A 200 Year Old Dyslexia Debate
This question of what dyslexia is has been a debate for over 200 years. Seriously!
In the 1800’s it was first called “word blindness”. In 1877 German Neurologist, Adolf Kussmaul, discovered that it was not an intelligence issue. Dyslexics are just as intelligent and sometimes more intelligent than average. Instead, it was a specific learning disability that only affected certain areas of learning.
A decade later, in 1887, the term dyslexia was coined.
Let’s break that word down.
Dys is the latin for difficulty. Lexia is Latin for words or language. And that is actually a pretty good definition. A difficulty with words or language.
There are many definitions of dyslexia floating around. It is endlessly argued over. Let's keep our definition simple and stay out of those arguments because I’m sure your goal is to help your child, not argue over semantics.
Oxford’s dictionary gives us this, a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.
That’s a good definition and it’s broad enough to look at all of the various forms and causes for dyslexia. We don’t want to eliminate any possible solutions just yet.
So we’ll quickly cover all of the possible causes but first, let’s look at the common pitfalls in understanding what dyslexia is. There are three big ones. You don’t want to fall into these traps because that will reduce or eliminate your chances of finding the right solution.
The first is the idea that dyslexia is flipping letters. That's one of those old ideas that just won’t die. The idea started in the 1920s. One of the pioneers of dyslexia research, Samuel Orton, realized that some of the children he was working with had difficulty differentiating between similar letters such as b and d. He also realized that some read from right to left. So, for example, not became ton. Then he found that some could read better in a mirror. After seeing this, he theorized that this was the cause of dyslexia. That idea stuck. It’s 100 years later, so much more has been discovered. But the idea that dyslexia is reversing letters or words persists. Reversing letters CAN be a symptom. But it’s actually one of the rarer symptoms. And since all kids do this until they get enough practice, it’s not a great indicator of dyslexia. Reversing letters when kids are older than 7 is a sign but not conclusive evidence.
No Single Cause
The second trap is thinking that dyslexia has one single cause. It’s possible, but also pretty rare. It’s usually some combination of difficulties in the cognitive micro-skills. These could be auditory, visual, or even spatial. It’s very rare that one specific set of exercises will help. That’s because of the way the brain works. The brain uses all of these skills together. So you have to give it exercises that build all of these cognitive skills together. That’s what the Learning Success System does. Works the cognitive micro-skills in different combinations.
Now it’s true, over the years people have discovered exercises that helped a small set of dyslexics. They then theorized that these exercises would help all dyslexics. It won’t. All brains are different. Therefore all dyslexic brains are different. So we have to take a more generalized approach. Working all of the skills together. There is a path to helping them but it’s never going to be ONE THING. Thinking that there is, is a mistake in understanding how the brain works. It’s not a computer. It’s not a machine. It’s a human brain. An amazing human brain. And that brain's biggest skill is interpreting all of the sensory information coming at it and organizing it. So it makes no sense to try to give it only one piece and expect it to use that to build skills.
The third pitfall is thinking that brains don’t change. That’s another old idea that just won’t die. Believing that you are stuck with the brain you have is really damaging. It eliminates hope. And when it comes to brains there's plenty of reason to be hopeful. Given the right stimulus, they change constantly. Growing and developing over an entire lifetime. But without the right challenges they get lazy. No challenge, no brain growth. And if someone believed they couldn’t change why would they challenge themself to even try.
Those are the biggest pitfalls.
- Holding on to old ideas
- Thinking it’s one single cause
- Thinking that brains don’t change.
Causes of Dyslexia
Now let’s dig down into what the actual causes of “a difficulty with words” could be. And the possible solutions.
As we go through these keep in mind that most dyslexics have two or more causes for their difficulties. These underlying causes will also express differently in different people. All brains are different. So any given symptom does not necessarily map to the same cause. And truthfully, sometimes you never find the exact cause. You just work on all of the solutions together and the brain figures it out.
That being said, let's look at each possible cause individually.
The first is phonetic issues. This is not a hearing problem, although it has been theorized that it may be caused by hearing issues early in life. This is a processing issue. Your child may have difficulty discriminating between similar sounds. They may have challenges breaking down words or manipulating sounds. As well as other phonetic skills. This is sometimes called phonological dyslexia. It’s very related to auditory processing disorder. The large majority of dyslexics do have some sort of phonetic processing issue. It’s estimated to be around 80%. Just not all.
But even those that are classified as a phonological dyslexic or having auditory processing disorder are very different from one another. As an example, it's widely believed that those with phonological dyslexia have extreme difficulty learning a new language. While that may be true for many, or even most, many report that learning a new language was the thing that helped them overcome their dyslexia. So for some, learning a new language is extremely difficult and for others, it was their saving grace. All brains are different right?
Another cause can be visual issues. This can be visual processing issues such as difficulties in visual discrimination, visual memory, visual memory manipulation, or visual closure. It can also be a problem in the actual eye muscles in the eye. These muscles help us track lines. Others help the eyes converge when objects get closer. They are essential for reading. For those with this problem, eye strengthening exercises are a fairly quick fix. But of course, if that is not the problem those exercises won’t do much. All dyslexics are different right?
These dyslexics might also experience letters changing places or jumping around the page. And of course reversals of letters and words. They may lose their place a lot. They may get headaches. And they are certainly working much harder to read than others. So that will affect comprehension. But these symptoms are not a diagnosis. There are several possible underlying causes for them. So be careful about jumping to a conclusion.
