by Olive Hickmott and Andrew Bendefy

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a type of reading difficulty that results from problems in acquiring literacy skills. Evidence suggests that it arises from differences in how the brain of a dyslexic person processes information compared with someone who does not have this difficulty. It is separate and distinct from reading difficulties resulting from other causes, such as deficiencies in intelligence, non-neurological deficiency with vision or hearing, or from inadequate reading instruction.

It is important to note that any diagnosis of dyslexia means, by definition, that the dyslexic person is of adequate intelligence. In fact, many people working in the field say that people with dyslexic tendencies are often of above-average intelligence with well-developed skills in other areas, such as creativity.

The term ‘dyslexia’ was coined in 1887 by Rudolf Berlin, an ophthalmologist practising in Stuttgart, Germany. As far back as 1896, Dr Pringle Morgan described dyslexia in the British Medical Journal as it is more or less defined today – ‘an inability to read occurring in an otherwise bright and developmentally normal child’.

Despite being known about for a long time, there are still no generally accepted diagnostic criteria and therefore no standard definition; and there is still no generally agreed causal mechanism. This gives rise to debate over how to treat the condition.

Some people have similar difficulties learning arithmetical skills and this is called dyscalculia. Dys_lexia literally means ‘difficulty with language’. Dys_calculia is ‘difficulty with numbers’. This topic focuses on dyslexia, but most of the information and techniques are equally valid for dyscalculia. A person can have both or either.

According to the British Dyslexia Association, around four per cent (approximately 2.5 million) of the population are severely dyslexic. A further six per cent (approximately 3.7 million) have mild or moderate problems.

The consequences

If children with dyslexia are not identified early, they can suffer frustration and low self-esteem. Due to their seeming inability to learn reading skills which ‘everyone’ can do, dyslexic children are often labelled ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ by their peers and, sadly, sometimes even their teachers and parents.

Without intervention, literacy problems can continue into adulthood, often impacting on job prospects and many other areas of life. Very often, individuals mistakenly believe they have a problem with their brain, or that it is genetic. While they often have other exceptional skills, they can be very ashamed of this challenge with words.

The belief the person may hold that they are stupid because they struggle with words is much more damaging than anything else. It is very common among those with spelling and reading difficulties and dramatically affects their self esteem in everything they do – presentations, meetings, communications and virtually any aspect of work. In a work environment, people with dyslexia often find that they cannot contribute to their potential where there is a lot of reading and writing to do. Consequently, they will often get drawn to jobs where they believe that there will be little need for literacy.

The people with dyslexia who are the most successful are those that don’t jump to the ‘stupid’ conclusion.

Dyslexic behaviour

If you think of dyslexia as something that people do because they have not yet learned to use their brain in a specific way, then you are starting to think along the right lines. This correctly classifies dyslexia as something people do rather than who people are. Dyslexia is a behaviour. And if it is something that a person does, they can learn new ways of doing things that are more successful in getting them what they want.

Among surprising facts about dyslexia, it’s worth noting that people can be

  • Dyslexic in one language and not in another
  • Dyslexic in lower case letters and not in upper case.

This supports the idea that a thinking behaviour is the basis of dyslexia, as opposed to some kind of physiological problem or mental malfunction.

Can it be cured?

If by this you mean ‘Can a person learn to use their brain differently so that they no longer have dyslexic symptoms?’ the answer is a resounding yes. People we have worked with certainly find themselves more in control of their symptoms or have eradicated them altogether.

There are several different approaches to treating dyslexia, and all have their success stories and staunch advocates. Each approach hypothesises the particular brain processes or functions that are underdeveloped and thus cause the dyslexia symptoms, and then provides exercises to develop these functions.

Our own experience, gained over many years, is that by far the quickest and simplest way to assist people with dyslexia is through an approach that trains them in specific visualisation skills. This is explained in detail within this topic.

I looked down at the page and saw nothing but a jungle of letters. I searched for the first word, something to grab on to, but there was nothing, just a mass of indecipherable, impossible letters. Everyone seemed to regard me as a sparky character at school, a cheeky wee boy with a twinkle in my eye, but, in that terrible moment, the thin veneer of confidence was stripped away.

Jackie Stewart, in Winning is not Enough