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9 Surprising Clues Of Dyslexia in Children

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Will Your Child Grow Out of His Reading Difficulty or Is It Dyslexia?

Are you worried your child’s slow start to reading might indicate dyslexia? Should you act now or will your child’s reading difficulties most likely resolve naturally?

We all know the key to helping dyslexia in children is early and intensive intervention.  If you can treat it early — in elementary school — you may short circuit a lot of frustration before bad habits are formed and while there is time to catch up.  Even in later grades, the sooner you know what you are dealing with, the better.

About 40% of children struggle with reading at some point in their lives. It’s a complex skill that we are not born with.

According to Yale, about a quarter of children who experience a slow start to reading will go on to be proficient readers as language processing skills mature naturally (boosting phonemic awareness) and vocabulary expands.  And so, yes, there is a risk of over-reacting to early reading problems.

You don’t want to burden your child with programs or therapies he doesn’t need, possibly creating stress and anxieties in him by pursuing extra treatments that turn out to be unnecessary. However, Yale will also tell you that 15-20% of children do not grow out of their reading difficulties — they have a reading disability, loosely described as dyslexia, that will likely not resolve itself without outside help.

Early Recognition Helps

If this is your child, you don’t want to sit idly if it turns out the reading problems are long-term in nature.

The sooner you recognize the undeniable signs of dyslexia, the sooner you can take action. This may include pressing the school to at least recognize the issue and pursuing your own after-school remedies.

If there is dyslexia in your family, you likely know there is a strong hereditary component to dyslexia and that you should act at the first sign of difficulty. Similarly, if your child has other diagnosed learning difficulties, you most likely have your answer. Reading is an amazing skill that is not easy to master, even for the most healthy of learners.

But what if it seems just to be a reading problem?  How can parents distinguish a minor reading difficulty from dyslexia?

Dyslexia: A Deep-Seated Difficulty (That Probably Won’t Resolve Naturally)

As an aside, dyslexia is not a condition or a disease.  There is no dyslexia gene or medical diagnosis.  Dyslexia in children is an educational evaluation arrived at through the collection of evidence, symptoms.

The most important aspects of the dyslexia diagnosis are that the reading difficulty:

  • is not explained by other learning disabilities, and
  • will not likely resolve itself.

Children with temporary reading difficulties need instruction, guidance and practice.  Children with dyslexia need more intensive treatment.

Cognitive Delays Associated With Dyslexia

Many children struggle with reading, so current reading ability is not always a reliable indicator. Your interest is what happens next — will your child go on to be a proficient and enthusiastic reader or will the reading troubles persist?

Differentiating between a garden-variety reading difficulty and dyslexia comes down to what else is going on with your child. If there are no other apparent difficulties, and no hereditary issues, read on.  There very well could be cognitive difficulties under the surface that are impeding reading progress now and will continue to do so in the future.

There are three types of cognitive difficulties that impede reading.  These are deep-seated difficulties that will not necessarily fade with maturity and need to be addressed if your child is to become a proficient reader.  They fall into three main categories:

  1. Language processing
  2. Working memory
  3. Attention issues

Note, this list specifically excludes visual processing and other vision-related issues, which are no longer thought to be significant risk factors in dyslexia.  The predominant causes of dyslexia relate to language, cognitive delays in processing, working memory and/or focus that impede the ability to automatically connect text symbols on a page to language memory.

Using This List Of Clues of Dyslexia in Children

This list can help parents identify early signs of dyslexia (away from actual reading ability) by identifying markers or clues of the cognitive delays that are known to impede reading development and are most often associated with dyslexia in children.

If your child is a struggling reader and one or more of the clues or symptoms below are evident, your child’s reading difficulty may not resolve itself.  The symptom suggests your child has a cognitive skill gap that is already impacting reading and is likely to continue impeding reading progress until it is treated.

