“What is dyslexia?” And other common dyslexia questions, answered.

By Kati McIlroy, OT/L, ATS, and Mary Pembleton

Dyslexia Components; Writing, Spatial/Temporal, Memory Difficulties, Motor Control, Reading, Spelling, Listening

1. What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is widely considered to be a disorder where differences in how the brain processes information, particularly language, interfere with the ability to eye-read physical text and impact skills like working memory.

Brain imaging supports this definition, though these studies haven’t definitively proved that dyslexia is caused by differences in the brain.

In fact, this peer-reviewed article argues that we don’t have enough evidence to show that dyslexia is a neurodevelopmental disorder.

One thing is for certain: people with dyslexia universally experience difficulty reading text.

2. Is dyslexia a disability?

Yes.

Dyslexia is categorized as a learning disability.

This is an important distinction from a legal standpoint because being diagnosed with a disability means a person is entitled to certain rights and protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Learn more about the ADA here.

A disability is any condition, mental or physical, that limits an individual’s senses, activities, or movement.

A learning disability interferes with a person’s ability to learn.

However, learning disabilities, including dyslexia, have nothing to do with how intelligent a person is.

Some people and organizations refer to learning disabilities as learning differences. This is because people with dyslexia are thought to use different areas of the brain to process language than people who aren’t dyslexic. This translates into areas of strength: oftentimes people with dyslexia excel at big-picture thinking, mechanical reasoning, narrative reasoning, and creative thinking, to name a few.

There’s also person-first and identity-first language to consider, and this very much comes down to an individual’s preference.

Those who prefer person-first language will say I am a person with dyslexia, or I am a person with a disability.

Those who prefer identity-first language say I am dyslexic, or I am disabled.

It’s always a good idea to ask a person with a disability which language they prefer!

3. How common is dyslexia?

Graphic Illustrating 20 in 100 people have dyslexia

According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, twenty percent of the general population has dyslexia, but many are unaware of it.

Not-so-fun fact: it’s estimated that nearly half of the people who are incarcerated in the United States have dyslexia, which only emphasizes the need for early identification, accommodations, and intervention. Supporting learners with dyslexia benefits all of us.

This article explores initiatives to screen for dyslexia in the prison population.

4. What causes dyslexia?

The science isn’t settled, but we do know dyslexia has a strong genetic component, meaning it runs in families. And we do know that many people agree that dyslexic brains process differently from non-dyslexic brains.

5. Are dysgraphia and dyslexia different?

Yes.

Dysgraphia is a learning disability that interferes with writing, and dyslexia interferes with reading. A person can have just dyslexia, or just dysgraphia, or they can have both!

6. Is dyslexia genetic?

Yes. 

Or at least, it is assumed to be, though more research is needed to more deeply understand the genetic link. In studies, Dyslexia’s heritability has been shown to be 40-60%, meaning that if you are a child of a parent with dyslexia, there’s a 40-60% chance that you’ve inherited it from them.

Check out this study on dyslexia’s heritability to learn more.

7. What does dyslexia look like?

Dyslexia symptoms vary a lot from person to person, but everyone with dyslexia has one thing in common: they struggle with reading.

It’s a common but persistent myth that all dyslexics switch letters or words around while reading.

This may be the case for some people, but each individual with dyslexia experiences their disability differently: that’s why curiosity and open-ended questions about what it’s like for a person with dyslexia is better than making assumptions!

8. What are symptoms of dyslexia in children?

In young learners with suspected dyslexia, you may notice they struggle to recognize and form their letters. Same goes with phonics and decoding. It may take them a lot longer than typical learners to grasp these skills, if they do at all.

Student using letter blocks

It’s also common for dyslexia to go undetected. Sometimes children will gain the ability to read, and can read aloud beautifully, but when they do so, they don’t necessarily comprehend what it is they’ve read.

This is because the cognitive effort it takes a person with dyslexia to decode leaves little capacity for comprehension!

Start-to-Finish Book: Building Wings by Don Johnston

Still other children with dyslexia will try to avoid reading demands by acting out in the classroom, and will present as a “behavior problem.” This was the case with Don Johnston, founder of Don Johnston Incorporated, who wrote about his experience with dyslexia in his book Building Wings. 