Also related to vision is Irlen syndrome. In this condition sensitivities to certain wavelengths cause visual distortions when reading. Colored reading overlays help with this. Some people are really helped by them. Others not at all.
Many dyslexics will also have difficulty with spatial awareness and directionality. It’s not uncommon for dyslexics to experience benefits by developing better proprioception. There is a link between our spatial skills, our sensory skills, and our cognitive skills. Developing proprioceptive skills and sensory skills is sometimes the shortcut to improving cognitive skills. These dyslexics are often mixed dominant and sometimes have trouble with fine motor skills. Links to more info on each of these are in the description.
The Amazing Brain
I think you're getting the point right? There are several possible causes of reading difficulties. Usually, two or more of these causes come together. That’s why it’s important to get a general idea of where the problem is coming from but also to treat all of the possibilities together. If you do that a better understanding will take shape and with that a solution.
Remember the brain is not a computer. It is not a machine. You can’t just fix or replace one part and expect it to be up and running. It does not work like that. Sure, we’ve all heard things like the left side of the brain is logical and the right side is creative. And that certain parts of the brain do certain things. Or that we can “Rewire” the brain. None of that is actually true. These are all just basic models that help us understand how the brain works by associating the ideas with things that are easy to understand. They are sort of true at a very basic level. Just not absolutely true. There are no wires. Some people's hemispheres are reversed. And areas of the brain can interact in many functions. They can even switch functions when conditions change. For example, the visual brain centers in blind people are usually remapped to the other senses. This is why they can be more attuned to sound and touch. For some, this neuroplasticity even results in echolocation skills. Meaning they can navigate using sonar as a bat does. The brain is amazing. It can change itself to suit the needs of the individual.
The brain is far more magical than a machine. We shouldn’t treat it like one. We should treat it like the wondrous thing that it is.
Combined Cognitive Skills
The brain uses all of the cognitive skills together to complete a task such as reading. It’s combining different forms of memory. It’s combining different senses. It’s using them all in ways that we can’t even perceive. It’s combining auditory processes with visual memory. It’s using spatial memory and even sensory memory. All working seamlessly together. Different people will do this in different ways. Some being stronger in auditory. Others in visual. And even others in spatial or kinesthetic. Each person finds a little different path.
The brain finds new ways of using these cognitive skills together. This brings me back to why defining dyslexia as one specific problem can be disastrous. When we try to work on only one cognitive skill in isolation that creates a problem. It creates an isolated skill. What we want is a generalized skill. We want the brain to pull that skill out and use it for different things.
If you only work one skill, the brain develops that skill but it develops only for that specific task. It’s like if you practiced crossword puzzles constantly you might get better at crossword puzzles but you won’t get smarter. The brain says “AHA, you want me to get better at crossword puzzles, no problem”. And it does so. It doesn’t improve memory or other cognitive skills by practicing crossword puzzles. Or any other single exercise. Instead, you have to challenge it with multiple cognitive challenges simultaneously
The brain has to work harder to do this but that's a good thing. When we challenge our brain it grows.
Don't "live with" Dyslexia
Let’s talk about what dyslexia is not.
It’s not a life sentence. Your child does not have to “LIVE WITH” all of the problems of dyslexia.
Will their brain always be different? Of course, all brains are different. All have skills that need more development and all have gifts as well. It’s important to do both. To find the weaknesses and do what we can do to improve upon them while at the same time embracing the gifts.
Brains change and grow. Did you know that the first experiment that proved this was in 1793? Somehow it wasn’t until the 1990’s that science switched its opinion on this and finally acknowledged that neurogenesis was possible at all ages. Even in science, old ideas die hard. For 200 years people believed that brains did not change and grow. And that nonsense is still being promoted today. Don’t listen to it.
Here’s the scary thing about telling someone they have to live with a specific learning challenge.
Did you know that there was an experiment done on children in which teachers were given a list of which children in the class were gifted learners and which were not? At the end of the school year evaluations were done and it’s probably a no-brainer to tell you that the gifted children excelled and the other children did poorly.
Except there’s one problem. The list was faked. The children were chosen at random to be either on the gifted or the not gifted list. The results at the end of the year were completely due to expectations, not actual intelligence differences. The children on the not-gifted list were not expected to excel. Those expectations were passed on to them either subtly or not so subtly. And those expectations caused them to do poorly.
That was a very cruel experiment. Who knows what lasting effects it had on those children. Thankfully that sort of experiment is now illegal. It would never pass the psychology review board today.
But people do the same thing when they tell children that they have a learning disability that is for life.
The internet is like an echo chamber repeating that over and over. It says a child will always need accommodations. And if they believe that, it will be true.
Protect your child from this echo chamber. Don’t let them be like the children in the study. We can, and should, continually develop our minds. Whether we have a learning disability or not. It makes us happier, healthier, and more productive, and when we are old, it staves off dementia simply because we have built up enough extra neurons over our lifetime that we have plenty to spare.
What to Do
So, if you suspect your child has dyslexia or some other specific learning disability or even if they don’t. Cognitive challenges are something we can work at. We can improve our minds. We can do that by acknowledging the problems but not accepting them as unchangeable. That allows us to understand what we need to work on and realize that we can continually grow and change
If your child is struggling in school then start them on the Learning Success System. You can get a free trial here.
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