Why is Dyslexia so Misunderstood?

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, or as I prefer to say “learning difference” in the United States. However, it is also the most misunderstood. Many still believe it to be a reading problem that includes letter reversals, backwards reading or poor vision. It is also commonly associated with low intelligence, partially due to the label “learning disability”. On the contrary, however, children with dyslexia typically have average to above-average intelligence.

So why is dyslexia still so misunderstood, you might be wondering? I wish I had a simple answer to that question. The reason is partially due to the fact that the majority of general education teachers do not receive adequate training in the area of dyslexia. Surprising? Yes, it is. Many still believe many of the myths about dyslexia (ie. reading backwards, inverting letters, etc). Unfortunately, that means that because teachers are not trained to identify dyslexia, they often miss a lot of the early signs and with that, valuable time. Since general education teachers are typically the ones on the front lines of early education, how can we expect them to be able to recognize dyslexia and/or share concerns about a child having dyslexia if they don’t know what to look for?

With a lack of awareness, comes misinformation. Many teachers mistake “attention issues” for dyslexia. That is not to suggest that there isn’t comorbidity with ADHD in a lot of cases. However, what happens most often is that dyslexic children, who have difficulty with decoding or encoding (reading or writing), choose to simply avoid participating in classroom work that they are unable to do, which ultimately presents as an attention issue.

When I sit in IEP meetings and advocate for dyslexic children, teachers will sometimes suggest that a child is not performing well in school because he or she is not attending to the exercises. My question to the teacher is typically something like, “If I were to place a book of Chinese in front of you and ask you to read it for the next 30 minutes, what feelings and responses would come up for you” (this question assumes that the teacher does not know how to read Chinese, of course)? Oftentimes, I get a response of surprise, as if they have never really looked at it that way before. At that point, I might say, “If you could not read the book of Chinese, what would you likely do to occupy the 30-minute time period you were given?” After a long pause, I then offer, “You would most likely look around, fidget with your hands, look to a friend, etc. In other words, you would probably engage in behavior that is often associated with attention issues.” At that point in the discussion, it is typically clear to the teacher what it is that I am trying to say. Most children want to do well in school. They want to do what is expected of them. If, however, they do not have the skills to even attempt an exercise, why even try?

In many cases, however not all, the issue is not that the child is inattentive. Instead, it is simply that the child is being asked to spend a significant amount of time doing an activity that is seemingly impossible for that child to do. Over time, it might appear that the child has an attention issue, when in reality, the child may simply be unable to decode the words on the page.

So what is dyslexia, you may be wondering? Dyslexia is complex and affects both written and spoken language. Even reading a single word can be a struggle for a child with dyslexia. According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Theses difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Children with dyslexia may experience a disconnect between phonemes (sounds) and graphemes (individual letters or groups of letters that represent single phonemes). Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate sounds. A lack of phonemic awareness often leads to an inability for a child to decode text, which is the process of sounding out words. Once a child can decode, he can teach himself new words. Dyslexia can also involve a lack of automaticity, which is the effortless recognition of words. Without automaticity, fluency is reduced and without fluency, comprehension is often compromised.

The good news is that with early identification, proper instruction and support, all but 1% of the population can learn to read. The key is to educate our general education teachers and the community at-large so we can find dyslexic children as early as possible.