Dyslexia: Diagnosis or an Empty Word?

The term "dyslexia" has not only become widespred in the West; it is now recognized as the most common of all learning disabilities. And yet, many recent headlines proclaim that "dyslexia doesn't exist". Of course, one should always beware of such radical statements found online. But where does the truth lie?

Reading difficulties do exist. They are not a result of growing up in a poor family or having bad teachers; some kids are simply unable to read fluently due to neurobiological malfunctions in the brain. Unfortunately, this mechanism is very poorly understood. The symptoms, however, are well known to parents and teachers: a child reads very slowly, cannot connect letters into a word, tries to guess what is written, misspels badly, reverses letters (like p and q, or b and d) and even words; has trouble concentrating; is frequently late. And the strange thing is that often kids who are labelled dyslexic are otherwise very bright, have a good memory and excel at disciplines that do not involve reading or writing (more on the symptoms here).

A recent study by the MIT, however, may shed new light on the causes on dyslexia. Apparently, the issue is not in the reading function per se, but rather in the brain’s ability to adapt to repeated stimuli. When we encounter a word, an object, or a face for the first time, our neurons react strongly to it; but the more we see the same thing, the less effort it takes for the neurons to recognize it. In fact, we don’t have to put the letters together when we read – we just recognize words instantly. Well, the brain of a dyslexic apparently cannot do that: every time is like the first time, thus reading becomes slow and hard. It is a common misconception that a kid can eventually outgrown dyslexia: unfortunately, it will never go away.

So what should we do with dyslexic kids?

At present, it takes a long time for a child to be officially recognized as dyslexic and to receive all the support that the authorities provide in such cases (special school assistants, tablets, and so on). Some parents are energetic and informed enough to see this process through, but others aren’t; thus, only part of kids with reading difficulties actually receive the aid they need. And here is the root of the “Dyslexia doesn’t exist” headlines. Professor Julian Elliott from Durham University (UK) suggests that the whole process of labelling and then helping is wrong. According to Elliott, the term “dyslexia” has no value by itself. Instead of spending months to determine if each individual kid is dyslexic or not, Elliott suggests to introduce a general system of early testing kids’ reading abilitites and then helping all those with difficulties in the same way (more on the debate here). Very efficient techniques have already been developed; and the earlier you “catch” dyslexic kids, the better the result.

Once again: dyslexic people are not stupid (after all, Quentin Tarantino is dyslexic, and so was John Lennon), but they do have a neurobiological issue. The condition can be helped if treated very early, but it can never be cured – such a person will always be a slow reader. However, bad spelling does not a dyslexic make: many people with completely normal brains cannot spell properly simply because they don’t read enough. Our adivce? As with many health-related issues, take what you read online critically and don’t believe catchy headlines.

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