What causes dyslexia?
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty which specifically affects reading ability in between 5% and 10% of children. It is found in all socio-economic groups and countries. Dyslexics are often above average in other respects, but their reading is unexpectedly poor.
Many learn coping strategies, but have continuing difficulties with spelling and writing. They typically also have problems with numbers and other symbols, with making fine distinctions between sounds, and with holding large pieces of information like phone numbers in their memory. Problems with text often go along with advantages in other areas - creativity, empathy and strong visual-spatial skills. The exact pattern of problems and skills varies widely between individuals.
Dyslexia is a clear physical syndrome. It affects all levels of intelligence, and is nothing to do with ‘he's just thick’ or ‘she's too lazy to try’.
Children seem to learn language skills best during a short ‘critical period’. If they have hearing problems (like an ear infection) during this time, this could affect their language abilities. Similarly, hearing problems when they are learning to read could affect their ability to pick up reading skills. Also, visual problems (such as squint or short-sightedness) can make reading very hard and so deter the child from persevering with it.
As well as this sort of acquired dyslexia (which is due to visual or hearing problems), there is also developmental dyslexia. The cause or causes of developmental dyslexia are not fully understood, and are the major focus of our research. It is an inherited condition which appears to affect more boys than girls, and involves clear differences in the way the brain is wired up.
The British education system places enormous emphasis on reading and writing skills, which can make life very difficult for dyslexic children.
English is also a particularly difficult language to learn to read, because of the many irregularities in its sound-spelling relationships (compare rough, bough, lough, through, though, cough). It has been estimated that as many as 20% of British adults may be functionally illiterate. In Italy, where the language is much more regular, and the education system depends less on written work and more on oral tests, dyslexia is much less frequently diagnosed.
Dyslexic children's difficulties may become apparent when they begin to learn to read. However, developmental dyslexics often show signs before they learn to read. They may be unexpectedly clumsy, or have problems concentrating. There may also be dyslexia in the family.
Perhaps the most obvious symptom is unexpectedly poor reading, given the individual's general ability.
However, spelling problems, problems remembering telephone numbers and appointments, and bad handwriting can also be signs of dyslexia, particularly in the many high-achieving dyslexics who have managed to compensate for their reading difficulties.
Other symptoms include difficulties in learning things by rote (for example the months of the year), a tendency to clumsiness, poor concentration and phonological problems (finding it hard to sort out the sounds within words).
Many dyslexics also report visual symptoms, such as a tendency for letters to blur or move around on the page, strain due to glare from the whiteness of the page, or a sensation of "crowding" of the letters on the page.
What are the symptoms of dyslexia?
Frequently Asked Questions
We've gathered answers to some of our most frequently asked questions. We hope you find these helpful. If you don't find what you're looking for here, please do get in touch.
Can dyslexia be cured?
In a society such as ours, which places so much importance on reading and spelling, dyslexia is undoubtedly a problem. However, many dyslexics, value the gifts which their dyslexia has given them, and would not want to be ‘cured’. There are many opportunities for dyslexics, particularly since the development of computer and film technologies has created a huge demand for programming, artistic and graphic design skills. One well-known architect's practice prefers to employ dyslexic people because of their spatial awareness and lateral thinking abilities.
Dyslexia can often be helped by specialist remedial programmes. In addition, other treatments designed to address the visual symptoms (colour filters etc), phonological symptoms or underlying biological basis of dyslexia (fatty acids) may also help. Beware of the many groups purporting to offer treatments, or even cures, for dyslexia for a large, upfront fee. These may or may not help (you have little recourse if they do not). They are frequently based on little or no scientific research, and often involve treatments (such as nutritional supplements, coloured overlays, or intensive reading programs) which you can do yourself much more cheaply. There is no magic pill for dyslexia; but long, hard work can often help.
Although awareness of dyslexia is much higher than it was, it can still go undiagnosed, with the result that the child can be stigmatised and disadvantaged. This can be very bad for a child's self-esteem.
The most important thing you can do is be understanding.
Don't blame or put pressure on your child for not achieving. Explain to them that their dyslexia is a real physical condition, like deafness or having to wear glasses: it does not mean they are stupid or lazy. Praise them for effort as well as achievement. Encourage areas in which they can feel successful, such as creative work (e.g. verbal storytelling), and hobbies or sports. Be flexible about your hopes for their choice of career.
Dyslexia varies widely from child to child. If your child has mild problems, and is still very young, it may be possible to help just by spending more time reading with him or her. Children develop at different speeds, after all. Motivating your child to enjoy reading, and giving them the time they need with you, can be a great help. It is also important to check your child's vision and hearing to make sure that these are working properly.
If your child's problems are more severe, you may want to get an assessment. You will need an official diagnosis of dyslexia to persuade your school to set aside extra help for your child. The key here is to go armed with facts, and to persevere. The Dyslexia Association can help you in your discussions with the school, and Oxfordshire LEA has a Parent Partnership Scheme which can provide you with independent advice and support.
My child is dyslexic. How can I help?
Many dyslexics have problems with some aspects of their vision. These may be very subtle and so may not be detected by an optician. There is evidence that using a coloured overlay or coloured glasses can help such individuals with their reading.
I've heard about colour filters. Can they help?
The development of technologies like voice recognition and spell-checking can be extremely helpful to dyslexics.