Unfortunately, it’s also common for learners with dyslexia to experience shame or low self-esteem, especially as they advance in school. When eye-reading is such an integral part of school, and a student really struggles with that skill, it’s hard to avoid this unintended, but devastating, impact.

This is where Universal Design for Learning can help create an inclusive learning environment where a child with dyslexia who needs to use tools to read and write doesn’t feel singled out or ashamed.

Student with text reader and tablet while others have books and laptops

9. Can people with dyslexia learn to read?

Yes!

Many can, and will, learn to eye-read physical text successfully. But not all of them.

And, as we mentioned above, some people with dyslexia will learn to read without truly understanding the meaning of what they’re reading.

Overworked and tired female student working last at night on her laptop trying not to fall asleep in a studying for final year exam concept.

Or it may take an undiagnosed high school student with dyslexia many many hours to do homework every night because they have to spend so much time trying to comprehend what they’re reading.

These are kids who hide their struggles well but would benefit greatly from accommodations.

Multisensory intervention such as Orton-Gillingham, started as early as possible in a dyslexic learner’s life, can help them learn to functionally read, but even so, many people with dyslexia will benefit immensely from tools such as audiobooks, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, and more specialized reading and writing tools like Co:Writer and Snap&Read.

Snap&Read logo
Co:Writer logo blue

Many students with dyslexia who are reading below grade level can often comprehend text at or above grade level when listening to it read aloud with a reading accommodation. Screening tools like uPAR can determine if a learner will benefit from a read-aloud accommodation and by how much.

Shifting our definition of what “reading” is to include audiobooks, text-to-speech, and other technologies is far more inclusive and equitable!

10. Can dyslexia be cured?

No. People with dyslexia were born that way and will always be dyslexic.

However, it is occasionally possible for a child who has been diagnosed with dyslexia, with intervention, to be retested years later and drop the diagnosis. But this isn’t common and shouldn’t be the goal of intervention.

The goal should be to empower individuals with the right tools and accommodations so that they can thrive in whatever it is they set their mind to.

Students working on tablets

11. What about how to test for dyslexia?

Testing for dyslexia is done by educational psychologists, neurologists, and neuropsychologists.

Close-up of student with Dyslexia using colored overlays

You can request to have a child tested for dyslexia through your local public school system, but their capacity to do so varies by state.

This page from the International Dyslexia Association is a great resource about what to do when you suspect a child may have dyslexia.

Alternatively, private testing is available, though it can be costly.

12. How do I go about helping children with dyslexia?

  1. Get a diagnosis
    A diagnosis is key in gaining access to necessary accommodations and services available to people and students with dyslexia. It’s also useful in helping them understand how their brains work, and in identifying strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Early intervention
    Multisensory structured language (MSL) interventions such as Orton-Gillingham tutoring, started as early in a learner’s schooling as possible, is considered the gold standard when it comes to helping children with dyslexia learn to eye-read.
  3. Assistive technology
    Assistive technology, also known as inclusive technology or accommodations, can help a person with dyslexia perform academic, day-to-day, and work-related tasks.
  4. IEPs and 504s
    Individual Education Plans and 504 plans are two ways that schools support children with dyslexia— 504 plans lay out how the school will accommodate and support a student with disabilities, while an IEP outlines what special education services a student with a specific diagnosis will receive.
  5. Teach self-advocacy
    As dyslexia is a lifelong condition, it’s important to teach a child with dyslexia to advocate for themselves, including asking for help when they need it, asserting their right to use their technology, and requesting appropriate accommodations.

As an assistive technology company, Don Johnston Incorporated is committed to empowering people with dyslexia to live, learn and work in a society that wasn’t necessarily designed for the dyslexic brain. Snap&Read and Co:Writer are tools that were created specifically to assist with reading and writing. With specialized features like PDF annotation, finely-honed speech-to-text and text-to-speech, a screenshot reader, and a whole lot more, our hope is that these tools give people living with learning disabilities a path to success, however they define it.

See what Snap&Read and Co:Writer can do for people with dyslexia

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