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Dyslexia

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that causes difficulties with word recognition, spelling, and reading comprehension. Dyslexia is classified as a neurodevelopmental condition and is closely related to other learning disabilities like dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and dysgraphia. It affects learning ability in people of normal and above-average intelligence.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of dyslexia most often appear in childhood but can also occur in adults. Although everyone with dyslexia reads at lower-than-average levels for their age, symptoms vary from one person to another. The most common symptoms are:

  • Difficulties or delays in learning the alphabet, learning to speak, learning to read, or learning to spell
  • Difficulty distinguishing the order of letters in a word; individuals with dyslexia may, for example, reverse two letters in a word without realizing it
  • Misreading one letter for another; common examples include b for d, p for q, and u for n
  • Challenges with pronunciation, especially of longer words
  • Difficulty recognizing “sight words” like it, the, or and
  • Apparent struggles to distinguish the sound of one word from another
  • Difficulty recalling sequences of letters, numbers, or words

On a broader level, children and adults with dyslexia may also find it more difficult to summarize stories; memorize words or phrases; understand idioms, jokes, or other forms of word-play; or learn a second language. (If no other symptoms are present, difficulty learning a second language is not in itself indicative of dyslexia.)

Because the disorder is neurodevelopmental, individuals with dyslexia may also reach common developmental milestones—like crawling, walking, and talking—later than peers. As they grow older, many children and adults with dyslexia have problems distinguishing left from right or participating in activities that involve coordination—especially high levels of hand-eye coordination, such as tennis—or have issues with concentration and focus. There is also an association between dyslexia and autoimmune-related conditions such as asthma, allergies, and eczema.

Because reading is challenging and may make them feel like they’re “failing,” children and adults with dyslexia may also become anxious or upset at the prospect of reading, or make an effort to avoid activities that require it. They may also struggle with low self-esteem; this can persist from childhood into adulthood, especially if their disability goes undiagnosed or they are mislabeled as “lazy” or “slow.” Accurate diagnosis, by contrast, combined with age-appropriate explanations of dyslexia, can help restore children’s and adults’ self-esteem and allow them to identify strategies that work best for their particular challenges.

How common is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is thought to be the most common of all the learning disabilities. Estimates of its prevalence range from as low as 5 percent of the population to as high as 17 percent, depending on the criteria used.

Is dyslexia related to intelligence?

Dyslexia can occur in individuals of any IQ and is not a sign of low intelligence; indeed, many individuals with high IQs live with dyslexia. Because reading well is often considered fundamental to academic success, however, many people with dyslexia may mistakenly believe that they are unintelligent.

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Causes

Experts do not yet know exactly why some children develop dyslexia, but since the condition often runs in families, researchers believe there may be a genetic component. Imaging studies have found that the brains of children with dyslexia develop and work differently than the brains of children who do not have dyslexia. Those with dyslexia have phonological deficits, making it difficult to distinguish the sounds of individual letters and letter patterns in similar words, such as "bat," "ban," and "bag."

It is also possible for a previously literate adult to acquire dyslexia as a result of a stroke, brain injury, or other traumatic event. Someone with acquired dyslexia, or alexia, loses the ability to read due to damage in the rear part of the left hemisphere of their brain and can have problems identifying individual letters and numbers.

Is dyslexia genetic?

Experts believe that dyslexia has a strong hereditary component, and research has identified specific genes that may predispose someone to develop dyslexia. But the exact causal pathway of dyslexia is not fully understood, and having a parent or sibling with dyslexia does not automatically mean that a child will be dyslexic.

Can dyslexia develop suddenly?

Most cases of dyslexia are developmental, meaning the disorder was present from early childhood. In rare cases, however, someone may develop symptoms of dyslexia later in life due to a brain injury, stroke, or dementia. This form of dyslexia is referred to as “acquired dyslexia” or sometimes “alexia.” Developmental dyslexia and alexia typically call for different diagnostic and treatment approaches. 

Treatment

Dyslexia cannot be cured, but in most cases, it can be managed with compensatory techniques. With children, it is important to recognize symptoms and start taking remedial steps as early as possible. A formal evaluation is necessary to uncover specific deficit areas in reading and writing, which vary from child to child. There are also brain-based and environmental differences in children with dyslexia that make it easier for some to learn than it is for others. Children with dyslexia are usually taught by educators who use methods modified to meet individual needs. Family support can help improve a child's self-image and prospects for success. Similar individual evaluations and reading interventions are necessary for adults with acquired dyslexia.

What is the best treatment for dyslexia?

Dyslexia is usually treated with educational approaches specifically designed for the condition. These often include phonics instruction, which helps children become more familiar with letters and the sounds they make, and multimodal instruction that allow children to make use of all their senses as they read—listening to a story aloud while following along, for instance, or tracing the shape of letters while practicing their sounds. Specific programs designed for dyslexia, such as Orton-Gillingham or Lindamood-Bell, may also be recommended by a trained reading specialist or educational psychologist. Children with dyslexia also benefit immensely from the same kinds of reading and writing practice that help neurotypical children learn; they may just need more of it or need to move at a slower pace than their classmates.

Is medication helpful for dyslexia?

There is no medication specifically recommended to treat dyslexia or that will help with its symptoms. However, children with comorbid mental health conditions, like depression or ADHD, may benefit from medication; treating those conditions, in turn, may help them focus more effectively on reading and writing. 

References
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Dyslexia Information Page. Accessed September 6, 2017.
International Dyslexia Association website. Accessed September 6, 2017.
Watter K, Copley A, Fitch E. Discourse level reading comprehension interventions following acquired brain injury: A systematic review. Disability and rehabilitation. Published online February 18, 2016.  
Starrfelt R. Alexia: What happens when a brain injury makes you forget how to read. The Conversation. University of Copenhagen, Department of Psychology. July 14, 2015.
Last updated: 08/24/2021