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.
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.
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.
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.
Because children and adults with dyslexia may reverse letters in a word or have trouble recognizing words by sight, some parents and teachers may come to believe they have a vision problem. But dyslexia is not caused by poor vision; rather, it is a brain-based neurological disorder that affects language processing. Thus, getting glasses or otherwise targeting vision will not be an effective treatment. Children with dyslexia can also have poor vision, however.
Yes, it is possible for someone to be diagnosed with more than one learning disability, which can be uncovered through a comprehensive evaluation. When learning disabilities co-occur, it’s important to treat each condition separately, experts emphasize, because treatments that are beneficial for one may have little to no effect on another.
Yes, it is possible (and common) for ADHD and dyslexia to co-occur; experts estimate that up to half of children with ADHD may have a comorbid learning disability. In cases where the disorders are comorbid to one another, the symptoms of one condition can exacerbate symptoms of the other. However, symptoms such as becoming distracted while reading may be indicative of either ADHD or dyslexia, but do not necessarily mean that both disorders are present. Thus, a thorough neuropsychological evaluation is often necessary to tease the two conditions apart.
Dyslexia is usually considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as long as individuals can provide evidence that it significantly hinders academic or workplace functioning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If a child has both ADHD and dyslexia, ADHD medications such as Adderall or Ritalin can help manage ADHD symptoms, which may help a child focus better and be less distractible while reading. However, ADHD medications will not treat the underlying causes or symptoms of dyslexia.
Because dyslexia is typically considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), children with dyslexia are usually able to secure an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, which includes accommodations that help them catch up to their peers or perform better in the classroom. While the specific accommodations recommended tend to depend on the severity of the child’s condition and their specific symptoms, common examples include the use of audiobooks, extra time on tests, or the option to dictate answers instead of writing them. Parents and school administrators typically collaborate to determine which accommodations will be most useful for a child.
Absolutely. Many individuals who were diagnosed with dyslexia in adulthood or who did not receive adequate treatment in childhood mistakenly believe that it’s “too late” for them. But while it's true that early intervention tends to be more effective, evidence strongly suggests that improvement can happen at any age. Seeking out a diagnosis and enrolling in programs designed to strengthen reading and writing skills can both greatly improve adults’ self-esteem and help them tackle their most problematic symptoms.
Because dyslexia is generally considered a disability, adults with dyslexia may be able to request workplace accommodations for the condition. Common helpful approaches include the use of assistive technologies like text-to-speech software, replacing written directions with oral ones, or having long documents summarized for faster interpretation.
There is no cure for dyslexia, and management of the disorder is a lifelong endeavor. However, evidence-based intervention and accommodations, initiated as early as possible, can allow individuals with dyslexia to adapt to their challenges and succeed at work or in life.