Outsmarting Dyslexia

A Different Way of Thinking

child looking up

To help a child who may have dyslexia, parents might first have to set aside some preconceived notions about the disorder. "Dyslexia is one of those problems that many people think they know a lot about, but their ideas are often based on notions that are no longer valid," says Sally Shaywitz, M.D., codirector of The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity with her husband, Bennett Shaywitz, M.D. For instance, everyone's heard that kids with dyslexia see letters in mirror image and confuse "b" and "d" -- even though studies disproved this in the late 1990s. And people often think it's a problem mostly for boys. In fact, girls are just as likely to have dyslexia, even though boys are diagnosed three or four times more often. (Boys may be more likely to act up in class and thus be scrutinized for "problems.")

People with dyslexia actually view text the same way others do, but they have trouble activating the parts of the brain that retrieve the sounds in spoken words and synthesize letters and sounds. This difficulty processing language begins even before a child reaches reading age. When most toddlers hear a nursery rhyme like "Hey, Diddle Diddle," they enjoy the repetition of sounds and may try to mimic them and come up with their own rendition. But when a child born with dyslexia listens to rhymes, she may not perceive the sound patterns at all. By kindergarten, the same children who picked up on rhymes will be able to pull apart the sounds in spoken words, known as phonemes, and match each to a letter. Soon, they'll see a word like cat, and realize it can be decoded by breaking it into sounds ("k," "aaaa," and "t"). A dyslexic classmate will struggle to associate letters with sounds, much less be able to blend them together to read words.

Scientists have proven that dyslexia is a real brain disorder by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a scanning device that shows where blood flows through a person's brain. When skilled readers look at words projected on a video screen, the left side of the back of their brain -- the area where words' letters, sounds, and meanings are integrated and rapidly recalled -- is bright with activity. But in fMRIs of people with dyslexia, these typical reading circuits are mostly dark and other areas are activated. The fact that people who have dyslexia use alternative pathways on both sides of the brain in order to read may explain why they're often also creative, out-of-the-box thinkers even though they struggle with some language-based tasks, says Dr. Wolf. "Their brain has the ability to look at problems in a different way."

Brain scans have also shown that when children with dyslexia start receiving specialized instruction by age 6 or 7, they are able to activate the part of their brain that helps them read words more accurately, says Dr. Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia. This allows them to read the same books as their classmates, although they may always need more time to finish. While current programs can help a child become a more accurate and comfortable reader, they can't "cure" his dyslexia.

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