Dyslexia and the Neurodiverse Brain

Carolina Gonzalez
Sep 29, 2021 · 8 min read

“The brain can reveal a problem before it is seen in behaviour ” — Richard Aslin, Research scientist from Haskins Laboratories

The area of study surrounding dyslexia has been my passion and greatest interest since I began my career in education over 15 years ago.

Anyone working in a classroom has surely wondered, or has consulted with a parent on whether a student should be assessed for dyslexia. As a learning specialist, I have listened to educators, parents and students talk about dyslexia, but no one seems to refer to it in the same way. I have heard of terms such as auditory dyslexia, visual dyslexia, mild and severe dyslexia.

But what exactly is dyslexia?

You would think that since this term is so common, all educators would have a complete understanding of what it is, how to identify it, and how to properly work with students who struggle with the decoding process when reading. This is far from the reality.

Even with scientific research, it is extremely difficult to sort out the causes, consequences, and coincidental associations of dyslexia. My intention in writing this article is to get you thinking about how reading difficulties are far from simple, and that because of this, there is not one simple “recipe” that will help all children in the same way. Each child is uniquely different, but especially when it comes to learning. Truly understanding and observing each particular learner in depth will help with remediation.

It is also important to mention that this individual analysis needs to consider not only the cognitive skills and processes involved, but also emotional, social, and family dynamics. Yes! Observing the child during recess, seeing who they play with, learning about their interests, getting to know who takes care of the child at home, what they do on the weekends, etc. all help to paint a complete picture of the child.

In this article, we’ll examine the neurodiverse dyslexic brain and take a look at the various factors and impacts of dyslexia such as: dyslexia in different languages, social-emotional impacts on dyslexia, and neuromotor performance in relation to dyslexia.

Multifactorial Model for Dyslexia

Modern research on this word recognition deficit (dyslexia) started in the 1970s with studies done by Morgan, Hinshelwood and Orton. At this time, it was believed that the visual system confused letters and caused the reader to struggle with the process. So much progress has taken place since then, and new information reveals that dyslexia is much more complex than simply an issue related to vision.

In episode 18 of the Research Education ADvocacy podcast by the Winward Institute, leading researcher Hugh W. Catts presents the model that “multiple factors interact to create the probability that you are going to have difficulty learning to read” in contrast to a “single deficit notion” that puts emphasis on a primary and underlying cause for children with difficulties learning to read. This is by far the most comprehensive and complete approach to dyslexia that I have discovered in the last years.

Dr. Catts states that “the primary characteristic of dyslexia is a severe and prolonged problem with word reading.” He denotes that several genetic/biological/neurological/environmental potential factors contribute to increasing the probability of dyslexia, such as:

  • Difficulties with phonological basis of language: being aware of, storing and retrieving sound based aspects of language
  • Oral language delays involving vocabulary and grammar (not severe enough to be diagnosed with a developmental language disorder)
  • Visual problems (visual attention, visual crowding)
  • Attention deficit disorder
  • Motion Sensitivity
  • Trauma, stress
  • Family history with dyslexia

*Learners with dyslexia can present some or all of the factors above.

The combination of these factors and “protective factors”, such as family and teacher support, high quality reading instruction and individual adaptive and coping strategies (perseverance and passion), determines the severity of dyslexia.

“The Gift of Dyslexia”

After working with students with learning difficulties, I have clearly seen how creative abilities in other areas soar. Ronald D. Davis mentions 8 main characteristics in his book The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can’t Read and How They Can Learn:

  1. They can utilize the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions (the primary ability)
  2. They are highly aware of the environment
  3. They are more curious than average
  4. They think mainly in pictures instead of words
  5. They are highly intuitive and insightful
  6. They think and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all the senses)
  7. They can experience thought as reality

There are many famous individuals such as actors, musicians, and entrepreneurs who have been diagnosed with dyslexia. One person who exemplifies the 8 characteristics above is dyslexic entrepreneur Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA. Ingvar grew up on a small farm in Sweden and found it hard to concentrate in school. When his business started, most of the products were identified with a set of numbers. Remembering the numerical codes in sequence was a struggle for Ingvar as sequencing skills seem to be a common difficulty for people with dyslexia. Instead, he came up with a naming system to identify pieces of furniture by their nature and origin allowing him to visualize and remember every item in his stock. Now, when you see names like Björnholmen, Hultö and Klubbo, you will know The History Behind the Names of IKEA’s Products.

The Neurodiverse Dyslexic Brain

Modern brain research studies show that the brain of a dyslexic person is subtly different from the neurotypical (normal) reader.

