The co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity talks about the learning disability and how it affects kids in school.
“Science has made a great deal of progress in understanding dyslexia, but it hasn’t been translated into practice as much as it should be,” according to Sally Shaywitz, MD, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity and a professor in learning development at the Yale University School of Medicine.
There are a lot of misconceptions about dyslexia — that it’s a vision problem as opposed to a language-based learning disability, for instance. What are some of the common mistakes people make about it?
A lot of people think dyslexia means seeing letters and words backwards. It doesn’t. What often happens is a parent sees their child struggling to read, but because they’re not reading backwards they think it can’t be dyslexia.
A common thing people will say is that it’s a developmental lag. It’s not. There have been studies that show that when kids struggle with reading it’s not that they’re slower to do it, it’s that they can’t do it. It’s sad that sometimes people think the child isn’t trying hard enough. Everybody tells their child when they’re starting school that they’re going to love reading, and suddenly the child is lost.
Slow reading should not be confused with slow thinking. Some of the brightest people in our society are dyslexic, people who have won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.
What are some of the earliest indicators that a child may be dyslexic?
The earliest symptom is a delay in speaking. Because the child has trouble pulling apart the spoken word, they don’t recognize rhymes. How do children enjoy Dr. Seuss? They pull the words apart, like “mad, hat, cat,” and recognize that they rhyme.
As children get a little older, three to five years old, they have trouble recognizing letters, and then linking letters to individual sounds. As they get even older, they have trouble retrieving the word they want to say. A little girl looking at a picture of a volcano might say it’s a “tornado.” She knows what she wants to say, but it’s very hard for her to pull out the sounds to be able to do that.
It’s not a question of knowing the concept. It’s a matter of actually uttering the word. It’s referred to as a word retrieval problem. You can imagine how embarrassing it is to a child in school.
A lot of kids with dyslexia learn how to read relatively accurately, but they don’t read fluently. Fluent reading means you read rapidly and automatically. You see a word and you know it. So reading is pleasurable, and you don’t need to use up your attention to read.
What should parents do if they suspect that their child may have a learning disability?
If you suspect something might be wrong, I would start with the teacher and work your way up to the principal. See if there’s a learning specialist at the school, or maybe the head of special education. A younger child should be assessed by a speech and language pathologist who really knows how to pinpoint the difficulty. There’s no reason to wait, the earlier the better.
Is dyslexia related to other learning disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?
There’s a very high co-occurrence of dyslexia and attention disorder. Sometimes the attention disorder will be picked up, and they’ll miss that there’s a reading disorder as well.
When you can’t read automatically, you use up all your attention and effort trying. Those kids in class may look like they’re not paying attention and looking around, so it can be confused with attention disorder. Similarly, the kids with reading disorder often do have attention disorder and it’s missed. So if a child is diagnosed with one, they should be evaluated for the other.
Students with learning disabilities don’t always get the accommodations, such as extended testing time, they’re entitled to. Why, and do they make a significant difference in academic achievement?
Schools sometimes think because a child takes longer on a test that they can’t go on to a higher level subject. The child can understand the concepts and do the work, but they may need extra time on a test. But kids don’t want to ask for extra time — nobody wants to be different.
Children really need to get the extra help, but sadly they often don’t get it in school. For parents who can afford it, kids can work with a tutor when they get home from school.
It’s really important for the child to have time to do something that they enjoy, something that they’re good at and feel good about.