(Re)Defining Dyslexia

1310845577_cc84a596dfIn a recent New York Times op-ed, Defining My Dyslexia, physician and author Blake Charlton explores some of the emerging research and trends related to dyslexia while also sharing his own story about his struggles growing up a dyslexic. At the heart of his piece is the growing understanding that along with the challenges associated with dyslexia, are a collection of cognitive strengths that are too often under appreciated. He writes,

Last month, at the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation Conference on Dyslexia and Talent, I watched several neurobiologists present evidence that the dyslexic brain, which processes information in a unique way, may impart particular strengths. Studies using cognitive testing and functional M.R.I.’s have demonstrated exceptional three-dimensional and spatial reasoning among dyslexic individuals, which may account for the many successful dyslexic engineers. Similar studies have shown increased creativity and big-picture thinking (or “gist-detection”) in dyslexics, which correlates with the surprising number of dyslexic entrepreneurs, novelists and filmmakers.

The conference’s organizers made a strong case that the successes of the attending dyslexic luminaries — who ranged from a Pulitzer-winning poet to a MacArthur grant-winning paleontologist to an entrepreneur who pays a dozen times my student loans in taxes every year — had been achieved “not despite, but because of dyslexia.”

It is a powerful message for everyone, especially students struggling to understand their dyslexia within the context of a world that sees their differences as deficits. He goes on to illuminate this point,

Today’s educational environment exacerbates dyslexic weaknesses. Schools misidentify poor spelling and slow reading as a lack of intelligence; typically diagnose the condition only after students have fallen behind; and too often fail to provide dyslexic students with the audio and video materials that would help them learn. Until these disadvantages are removed, “disability” most accurately describes what young dyslexics confront.

This heartbreaking reality further demonstrates what many of us already know: we must design educational spaces and experiences not to just accomodate, ahem, all kinds of minds but to intentionally leverage the mosaic of strengths that such diversity brings to the table. There’s a considerable difference between tolerating diversity and embracing it. Perhaps a good place to start is in how we define and diagnose such “disabilities” as dyslexia. To this point, Charlton concludes,

A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well. If the dyslexic community could popularize such a definition, then newly diagnosed dyslexics would realize that they, like everyone else, will face their futures with a range of strengths and weaknesses.

We could not agree more.

Photo Credit: The Nikon Guru via Compfight cc

4 thoughts on “(Re)Defining Dyslexia

  1. It is great to read about the success stories, but more important are those kids who are placed in the back of the classroom, not believing in themselves because no one else does. The successful kids who learned to accept that they learn differently, and thrived need to reach back and help those left behind. We need to educate the so called educators, the parents and the kid.

  2. It is really great to hear stories like this that will inspire dyslexics. I am a mother of a dyslexic here in the Philippines. My daughter is entering college this year and it was sad during our course since 2004 when she was diagnose with the disability mainly schools here are very vehement in accepting dyslexic students. I am thankful that through hard work we able to find school that have help my daughter make the journey more pleasant.

  3. My 13 year old son was diagnosed 3 weeks ago. his school has embraced him fully and provided a scribe and exam reader for him these exams past. what a pleasure to study knowing someone would write the word for you, you just needed to be able to know and say it. All his marks have already gone up by 10% and one of his languages went up 20%. I am so proud of him! It can only get better as he gets used to this way of writing exams.
    There is something in my son that has always intrigued me, he is absolutely brilliant with computers. Ever since 9 years when he got his own. He seems to understand the language of it/ programing; developing and munipulating it to do what you want it to do, hacking (which we must be careful of). It is almost scary. Is this something to do with Dyslexia perhaps?

  4. In parts of Australia (I’m in NSW) we’re only just now embracing the use of the term ‘dyslexia’. It’s probably a good thing – re-appropriating the term for our professional use, instead of giving the snake-oil merchants and tabloid press free reign. But I do wonder about it. We’ve operated on functional assessment so far – what can the child do now? where does he/she need to go next? what strengths will allow us to scaffold to a challenge? and what environmental and inherent issues may throw up barriers to progress?

    When I was principal of a specialist facility for primary (elementary) students experiencing complex and non-responsive difficulties in reading, we didn’t use the term. We had access to intensive educational, medical and allied health assessment tools (and personnel), used a wrap-around model of collaboration and planning, and provided on-going support to the student’s school and family in meeting the student’s learning support needs.

    What I did see was evidence of the common (and understandable) expectation that with diagnosis came cure – ‘if we can name it, we must know everything about it’. I think now that it derives from our collective experiences of problem solving generally, and a desire for there to be some expert out there who’s all over this thing and will solve it for us.

    I do fear that the popular reportage on dyslexia (and I include this excellent AKOM blog) still tends to focus on an intelligence-based view. A pre-occupation with the brilliant people who can’t read – the hyper-successful types in commerce and entertainment who have made a million bucks and would have found a cure for ageing had they known their ABCs – tends to predominate still. It’s just what sells, I guess. In the dyslexia courses I now run for teachers, the most often-chosen forum response topic is ‘Famous Dyslexics’. Is it right to sell all dyslexic kids on the idea that they, too, can be a Richard Branson or a Keira Knightley, when we know that this is indeed far from the true picture? Even in your ‘land of opportunity’ I think there are laws against false advertising!

    OK, that was a little harsh. I guess the point I’m making, badly, is that every student (struggling or not) is unique and each of them will have a different trajectory that may or may not fit a pre-conceived mould. I’d much rather equip students with (teach them?) the skills of personal resilience, positive assertion in navigating the school environment, and a growing repertoire of ways to make their own ‘accommodations and adjustments’ going forward, than I would like to hype them on only the possibilities (good as they are in themselves).

    What our understandings of the definition(s) of dyslexia bring, what our knowledge of typical challenges equips us to do as teachers and parents, risks being outweighed by the restricted vision that a definition and a set of expectations may bring. Until every school has it’s own fMRI machine or someone invents a dyslexia blood test, lets remain eyes-wide-open to the confounding, complex and fascinating array of challenges and opportunities that being dyslexic, and supporting a dyslexic person, can bring. Let’s remain ‘functional’ in our outlook.


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