The Dyslexia Diagnosis From All Angles

June 1, 2015 by Geoff Nixon

Should A Dyslexia Diagnosis be Celebrated (and Embraced) or Feared (and Treated)?

Parents must be scratching their heads about a dyslexia diagnosis these days.  Dyslexia used to be feared as it represented a lifetime of reading frustration and other learning struggles.  Today, however, attitudes toward dyslexia seem to be changing.  Facebook groups and forums celebrate dyslexia and the list of successful people who have dyslexia and attribute part of their success to it is growing every day.

So what is going on here?  Is this celebration of dyslexia (and other “learning differences” for that matter) another symptom of the societal trend towards protecting our children from any and all bad things, including the reality that their “learning difference” is a euphemism for a learning difficulty, or is there some truth to the assertion that a dyslexia diagnosis is not necessarily out and out bad news?

Dyslexia Diagnosis, The Good

You do have to wonder when you see the list of successful dyslexics. It includes scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, public servants, doctors, even writers and authors (including the world’s best-selling author, Agatha Christie!).  How is this possible if dyslexia is all bad?

There are three forces at work:

  • Dyslexia forces creativity
  • Dyslexia teaches tenacity
  • Many dyslexics eventually learn how to read proficiently
How dyslexia helps creativity

According to Yale University, home to Dr. Sally Shaywitz and arguably the most trusted resource on dyslexia, dyslexics tend to be highly creative and have many cognitive and emotional strengths. This is not conjecture, these are observed traits found with a dyslexia diagnosis. There are two possible reasons:

  • Dyslexics are forced to learn to think outside the box to work around their difficulties
  • Dyslexics are more immune to today’s schooling which stifles creativity

According to Sperry’s left brain, right brain analysis, a “left-brained” person is more logical, analytical, and objective, while a person who is “right-brained” is more visual, thoughtful and creative.

You can see why dyslexics tend to be right-brain thinkers.  They are visual because their language processing is weak – they have no choice.  They are thoughtful because they are able to empathize with the toils of others, and they are creative because they need to look for inventive ways to work around their many daily challenges and find new ways to keep up. This practice of working around difficulties turns dyslexics into natural problem solvers.

The second “advantage” stemming from a dyslexia diagnosis is the immunity from the impact of today’s schooling.  As Ken Robinson describes in this famous TED Talk. How Schools Kill Creativity, the focus on a narrow curriculum measurable with test results and the inclination to perfect skills (like spelling and grammar) gradually squeezes the natural born creativity out of children.  Dyslexic children are often on a different educational track and so they are able to avoid some of this narrowing of thinking, Steve Jobs and Steven Spielberg being prime examples.

Dyslexia teaches tenacity

There is nothing more character building than true hardship.  In today’s coddling society, many of our children don’t get to experience hardship until they get out from under the helicopter blades.  And often this does not occur until they leave home as young adults.

Children with a dyslexia diagnosis, in fact all children with learning difficulties, have a different life experience.  They experience real hardship.  They endure the frustration of not being able to do something others find easy.  They feel the sting of failure daily, and they ask questions of themselves — am I good enough, am I working hard enough — at an early age whereas their peers may get this point only at college or in their first job.

Not all dyslexic children are able to internalize these lessons, sometimes depending on what else is going on in their intellectual and emotional makeup.  But for those that do, it is a level of internal fortitude and a work ethic that can become a huge advantage in later life.

Branson had a dyslexia diagnosisMany adults overcome dyslexia

A dyslexia diagnosis in the vast majority of cases is related to language processing disorder, which slows down learning and reading progress.

Language processing is a learned cognitive skill — children with delays just need to listen to more words than their peers to get the stimulation they need to become efficient listeners and then readers. Over time, language processing skills improve simply by participating in life — listening to teachers, parents, peers, music.  As processing improves, so too does phonemic awareness and other foundational reading and learning skills.

While dyslexics may never get to be excellent, joyful readers, many improve to the point where reading is not painful.  For most, this is a distinct improvement from their early experience with reading.  For adults who have suffered with dyslexia, this improved relationship with reading is somewhat akin to what it feels like when someone stops hitting their head against a brick wall — it’s a very positive change for which they are far more grateful and enthused about than those that had no problems with reading earlier on.

Dyslexia Diagnosis, The Bad

There are perfectly good reasons why conventional wisdom thinks of a dyslexia diagnosis as bad news. Most notably, it predicts a difficult time in school with listening in class, reading and writing.  Dyslexia adds up to dozens of humiliations every day — mishearing things, not understanding a question when asked, not following the teacher in class, tripping over words while reading out loud in class or to parent, homework stress, endless test-day and grade disappointments, and on and on.

