How Dyslexia is a Different Brain, Not a Disease

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This is chapter one of the MindShift Guide to Understanding Dyslexia. You can find the remaining chapters and a complete printable PDF of the entire guide by clicking here.

As a frame of reference, the act of reading is a human invention that’s only a few thousand years old. In Europe and the United States, mass literacy—meaning more than 50 percent of the population knows how to read—has only been around for about 150 years. In other areas of the world, such as most of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, it’s much more recent.

THE READING BRAIN

Because the human brain doesn’t come already wired to read, there is no “reading center” of the brain and there are no “reading genes.” As Proust and the Squid author Maryanne Wolf writes, each individual brain must learn how to read on its own.

In learning to read, the brain performs an amazing feat: it creates a specialized circuit that’s just for reading, forging a new circuit by combining parts of the brain that were originally designed to serve other functions, such as retrieving names. This new “reading circuit” combines processes from different areas of the brain and then runs at a speed so fast it’s nearly automatic.

But not all brains forge a flowing reading circuit easily. This is the case with dyslexia. Rather than being a disease or a medical condition (the common misperception), dyslexia is a different brain organization—one in which the brain’s reading circuit has been disrupted or re-routed in at least one way, and sometimes in two or three ways. This re-routing slows down critical parts of the reading process:

  • attaching the right sound to a letter happens more slowly and
  • forming words or sentences takes longer, then comprehending what was just read also takes longer

Dyslexia can additionally affect memory, especially working memory, making it harder for students to remember what they just read, or directions and learning sequences. It’s important to note that dyslexia is NOT caused by visual problems, and it isn’t the flipping of letters, or reading letters backwards, or mispronouncing words—and it’s not related to motivation or intelligence. It’s merely the result of a brain with a different organization that makes reading and writing more difficult.

READING CIRCUIT ISSUES

In the dyslexic brain, the reading circuit can be interrupted in several areas and cause problematic development. Because each brain is unique, there isn’t a singular form of dyslexia, but there are common issues:

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ISSUE #1: Phonemic Awareness — identifying individual units of sound is a major challenge in the dyslexic brain. There are 44 sounds, or phonemes, in the English language. The main problem for kids with dyslexia is the ability to notice and work with all the sounds, and then be able to match those sounds to the right letters. In younger children, this is why not being able to rhyme words is an important early sign of dyslexia—often dyslexic kids don’t recognize the ways two rhyming words sound alike. English is an irregular language so there are many different combinations of letters that match to phonemes, making reading and spelling really hard for kids with challenges working with and remembering speech sounds.

ISSUE #2: Fluency, or getting the reading circuit to work together quickly, is the second-biggest issue. Even when children can process all the phonemes, they can still have trouble associating the sounds with the right letters, perhaps due to the right hemisphere’s control over the left hemisphere-centered language processing. This makes reading even the simplest words very slow, and then automaticity doesn’t develop properly.

ISSUE #3: Comprehension is the third (but no less crucial) issue in reading. Once letters and sounds are matched together, some children will have trouble putting the words together to form sentences and meaning. Often, this kind of dyslexia doesn’t show up until children are older, around third grade and up, when there is a switch from learning to read to reading to learn.

For dyslexics, the work of reading is slow and laborious, so often otherwise bright and intelligent students who haven’t received proper intervention never become fluent readers. Many dyslexic students can get by for years by memorizing words without actually reading them, but by the third or fourth grade, when learning switches from learning to read to reading to learn, struggling students can’t read fast enough to keep up. They often experience repeated failure.

Yet, with explicit and systematic specialized instruction specifically for the different brain structure, the reading circuit can be re-trained to work toward fluidity. But first, students, parents, and teachers must understand that the dyslexic’s brain isn’t “broken” or deficient, just organized in a different way.

DO DYSLEXICS HAVE SPECIAL TALENTS?

Special gifts and talents can emerge from dyslexic brains, and whether this happens because of the unique setup of the dyslexic brain or in spite of it continues to be an ongoing subject of research and discussion.

Dyslexics quickly learn that very successful people, some considered geniuses in their field, like Pablo Picasso, Thomas Edison, Steven Spielberg, Octavia Spencer, Erin Brockovich and Nobel Prize-winner Elizabeth Blackburn, also struggled to read and write, and it didn’t affect their ability to achieve.

Does the dyslexic brain connote certain talents or even an advantage over a more typical reading brain? Some experts and writers like Malcolm Gladwell even call dyslexia an advantage or a desirable disadvantage—a disadvantage that ends up being at least partly responsible for a person’s success.

But the research behind whether or not dyslexia is an actual advantage, or whether special talents emerge from dyslexic brains, is complex—it’s difficult to tease out causes and correlations.

“It’s certainly possible that some dyslexics have special abilities in areas not related to reading, just as other kids could have special abilities in one or two areas but struggle in other areas,” says research scientist and speech-language pathologist Peggy McCardle, former branch chief at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), U.S. National Institutes of Health.

“We know that there are gifted children in the world, and that some of them are dyslexic. What we don’t know —and to date there is no real evidence of this—is whether the dyslexia and the giftedness or talent are connected, or just happened to co-occur in that person. People are looking at ways to study that, with good research designs and solid methods, but so far it has not been done.”

A FINE LINE

For practitioners who work with dyslexic students, it’s often a fine line between encouraging students to use their nonreading talents to succeed, and for not short-changing themselves on what they are able to do.

Dr. Sheryl Rimrodt-Frierson, who runs the pediatric clinic at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Reading Clinic, says that reading and writing are still vital skills that need to be addressed, and she’s cautious about dyslexic kids selling themselves short when it comes to academic work. “I will make sure they know there are plenty of good people out there who have done plenty—academic work, medical school, law school.” Rimrodt-Frierson says that kids need to understand there is a world of possibilities.

As cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf writes in her book Proust and the Squid, “The single most important implication of research in dyslexia is not ensuring that we don’t derail the development of a future Leonardo or Edison; it is making sure that we do not miss the potential of any child. Not all children with dyslexia have extraordinary talents, but every one of them has a unique potential that all too often goes unrealized because we don’t know how to tap it.”

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This is chapter one of the MindShift Guide to Understanding Dyslexia. You can find the remaining chapters and a complete printable PDF of the entire guide by clicking here.

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