Alternatively, if your child has a reading difficulty and none of the symptoms listed below, there is a good chance he is one of the 25% who starts slowly but eventually masters reading.

Clue #1. Difficulty Rhyming at 3-4 Years of Age

This is a well-known dyslexia risk factor.  If you have done any research on dyslexia, this will likely not be surprising as you will be aware of it. We feel it is important to include, however, given its reliability in predicting dyslexia in children.  Rhyming is a good indicator of trouble ahead because it requires the same language processing skills needed in reading.

Rhyming is the ability to process and manipulate language, language dexterity, which eventually leads to phonemic awareness and fluent decoding.  If your child struggles to match sounds in the middle or at the end of words, i.e. rhyming, it indicates a difficulty with processing and manipulating language. If left unresolved, it is a difficulty that will continue to impede reading progress through life.

Clue #2. Balance or Coordination Issues

  • Late in learning to ride a bike
  • Struggles to catch a ball
  • Lacks spatial awareness on a sports field

These are three different symptoms of the same underlying issue — sensory integration disorder that often manifests itself in learning as ADHD-PH (Predominantly Hyperactive).

Learning to ride a bike requires balance.  If your child struggled to ride a bike “on time” (on average around 4-7 years of age), it may indicate a sensory integration issue.  Balance is a response to sensory inputs.  If those signals are out of sync, your child’s adjustments will be out of sync, making balance a challenge.

Catching a ball requires good hand-eye coordination which, of course, requires sensory integration.  Similarly, spatial awareness — such as being able to manage your positioning on a sports field where people and the ball are constantly moving — also requires good sensory integration skills.

Neuroscientists tell us “neurons that fire together wire together.” If sensory inputs are out of sync, even the tiniest little bit, there is noise in the brain that is disorienting, distracting, exhausting and an impediment to learning, which includes learning to read.

Focus Makes Learning Easier

Reading is a difficult skill to learn even with perfect attention skills.

The lack of synchronicity of auditory and visual inputs creates timing issues that impede focus and make it difficult to engage.  Not only can this slow down the learning to read process, the extra effort required to read can make reading hard to do for any length of time, depriving your child of much needed reading practice.

Therefore, if your child is a struggling reader and exhibits signs of sensory integration issues, reading could be a long term challenge.  In this case, an intervention that works on sensory integration, such as Interactive Metronome, might be appropriate.  In any case, it’s a clue that your child’s current reading  challenges may not resolve naturally.

Clue #3. Ear Infections or Physical Hearing Difficulties When Young

There has been quite a lot of research linking ear infections to auditory processing disorder, which in turn is known to impact reading and cause dyslexia.  The logic is straightforward.  The first 36 months of life are key to the brain development.  With respect to learning and reading, language development is vital and this occurs through stimulation of auditory processing and language connections through listening.

When a child has repeated ear infections or glue ear, hearing is impaired and language stimulation is interrupted. 4-6 weeks of early life with ear infection can represent a significant loss of stimulation time during a critical brain setup phase.  A history of other physical hearing difficulties in early life are equally problematical. Physical hearing glitches deprive the brain of language processing practice that can have long term consequences for learning and reading.

If your child is a struggling reader and has a history of ear infections or other physical hearing difficulties, you should be aware that your child is an at-risk reader.

Clue #4. Uneven Learning Skill Growth

Did you know one way to identify a learning disability is to look for unevenness? One Learning Disability Association puts it this way: A common characteristic among people with learning disabilities is uneven areas of ability, “a weakness within a sea of strengths.”

We all have strengths and weaknesses —  things we like to do and thus get better at, and things we are not interested in that tend to develop less well.  For children at school, some disparity between subjects is to be expected.  However, children are exposed to all skills every day, and so marked unevenness can be a warning sign. For instance, “ahead in math, at grade level in reading.”

