I talk to a lot of parents who are confused by their kids’ learning struggles. It is vital to understand that dyslexia is a complex diagnosis that affects more than reading, writing, and spelling.

dyslexia diagnosis

If you’re new to the world of kids who struggle to learn – WELCOME!

This post will be the first in a series of articles where you will learn not only what the research says about dyslexia but also what practical things you need to know as a parent or teacher of kids with dyslexia.

What is Dyslexia?

Do people with dyslexia see things backward?

Are people who struggle to read being lazy?

Are struggling readers simply late bloomers?

There are a lot of ideas about dyslexia that are based on appearances rather than on the vast amounts of research that have been done on what is the most common learning struggle. (It is estimated that 1 in 5 people are dyslexic.)

People who have dyslexia have a unique brain wiring that makes learning the details of language difficult. This includes reading, spelling, and writing. Many people with dyslexia are excellent communicators and even writers. The problem lies in the details of the language. People with dyslexia tend to be big picture thinkers who struggle with the details of the written word.

Processing delays

Dyslexia is not caused by poor eyesight or a lack of intelligence as it may appear at first glance. It is actually the result of a difference in the way the brain processes information. Functional MRIs show that while reading, information goes into the eyes and through the optic nerve to the brain for processing. Once the neural impulse enters the brain of someone with dyslexia, rather than heading directly to the reading center of the brain, the impulse takes a much more convoluted route. This detour results in what is commonly referred to as a processing delay. The processing of written information is delayed – kind of like hitting a traffic jam on the highway.

Interestingly, this unique brain wiring affects other areas of life and learning as well.

Look at this list of signs of dyslexia and see how many of these signs are unrelated to reading, writing, and spelling.

Signs of Dyslexia in Young Children

  • Trouble with concepts of time
  • Unable to follow 2 or 3-step directions
  • Learning to talk later than other children their age
  • Difficulty learning the names of shapes and colors
  • Difficulty learning letter names and sounds
  • Reversal of syllables and phonemes (letter sounds) within a word
  • Unable to recognize or produce rhymes
  • Early stuttering
  • Cannot sequence rote memory concepts such as days of the week, months of the year, alphabet, and numbers
  • Trouble recognizing letters in words or even their names
  • Delays with fine motor skills like tying shoes, coloring, and writing

Signs of Dyslexia In Elementary School

  • Does not enjoy reading but likes being read to
  • Slow, inaccurate reading
  • Uses context clues rather than sounding words out
  • Skips or misreads little words (at, to, of)
  • Poor spelling – very phonetic
  • Trouble telling time on a clock with hands
  • Difficulty expressing self
  • Inattentiveness, distractibility
  • Slow and messy handwriting – also called dysgraphia
  • Letter and number reversals after first grade
  • Trouble memorizing math facts
  • Hesitant speech; difficulty finding the right words to express self
  • Extremely messy bedroom, backpack or desk
  • Dreads going to school

Signs of Dyslexia In Adolescence and Adulthood

All of the above signs plus:

  • Difficulty processing auditory information
  • Losing possessions; poor organizational skills – also referred to as executive function
  • Slow reading; low comprehension
  • Difficulty remembering the names of people and places
  • Difficulty organizing ideas to write a paper
  • Difficulty reading music
  • Unable to master a foreign language
  • Inability to recall numbers in proper sequence
  • Lowered self-esteem due to past frustrations and failure
  • May drop out of high school

As you can see from the list above, people with dyslexia can also struggle with rote memory, handwriting, math, processing auditory information, organization, and focus.

Dyslexia: A Complex Diagnosis

Sometimes when I refer to dyslexia, I talk about dyslexia’s cousins. It is not uncommon for kids with dyslexia to also have related diagnoses of dysgraphia (trouble with handwriting), dyscalculia (trouble with math), and/or ADHD (focus and attention deficits).

Scientists have a hard time teasing out the differences between these varied diagnoses or knowing exactly how they are related. It is important, however, to know that it is possible, even likely, your child will have trouble in areas besides reading, writing, and spelling as well.