Furthermore, while other children are enjoying sports, dyslexic children spend time after school and over summer in remedial reading courses or with tutors catching up on material missed in class.  It’s a childhood you would not wish for your child.

For the dyslexic, difficulty with learning also leads to a lack of learning confidence which snowballs into a reluctance to become a learning risk taker.  This is sometimes referred to as the Matthew Effect.  While good readers and learners have no problem taking on a new challenge — if it is too hard for them they have the confidence to take it in stride and either try again or just move on.  Either way, confidence in their learning abilities protects them from set backs and keeps encouraging them to open new doors.  Dyslexic students are just the opposite.  They will tend to avoid new material, new ideas, new ways to fail.  If they are forced to try, and they do struggle, they may internalize this as another reminder that learning is too hard.

Dyslexia Diagnosis, The Ugly

As a child, reading and learning is your job. If you are not good at it, your self-esteem and feelings of self-worth gradually erode.  The advent of standards, and in particular the Common Core which sets the bar for reading high at a very early age, has only aggravated these feelings of failure against the so-called norm.

Secondly, many dyslexic children spend a large part of their childhood with the disorienting feeling that the world is coming at them too fast (they can’t process fast enough to keep up), that they are always behind and have no chance of catching up.  These aspects of a dyslexia diagnosis were first revealed starkly in Rick Lavoie’s famous F.A.T. City videos.  This is becoming even more true in today’s test-obsessed schools where “read to learn” is being introduced at an earlier and earlier age.

Finally, the need to focus on measurable test results means schools have less and less time to explore their students’ talents which means many dyslexic children don’t get to experience what success feels like. There is very little time for creativity, the very thing many dyslexic children can do well, the very thing that could help offset the hits they take all day in other subjects.

While it is true that many adults have emerged from dyslexia to succeed in life, you have to wonder if that possibility awaits this current generation.  In prior years, schools allocated to time for students to explore their talents and there were no standards to starkly communicate to the dyslexic students the extent of their failings. Today’s children with dyslexia are arguably more at risk because of the current test result-based education reforms.

A young adult overcome dyslexiaThe Best Type of Dyslexia, “I Used To Have” Dyslexia

At its core, dyslexia has far-reaching implications — dyslexia symptoms appear in listening, spoken language, reading, test-taking and writing.  Perhaps as important as all this, language is the brain’s operating system — it’s how we think.  Children with a dyslexia diagnosis are battling a clunky language operating system that hinders thinking and reasoning.

These symptoms represent major life headwinds.

As we outline above, there is a scenario where a dyslexia diagnosis in early life can help a child develop right-brained attributes — creativity, internal fortitude, empathy, etc.  If a child can then beat their dyslexia and overlay these right-brained skills with reasonable literacy, logic and thinking skills, they could be a force to be reckoned with.

The reality, though, is that most dyslexics do not develop this way.  Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia, estimates that around 10% of the population (estimates range from 5% to 17%) have dyslexia symptoms, if not a dyslexia diagnosis.  Dyslexics in areas that require literacy or high-order thinking are far under-represented because most dyslexics do not recover from their early childhood setbacks and do not overcome dyslexia.

Dyslexia can broaden a child for sure, but the price paid is awful.  The pain of living with dyslexia is too high, and the consequence of entering adulthood with dyslexia can be serious.  The attributes of dyslexia, creativity in particular which we have argued elsewhere is indeed in short supply, are only helpful if a child can function in the real world.  In most jobs this means overcoming dyslexia so that reading, writing and critical thinking skills are career-ready.

Don’t Celebrate Dyslexia, Try To Beat It

Our advice therefore is not to celebrate dyslexia, but to fight it.

If you or your child is dyslexic our advice is not to be seduced by the feel-good dyslexia stories.  While it is true that many dyslexics gradually learn to read comfortably and grow out of dyslexia in their late teens or early 20s, the consequences of this not happening are severe.  It is a huge risk to rely on nature taking its course and hoping that dyslexia fades away.

These days, dyslexia need not be a life sentence.  There are treatment options.

While our dyslexia programs are at the forefront of brain-based software that gets at the underlying causes of dyslexia, the reality is that there are a number of dyslexia interventions that can help.  The choice of treatment depends on your child’s symptoms and strengths, and by your family logistics — software like ours can be done online at home on your own schedule, while other interventions require regular attendance to a center.

The brain is constantly changing, always looking to self-improve.  Real changes are possible, even with a dyslexia diagnosis.  While nothing is certain in the world of learning interventions, and we don’t always see miracles, there are options.  Due to brain plasticity the window to improved reading and learning is always open.

  • Thought provoking article Geoff. Question: are you dyslexic? I am and I believe coping with dyslexia involves three points 1. accepting it 2. managing it 3. Leveraging it (grit and creativity)

    • I am not dyslexic, but many if not most of our students were when they came to Gemm Learning. If you have done the hard yards in early life and found a career and lifestyle where the dyslexia is not getting in the way, that’s great. But these days you don’t need to “accept” a dyslexia diagnosis. Changes are possible.

