certainly need to be celebrated.
You should probably be aware of the fact that dyslexia has been shown to have some heritability to it. This means that there is some likelihood that your children will have dyslexia as well. The important thing to know with this is that research indicates that the earlier that reading interventions are given, the more helpful they will be. So, if you are aware of the fact that your children stand a chance of having dyslexia as well, you can be proactive in seeking out supports for them early. There is continuing work being done in the area of finding early identifiers for dyslexia and hopefully in the foreseeable future children will be given reading interventions before they fail to develop reading skills, rather than after.
Another thing to consider with regard to your children and the fact that they, too, might journey with dyslexia, is the fact that 25-40% of students who meet the criteria for ADHD also meet the criteria for dyslexia. If your child receives a diagnosis for ADHD, given that and the fact that they have a parent with dyslexia, be aware that their chances of having dyslexia would then be quite high. Advocate for them and get them access to the supports that they need so that, if they do indeed have dyslexia, they can reap the benefits of early intervention.
Having dyslexia isn’t inherently desirable, but we all have our limitations and deficiencies. Just as those of us with vision issues can’t squint harder or tell our brains to process our sight more clearly, so too, sheer willpower or determination won’t rewire your brain to not have dyslexia. Unfortunately many people still attribute dyslexia to laziness, but this is a stigma that needs to die. You and I know that it has nothing to do with effort. Neuroscientists can show you all sorts of pretty brain pictures indicating how, when you read, your brain looks much different than non-dyslexic readers. It’s a brain thing. It’s not an effort thing. It’s not an instruction thing. It’s not an intelligence thing. It’s a brain thing.
We all have areas where our brain excels. We all have areas where our brain has limitations. The beautiful thing is that where one person’s brain is limited, another person’s excels. And where that person’s brain is limited, someone else’s brain will excel. There is deep beauty and richness in this. It has been dubbed ‘neurodiversity’. We each bring our own unique flavour into this world. We each contribute our piece of individuality to the beautiful mosaic of humanity. And that, dear Friend, is something to celebrate.
So today, I celebrate you. I celebrate your uniqueness. I celebrate your persistence. I celebrate your ability to overcome. I celebrate the fact that you have developed ways of compensating for your dyslexia. I celebrate your bravery. I celebrate your resiliency in light of the scars that you bear from the stigmas you fight. I celebrate your incredible effort. I celebrate your intelligence. I celebrate your unique skills that have been developed as a result of your dyslexia. I celebrate the uniqueness and diversity that you contribute to humanity.
Dear Friend with dyslexia, I celebrate you.
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 1
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 2
The Neuroscience of Reading – Part 3