Another way to think about uneven skills is to look at your child’s attitudes or levels of confidence.  This gives you a clue of your child’s underlying proficiency — if she loves a subject or is confident in a subject, chances are she feels he has the competencies required to succeed.  If the reverse is true and he feels out of his league, that could indicate a skill gap.

For instance — “loves science, hates reading.”  Science can be hands on or conceptual, not requiring heavy reading.  This could indicate a problem in reading that is not showing up yet in reading scores.  Less worrying would be “loves social studies, hates reading” as social studies is reading comprehension and writing intensive.

Quite often, unevenness is hard to unearth.  Bright children, of course, wanting to please, are able to disguise skills gaps — especially in reading — well into elementary school even middle school.

In either of the above scenarios — at grade level in reading (but ahead in other subjects) or hates reading (but loves subjects that don’t require much reading yet) — a cognitive skill gap that is impacting reading may be present.  It’s a glitch that could eventually lead to a dyslexia diagnosis.

Clue #5.  Speech Delays When Young

Children who had speech delays in early life are more at risk for dyslexia. Note, this excludes verbal apraxia, defined as when a child knows what they want to say, but their brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words.  This source of speech issues is not as closely tied to dyslexia.

However, most speech delays are caused by an auditory processing glitch. Your child is not processing words accurately and is reluctant to say them out loud.  The speech delays tell you the cognitive skill — auditory processing — got off to a slow start.  With practice, speech most often improves.  But just as often, the underlying processing that caused the delay does not.

This is a problem because reading is a demanding skill.  Processing maturity generally resolves speech delays, but improving to the level of efficiency required for reading, after a slow start, is another story.   This is important to understand. Hearing the three sounds inside a word like “top” — /t/ /o/ /p/ — requires a higher level of processing skill than hearing “top” as one sound, one word, as is required for speech.  If your child cannot pick out the  /t/ /o/ /p/ in “top” (this is called phonemic awareness), learning to decode will be delayed.

If your child has or has had speech delays and now has reading difficulties, you are probably looking at a reading disability that will not resolve itself.

Clue #6. Has Signs of Auditory Processing Disorder

There is a reason dyslexia and auditory processing disorder are so often connected.  Auditory processing delays have been described as like listening to sound through water.  The muddiness makes it hard to hear words accurately — was that “shoes” or “juice”?  And so auditory processing disorder undermines phonemic awareness, making reading hard to learn early in life, and then hard to master with any level of automaticity in later life.

The most common symptom of auditory processing disorder is difficulty with background noise — in class or in the playground, for instance.  Has your child’s teacher ever mentioned difficulty listening or paying attention in class?  Does your child often come home not knowing the homework assignments, possibly because of the noisy classroom?

Because children with auditory processing problems need to concentrate harder just to make sense of the words, often a lot is missed (sometimes out of sheer exhaustion from listening to sound through water) and often words are heard incorrectly. You will notice this when your child retells a story.

While the mangled pronunciations tend to fade and story telling improves, an underlying auditory processing disorder, left untreated, can linger and impede reading proficiency for years.  The overlap of auditory processing disorder and incidence of dyslexia in children should not be overlooked.

Clue #7. Cannot Consistently Follow Directions

Does your child struggle following directions?  For example, if asked to go away and do 3-4 things, will your child be able to process and retain those instructions until the tasks are complete?

Difficulty following directions is a sign of a working memory problem. Working memory is defined as keeping information in mind, manipulating it, and using it in your thinking.  Because of the potential to manipulate, compare or analyze data, working memory is often correlated with IQ and to attention skills.

Working memory is a background, but critical learning skill that plays a large role in learning to read and in reading comprehension.  If your child is a struggling reader and has evidence of working memory problems, she may be at risk for dyslexia.

Clue #8. Lacks Learning Confidence

If your child is a healthy learner, chances are he will be enthusiastic and confident.  More than that, a good learner will be a risk taker. He will have the confidence to shake off a mispronounced word while reading out loud, won’t stress out if he takes a bit longer to get a new math concept, etc.