      • Thanks for the response Geoff.

        As a 57 year old dyslexic I continue to cope with dyslexia
        every day. Indeed, I did fight it
        as a kid and young adult as my father (physician) and mother (elementary
        educator) told me that I had out grown my dyslexia. In their minds dyslexia was an excuse for the lazy and
        stupid. See my story at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141205193837-103623719-coping-with-dyslexia?trk=mp-reader-card

        Hopefully you will not receive this as a feel good story as
        nothing about it felt good to me living it. I spent my professional career as
        an Army Special Forces Officer and am now a leadership consultant. That you are not dyslexic certainly
        informs your position and approach.
        You see to me as a dyslexic, my dyslexia is as much a part of me as my
        sense of humor. Fighting it can be self-destructive. Better join forces and use
        the grit and creativity to advantage.
        I know both of these saw me through some very challenging training and
        real world missions. I wish your
        students, you and your program great success because in my mind whatever works,
        works

        • Thank you for this response. Fortunately, these days, more is understood about the existence of learning difficulties (and the defensive response to avoid reading when you can’t do it) and so children are not called lazy anywhere near as often. However, they are asked to participate in tests that require meeting what for them are impossible standards, a different kind of torture.
          As I wrote, a lot of people develop a life where there dyslexia is either not an impediment or at least can be managed. You sound like one of those people.
          Many however are not as fortunate. Just look at our prisons. The percentage of inmates with learning disabilities is very high. It’s gives you a clue as to how many people’s lives are affected long term by a dyslexia diagnosis.

  • Phoebe’s Mom

    Change is most certainly possible. Thank you for this article.

  • Christine Robinson

    Many great points here, and Ken Robinson’s TED talk is very insightful. My son is dyslexic, although through intervention you would never have guessed he ever had a Dx. When he was younger, he was the most energetic, creative child. Dancing, singing, playing the comedian role for everyone – loved by everyone. In kindergarten he got sent to the principal’s office for dancing on the bus. Of course he should not have been out of his seat, little yet dancing on the bus, but this experience linked his creativity to negativity.

    He will now be going into 5th grade. With more and more instances since the bus incident where he has been taught to suppress his creativity, my little break dancer who used to spin on his head won’t even dance for me when I ask him to do so. 🙁

    • It’s a fine line between understanding the rules of society and being free to explore boundaries. I do think these lessons are much harder to learn for children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties. They sometimes don’t see the big picture and draw narrow lessons from incidents like this. All the more reason for schools to treat each individual student according to their needs and ability to comprehend. It sounds like your son was done no favors by the person who sent him to the principal’s office.

  • Robin Gaston

    The part in this post that describes the Matthew Effect reminds me of my child. Always avoids new material, and new ideas.

    • It’s a beautiful thing to be on the right side of, the Matthew Effect. For some it comes early, but for many struggling learners it takes a while to find a groove. To leave a door open to a better connection to learning later requires patience and the courage to protect your child from unreasonable expectations early on.

  • Brooke Benedict

    Thank you for this informative post on dyslexia. My son was diagnosed with dyslexia this past winter. Our school system offers no support on any level regarding the diagnosis, additional testing or corrective measures to be implemented. They honestly made it seem as if nothing could be done. that dyslexia is simply a life condition. I have been doing research on the subject and found mixed reviews. I tend to agree with you that dyslexia is something you can fight and treatment options are available. I guess you can clearly see what I’m looking for is a solid support system for the summer months. It seems as if the sooner you approach intervention on the topic the more your apt to find long term success.

    • Finding a balance between short term progress and long term engagement in learning is a real challenge for the parents of dyslexic children no doubt.

  • “Dr. Sally Shaywitz and arguably the most trusted resource on dyslexia” My foot! She is mainly responsible for the disengaged students we have. She is the one who said that 20% of the kids are dyslexic and they have phonological awareness deficit. What nonsense! Can you imagine 20% of all schools having kids who have a phonological awareness problem?

    It is because of people like Sally that anyone who cannot read is classified as dyslexic.

    • Cheri Lehman

      I taught in public ed for 36 years and 20% of our students did not live up to their potential, mainly because they struggled to read and comprehend. I come from a family that survived in spite of our dyslexia and inability to read easily. Fortunately we found Gemm Learning and Susan Barton Reading and Spelling and we have broken the pattern in our family. M
      y grandson is entering third grade reading above the level of his peers. He can focus on his creativity with out the deficit of not reading well. He plans to be a Paleontologist or a movie director and luckily for him he has to tools to be successful in either. Obviously you are not dyslexic!