How is Dyslexia Diagnosed?

There is no one specific test for dyslexia. A diagnosis of dyslexia is obtained by piecing together information from different subtests of standardized tests along with information gathered from less formal assessments. This is why it is so important to find an experienced and knowledgeable tester that is familiar with dyslexia so that the testing is accurate and useful.

A series of tests are usually chosen based on the specific struggles the child is experiencing. Areas tested include IQ, language abilities, academic achievement in specific areas, expressive oral language, expressive written language, receptive oral language, receptive written language, intellectual functioning, cognitive processing, and educational achievement.

The reason that an IQ test is administered is to determine if there is a gap between what your child is capable of and what he’s actually achieving. This is a telltale sign of dyslexia. People with dyslexia struggle with certain types of learning despite having average to above-average intelligence.

What Causes Dyslexia?

First of all, it is important to know that dyslexia is genetic. It is an inherited gene or genes. More than that though are the underlying weaknesses that contribute to dyslexia; processing delays, working memory weaknesses, and executive function weaknesses.

Processing Delays

I mentioned earlier the idea of how the unique brain wiring of a dyslexic learner causes a delay or a lag in the processing of information. This processing delay can be either visual as in the example above, or auditory. Many times people with dyslexia are diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder. This limited diagnosis is usually given by someone who is unfamiliar with the breadth of dyslexia. But the bottom line is that people with auditory processing disorders or lags will struggle with reading, writing, spelling, and a variety of other areas as listed above.

You can read a list of other diagnoses that could be dyslexia here.

Learn more about auditory processing weakness here.

Learn more about the visual processing weakness here.

Working Memory Weakness

Working memory plays a major role in how we process, use, and remember information on a daily basis. Remembering a phone number, recalling directions, remembering how to use grammar or spell, writing an essay, and applying mathematical formulas are all mental tasks that use working memory.

It’s keeping in mind anything you need to keep in mind while you’re doing something.” Whereas long-term memories stay with us even when we’re not thinking of them, working memory is an active process — a mental scratchpad where we hold and process information we need to access to complete a particular mental task.

Everyone struggles with the limits of working memory sometimes — forgetting an item from a shopping list, or drawing a blank when you’re trying to remember the rules of a new game.

But for kids with actual learning disabilities, working memory is often a more significant problem.

Kids with learning struggles often overload their working memory capacity because they are adjusting for the additional difficulties that come with their particular learning disability — like dyslexia, or processing issues.

Because they need to consciously break down and perform processes that other kids do automatically, a large amount of their “cognitive workspace” is occupied.

For example:
• If a child has auditory processing issues, she has to work much harder to listen, recall, and apply what’s being said in class.
• A child with dyslexia has to actively work to accurately interpret sounds and letter patterns in words while remembering each word read previously.

This extra work means more clutter on the “table,” which leaves less space for new information and often translates to a slower processing speed overall.

Learn more about working memory and how to help kids with working memory weakness in this post.

Weak Executive Function Skills

Executive Function refers to the set of mental skills that help people plan, organize, remember things, prioritize, pay attention, and get started on tasks. They also help people use information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.

These skills help us to:

  • remember the information we need to complete a task
  • filter distractions
  • resist inappropriate or non-productive impulses
  • sustain attention during a particular activity.
  • set goals and plan ways to meet them
  • assess our progress along the way
  • adjust the plan if necessary, while managing frustration so we don’t act on it

As you can imagine (and may be experiencing now) these types of executive function weaknesses can have a big impact on learning.

Learn more about executive function and how to help kids who have executive function weaknesses here.

OK, that was a lot of information!

Understanding that dyslexia is a complex diagnosis is important for us as parents and teachers to better understand what’s going on behind the outward behaviors we are seeing in our kids.

Difficulty remembering math facts, struggling to organize thoughts for a paper, being easily frustrated – these are all common and to be expected in kids with the unique dyslexic brain wiring.

This post is the first in a series of articles on understanding the basics of learning difficulties and how to understand and help the kids in our lives who have them.

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