However, if he is not good at learning, every little mistake looms large.  Errors feed into his inner concern that school is mission impossible, that he will never learn to read.  It may be that he is fooling everyone, and even reading at grade level, but deep down, he knows he is up against it. Naturally, he avoids new learning challenges that might show him up and feed into his internal narrative of falling short.

That mindset in itself is destructive as it leads to avoidance, not trying new things and not pushing himself.

Your child’s attitude to learning and to reading in particular can tell you a lot.  No one knows better than your child how the current track is going to turn out.  If your child is struggling with reading, but is engaged and trying hard and does not shy away from new learning challenges, then there is reason to be optimistic.  It may be that he is a determined worker that will try new things no matter what the consequences, but it is more likely that he feels he is close, he is going to be able to get there in reading and in learning.

If however, your child is a struggling reader and is not a learning risk taker, if he is anxious and not enthusiastic about reading or learning, then you should listen.  There very well could be a deep-seated cognitive skill gap that your child knows is going to make reading — not to mention living up to parent and teacher expectations — a real challenge.  It’s something that should be addressed sooner rather than later.

Clue #9. Struggles To Make Friends

One of the toughest skills to master in life is functioning socially and making friends.  Reading social cues requires good listening skills and the ability to observe and think at the same time.  These are also learning skills needed in reading.

If your child is struggling to make friends at school, part of the issue may be he is struggling to keep up with peer conversations due to an auditory processing delay.  He may be struggling to keep up with the conversation, processing at a slower rate than natural language which means by the time he has processed the meaning of what he is hearing the conversation has moved on.

Note, this is probably the only clue that should not be used in isolation as an indication of dyslexia. While learning difficulties are often overlooked as a source of social dysfunction, there are obviously a lot of other factors at play with social interaction — personality traits, environment, child history, etc.  However, if your child is a struggling reader and is struggling to make friends, you may want to pay close attention to the other aspects of his life, looking for evidence of one of the clues above.

What Next?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of dyslexia symptoms and the clues are not meant to scare you, but rather give you reference points for making the right decision for your child.  Many children with reading difficulties exhibit none of the above non-reading symptoms of difficulty, and of course, most of them go on to be good readers.

If, however, your child is a struggling reader and one or more of the symptoms or clues above resonate, you may want to seek professional advice to get a better understanding of treatment options.

Recognize also, if it is dyslexia, this is not really the school’s problem.  Their focus is on instruction, getting students over the assessment line.  They are not in the business of resolving dyslexia in children, or any other learning disabilities for that matter.  This is a parent role, generally with the help of clinicians or learning software.

If you are not sure where your child stands or what to do, think about the logistics in terms of age. When your child is young, there is time to act and also a lot of overlap between signs of cognitive skill gaps and six- or seven-year-itis.  At the same time, when she is young, she has time in her day for outside activities, learning interventions and it is OK to be less focused on school work as the goals at school still revolve around learning to read and literacy — intervention efforts outside school are not at odds with what is happening in school.

The Earlier the Better

As your child gets older however, her daily life gets more complicated and she gets more strong-willed and harder to manage — this means adding a dyslexia treatment into the schedule gets harder, certainly by the teenage years. And the school curriculum starts moving quickly — there is more at stake when diverting your child from school work to outside interventions.

There is also the impact of a long struggle with reading to think about. If it persists into middle school or beyond, chances are confidence and self-esteem will start to erode, your child will start falling behind in reading-intensive subjects and the chances of having a positive connection to reading start to diminish as struggles continue.

While many children do grow out of their reading difficulties — and there are very good reasons to hold off, absent clear evidence of any of the cognitive delays outlined above — if your child is age 11-12 and reading is still a challenge, you probably need to act. High school is “read to learn” and your child needs to be a good reader by that point to realize his or her full potential.

This report on dyslexia includes a warnings signs checklist for dyslexia and treatment options.

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