Current Affairs, Dyslexia, Television

The Dyslexia Myth: So What is Dyslexia?

The Dyslexia Myth used a very narrow meaning of dyslexia, focusing on the inability to read. If you use Google to define dyslexia it gives you more than twenty different definitions, most of which mention a difficulty with reading. The British Dyslexia Association offers the best definition:

Dyslexia is best described as a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process in one or more of reading, spelling and writing. Accompanying weaknesses may be identified in areas of speed of processing, short term memory, sequencing and organisation, auditory and/or visual perception, spoken language and motor skills. It is particularly related to mastering and using written language, which may include alphabetic, numeric and musical notation“.

The problem with these definitions is that have the wrong paradigm or assumptions. The emphasis of these definitions is on language, manifested by the ability to read, write and spell, and that this language skill is a little black box in the brain. The little black box works that does not work in dyslexics and therefore all the education system needs to do is fix it. This paradigm is the one that every academic featured in The Dyslexic Myth was using.

From my experience this is wrong. I’ve been able to read well all my adult life and with computers, passable spelling and writing was achievable. Yet since taking various training programmes and I am no longer dyslexic I’ve discovered a whole world that I was previously excluded from. Simple things like being able to remember directions, birthdays and names of famous people as well as improved personal relationships because I can now notice other people’s reactions and emotions. My dyslexia did not prevent me discovering these skills but the problems that caused my dyslexia also caused this shortfall in life skills.

Dyslexia is just a symptom of a deeper problem and this is where many tradition, educational treatment programmes have failed most dyslexics. If a man came into hospital covered in cuts and bruises from repeatedly falling over the hospital can treat the man’s wounds but unless they tackle why he is falling over his quality of life is going to be poor. Teaching a dyslexic child to read is just treating the cuts and bruises.

Part of the problem of why so many educators and parents fail to see to the root cause of the problem is because of how they imagine the brain. Firstly many people believe that the brain cannot change and this was accepted scientific dogma for many years. Secondly the brain was seen as a single, distinct entity just like the heart or liver. Thirdly the brain was seen as being different from the body. We talk of physical health and mental health as being completely separate.

All of these assumptions are wrong. Far from being some unchangeable lump of tissue the brain is amazingly plastic. Stroke victims can reprogram their brains to work around damaged areas. Brains can do this because they are a network of networks. Nuerons combine in the brain to form a network dealing with a specific memory or skill. These networks combine to form sub-systems such as short-term memory, audio processing and coordination. These networks and sub-systems are not confined to the brain. The nervous system connects the brain to the body and vice versa. Much of processing that we consider to part of the brain may in fact be done before the signals even reach the brain. For Example the retina in the eye chooses what to pay attention to without consulting then brain.

All of these network together form our conscious selves just as a transport network is made up of networks of train tracks, networks of international air routes and networks of roads. If any part of the network fails, a longer, slower route between two points can always be found. In dyslexia the auditory system is weak so the frontal lobes take over the work in decoding what has been said. This is slower and takes more effort but it works up to a point. That point being about three when child start to fully interact with adults, with children and with the written word.

Neuroscience is showing us that each of the different networks and sub-systems in our brain can develop at different rates. So a ten year olds’ memory skill may be at the level of an eight year old but his coordination may be that of a twelve year old. In dyslexics and ADD / ADHD sufferers many different sub-systems are underdeveloped. Once the dyslexic has fallen behind it is very difficult to keep up. Imaging a six year old being taught with eleven year olds. It doesn’t matter how bright the six year old is, the environment and teaching methods are aimed at the abilities of an eleven year old and the six year old will inevitably do badly in the lessons. This ability gap continues to grow. After a year, the eleven year olds have further developed their abilities so that they can progress to the next school year. The six year old though has been overwhelmed by the environment, the teachers expectations and the self-doubt that arises from repeated failure. In this environment their abilities haven’t had a chance to grow so now they are even further disadvantaged compared to their classmates.

This spiral of failure starts from birth but first really manifest itself at about two when a child becomes aware and mobile enough to play with other children of the same age. Social interaction, especially in children, is learning. So an underdeveloped child playing in a group of normally developed children will be disadvantaged. They will learn less than the other children just as the six year did in the classroom of eleven year olds. The differences between the children might be very small but once they start to fall behind the gap will inevitably widen unless the child receives suitable help.

The concept of the brain being made up of a number of sub-systems and that these are underdeveloped in dyslexic explains both the variety of symptoms dyslexics exhibit and the overlap with ADD / ADHD and some parts of the autistic spectrum. Which sub-systems are underdeveloped and to what degree will dictate if someone is classified as dyslexic, hyperactive or just be one those kids who just doesn’t perform well in school.

Defining which subsystems impact on learning difficulties is hard because everything in the brain is connected directly or indirectly to every other part. So what sub-systems exist and how they influence each is currently a subjective decision though neuroscience is slowly giving us more empirical data.

These are some of the areas or systems in the brain which may be failing a dyslexic person.

Eye Tracking – the ability to coordinate the movement of your eyes
Light Sensitivity – can the eyes work correctly in a normal range of light conditions
Noise Sensitivity – the ability to filter out unimportant visual stimulus
Field of Vision – how much of the visual field is being used

Volume Sensitivity – Are the ears over sensitive to sounds
Noise Sensitivity – Can the ears / brain pick out one sound in a noise environment
Sound Discrimination – the ability to differenitate between sounds, e.g the ‘th’ sound and the ‘f’ sound

Gross Motor Skills – large scale bodily movements
Fine Motor Skills – small movements of the fingers in sync with eye movements

Visual Sketch Pad – ability to hold and manipulate images in the mind
Phonological Loop – ability to hold sounds or music inside your head
Kinetic Imprint – the ability to feel a particular sensation or movement of the body without actually performing the action
Conscious Recall – the ability to deliberately recall a sound, an image or a sensation from ones long term memory

There where two ideas in The Dyslexia Myth that I very much agreed with. Firstly that reading problems / dyslexia is nothing to do with intelligence. The second is that a diagnosis of dyslexia tells you nothing useful that will help treat the child. We need a diagnosis procedure that identifies which of the above systems are underdeveloped and by how much. Only then can we develop treatments that tackle the underlying causes of dyslexia.