In episode 23 of the Research Education ADvocacy podcast, cognitive neuroscientist Fumiko Hoeft explains that there are fundamental neurobiological differences in brain development between one person and another; such differences are the cause of strengths and weaknesses in abilities. Learning to read is no exception: there are neurobiological differences in the phonological and orthographic parts of the brain that make it more challenging for learners with dyslexia to read.

Generally speaking, disorganization in the left temporal lobe is the prime suspect in the origins of dyslexia. Cognitive neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene states that “brain imaging supports the claim that the crux of the problem often lies at the interface between vision and speech, inside the web of connection found in the left temporal lobe.” Brain activity is much greater than normal in the right temporo-parietal region for people with dyslexia.

Dyslexia in Different Languages

Another complexity of dyslexia is that it will present itself differently according to the language. In all countries, the same proportions of children have the same genetic predisposition to dyslexia, but its symptoms truly appear only in some cultures.

Narda PitKethly, creator of the Nardagini Reading program, explains how complex it is learning to read in English. Out of the 26 letters of the alphabet:

  • 12 letters make only one sound
  • 14 letters make multiple sounds (e.g. “c” : cat- face -ocean)
  • 17 letters can sometimes be silent (e.g. doubt, sign, island, who)

Spanish, on the other hand, has transparent spelling. Every letter maps onto a single phoneme (sound), with practically no exceptions. Dyslexia is less of a problem for Spanish speakers, although still challenging for learners.

Eraldo Paulesu and colleagues from the University of Milan made the observation that dyslexia is hardly ever diagnosed in Italy, and seems to be less frequent in France than in Britain or the United States. Both languages have a more phonologically-transparent orthography than English.

Further, written Chinese maps graphic forms onto meanings. In elementary school, Chinese pupils are expected to learn about 2,500 characters which are used most frequently. Apparently Chinese dyslexics suffer from a very different impairment. It is possible that Chinese readers rely on motor memory of how strokes are drawn. Chinese dyslexics seem to have a visuospatial deficit and a phonological disorder combined.

Stanislas Dehaene concludes that “phonological impairments are predominant in dyslexics who are taught an alphabetic writing system, while a form of ‘graphomotor’ dyslexia may prevail in Asian writing systems-even if the two subtypes exist in all countries.”

Social- emotional impact in Dyslexia

Over the years, I have also witnessed how each student with dyslexia has such diverse cognitive abilities, as well as social-emotional factors that contribute positively or negatively towards their development.

The new neuroscience of dyslexia considers a more integrative approach that looks at the individual as a whole. Recent brain research studies how internal and external factors interact and impact the development of dyslexia. Fumiko Hoeft has done extensive research on Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Resilience in Children with Dyslexia. He mentions a series of protective factors that support a positive outcome in students with dyslexia:

  • Internal factors: growth mindset, hopeful thinking, focus of control, sense of coherence, self-determination
  • External factors: family cohesion, maternal affect, strong parental relationships and attachment, parental support and understanding of the child’s reading difficulty, peer relationships, mentorship, teacher support, small class-size

Neuromotor Performance and Dyslexia

Several researchers, such as psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe and biologist and educator Carla Hannaford, have dedicated their studies to observe children’s sensory and motor development in the first 7 years of life. They concluded that immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system (missing a stage of development in these first seven years), will have an impact on the child’s academic growth.

This is the field of work I have personally chosen to explore, and the approach that I use for therapeutic intervention with children with learning difficulties. While working in the school setting, my colleague Sofia and I would dedicate time each day to observe the kindergarten and pre-first students. By carefully observing their movements and drawings, it was quite evident which children were going to struggle with reading, writing or math. Closely looking into gross motor coordination and balance, and patterns of motor development (both laterality and with hand-eye coordination) often give clear indications as to what a student’s future learning journey might look like.

A therapeutic approach that considers these fundamental aspects of development supports the idea that if children can move without thinking or worrying about their bodily and sensory functions (“Body Free Thinking”), they can easily absorb new information coming from the world around them.

As laid out above, dyslexia is a complex topic that goes beyond just a problem with reading words on a page.

Reading acquisition requires a learner to understand that words are made up of sounds, and each sound is represented in a written form. In this apparently simple process, an enormous amount of factors are involved. Because of this, I believe the true answer to the question of “what is dyslexia?” relies on professionals interacting together. Educators, language therapists, neuroscientists, and phycologists all have an important role in determining the answer to this question. Such diversity in postures and research makes it clear that dyslexia cannot be easily reduced to a single-well defined cause, and every child with dyslexia is as different as the “neurotypical” learner.

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