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Dyslexia Most Often Is Not A Visual Problem

Written By Donna Schwontkowski . July 23, 2013

Visual Dyslexia Is Less Common Than You Might Think

One of the most persistent myths in learning relates to dyslexia.  Conventional wisdom has it that the classic symptom of dyslexia is switching letters, most commonly “d” and “b.” The assumption that goes with this symptom is that this switching reveals a visual problem, where b’s and d’s are seen as the same.

It’s a natural conclusion.  But it’s wrong.

Dyslexia is Most Often a Language Processing Issue

Scientists know that dyslexia is overwhelmingly a language problem.  B’s and d’s are switched because their sound waves are almost identical.  They are heard the same, and so they are recognized interchangeably in text.

Furthermore, fMRIs that track activity in the brain reveal that there is a 98% overlap between the fMRI pattern of a person listening and a person reading.  The difference is the very small activity in reading that is connecting the text as seen to words stored in each person’s word memory, which stores all knowledge and thinking skills.

Visual Difficulties

However, there are different types of dyslexia, and varying causes, and something the source is vision related.

Most so-called visual processing difficulties are noticed prior to reading becoming an issue. The key visual reading skill is eye-tracking, being able to follow text in a line, and then accurately moving to the next line at reading speed.  If eye-tracking is a difficulty, parents will notice the difficulty early on in their child’s life. Children with eye-tracking problems, for example, might miss objects that are pointed out to them.

More common visual difficulties are:

  • Spatial awareness. Symptoms include an inability to figure out angles and distances when playing a team sport
  • Hand-to-eye coordination. Symptoms include difficulty catching a ball or learning to ride a bike

These difficulties point to possible sensory integration difficulties, which are best resolved with Occupational Therapy that can often lead to an ADHD diagnosis.  They are visual clues of a learning difficulty that may indeed be holding your child back, not because they point to visual dyslexia, but rather because they point to possible attention difficulties.

New Research Breaks Link Between Vision and Dyslexia

An enduring myth in the world of  learning is that the primary cause of dyslexia is delays in visual processing, mainly because the classic symptom of dyslexia is switching of b’s and d’s which on its surface appears to be a vision issue.

Scientists have known for many years however that the reason dyslexics switch letter sounds is not that they mix them up visually, it is that they hear them as the same.

Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center have possibly produced research, reported in the journal Neuron in June 2013, that will finally mark the end of this misunderstanding about dyslexia.

The cause of dyslexia is important as it becomes the basis for treatment and learning accommodations.   And because vision-based approaches don’t work, there is a general perception that dyslexia is something you have to learn to live with, that it cannot be effectively treated.

The Debate Around Dyslexia and Vision

Experts who support the idea that dyslexia is related to visual processing focus on issues such as skipping words and reading b’s as d’s and vice versa.  They then look to correct visual disorders using colored transparencies or colored glasses which change how the child reads words on the page.

Because reading requires sight these theories and treatment options have resonated with parents.

Over the past 25-30 years, however, an avalanche of research has established that reading is a language skill and that almost all language skills stem from difficulties in auditory processing and phonemic awareness. The link between dyslexia and auditory processing has been backed up by all kinds of studies, including correlations between early processing and listening issues converting into dyslexia in later life, and fMRI scans showing that students with dyslexia have less activity in the language parts of the brain.

These language based theories on the cause of dyslexia make sense — if a child cannot process sound accurately and effortlessly, he will not be able to sound out words accurately and effortlessly, as is required for reading fluency and sound reading comprehension.   As a result, he or she can’t read, and can possibly suffer from dyslexia.

Nevertheless, despite all of this research, the myth that dyslexia is a visual difficulty has persisted.

Until now.

What Georgetown University Researchers Found

Researchers at the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University Medical Center used functional MRIs to compare the brains of dyslexic children with the brains of children who don’t have the learning disorder.

Children without dyslexia appeared to have the same level of visual processing activity as dyslexic kids, when matched by reading level instead of age, they found.  Meanwhile other studies show consistent and distinct differences in language processing between dyslexic children and skilled readers.

Further, the Georgetown study showed that children with dyslexia who received intensive tutoring in reading skills experienced a subsequent increase in visual system activity.  In other words, visual difficulties are most often caused by the weak reading skills — the lack of practice in eye tracking, for instance.  And so when reading skills are improved visual skills improve also.  They are not the cause of dyslexia.

The study concludes that vision issues should be used as a symptom of dyslexia, but not targeted directly in treatment of the learning disability.  These findings will help teachers and parents understand more about the true nature of dyslexia and help them treat it accordingly.

What Gemm Learning Knows

The fact that the cause of dyslexia is language processing related is critical, because a large body of scientific research has shown that language processing skills can be strengthened with exercise.

This is how Gemm Learning works.  It uses brain-based Fast ForWord software to rewire auditory processing, phonemic awareness and related cognitive skills to  help dyslexia.

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