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Dyslexic Mind - The Undiscovered Potential

Vaishnavi Bhat, Research associate, Prayoga, Bengaluru - vaishnavi.bhat@prayoga.org.in

 

Take a moment to read the following sentences:

A peecoc is a vary beautifool berd. Iitt haz a varry llonng tale. Dhe tale is colurful weeth manee faathherrs of differrrentt and wiberreant shades of gerreem andd bloo. An innduvijual feather is long weath a rronnd shapped dising in te middl.


Did it take you some time to read it? Were you able to understand what it was about?


This is what reading looks like for a dyslexic person.


Dyslexic children know that they have to do a certain thing in a specific way but they are just unable to, and being unable to perform makes things worse. It feels like being in a known territory of fear. In a general sense, all of us would have felt this way in some way or the other. Imagine a 6 or 7-year-old you experiencing this fear every time you are asked to read a story or a book. Added to that fear is a sense of inadequacy because your peers seem to be reading or writing effortlessly. At this point, the plethora of self-uncertainty raises questions like - ‘What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just read like everyone else? Why doesn't this make sense to me? Why do I have put in so much effort?’. And my personal favourite - ‘Is everyone else faking it?’

It further puts them down, when these questions are posed back at them. One such being- ‘Why aren’t you focusing?’


Let us rewind a little bit and go back to the time when the textual form of communication started. Earlier societies were largely based on apprentice models, from hunters-gatherers to trades in recent times. People learnt by observing and doing, broadly termed, kinesthetic learning [1]. This was a prime time for dyslexics to learn. Then, there was this little twist in history, it was called the industrial revolution. During this time, the society said, okay, now we have got this new form of economy and we need to educate the masses to become more efficient bees in these factories. Now, this dovetailed, historically with the printing press in Europe. Everyone was so excited about this newfound technology that would enable them to embed knowledge into a format that could be scaled and distributed to the masses. Now, this served society exceptionally well. Except, the society was oblivious to the inability of the learning needs of approximately 20 percent of the population, those with dyslexia [2].


Just think of this for a moment:

If you could think back and recall the time in kindergarten, (Ah!! what a time it was) with just play, food, art, and craft classes. Personally, I wish to go back in time and relive those times. Then all of a sudden, the screws were tightened a little bit by introducing the ‘first benchmark of intelligence’. It was not put that way but that was essentially what was done. They said ‘we are going to learn how to read’. And all of a sudden for those with dyslexia, their worlds changed overnight. School was no longer a place of fun and play. Rather, it started becoming a place of judgement, fear and ridicule.


How is a dyslexic brain different?

Dyslexia is a neurological condition with no relation to intelligence. The neurons in the cortex region of the brain are spaced further apart. This results in the neurons having a longer axon affecting the way the brain processes written matter. Now, this is to say that dyslexia is widespread and varied. It is also passed down from parent to child, thereby it is genetic [3]. Another contributing factor could be premature birth or low birth weight, exposure to alcohol or drugs during fetal development in the womb [4]. There are cases when dyslexia could develop later in life due to brain injury, this is termed as acquired dyslexia [5].


Now, addressing the elephant in the room- what really is byslexia?

Dyslexia is a differently-abled learning ability where a child or an adult (yes, 20 percent of the population is dyslexic) has difficulty in recognizing letters, spelling and decoding words (Figure 2). The inverted letters and numbers such as q p, m w, e o, b d, 3 and 5 are in the symptomatic area (Figure 1 and 2). The problem truly lies in the phonetic decoding. Phonetic decoding is recognising alphabets by their sounds, breaking down letters and joining them to read the word and thereby a sentence altogether. Therefore, reading is actually a very complicated process.










Figure 1 Figure 2


Figures 1 and 2 shows written samples of children with dyslexia [6], [7].


Let’s talk about statistics. It's a very sad story:

- 35% of dyslexic children drop out of schools [9]

- 70% of all juveniles’ delinquents have some form of dyslexia [9]

- 50% of all adolescents involved in drug and alcohol rehabilitation have dyslexia [10]


However, there is always a silver lining

- 35% of all entrepreneurs are dyslexic [12]

- 40% of all self-made millionaires [9] [11]

- 1 out of 2 rocket scientists at Nasa [9]


As seen from the statistics, so many dyslexic individuals drop out of school and they don’t usually get opportunities to discover the things, they are good at. Thereby, never realising how the difference in brain functioning, actually gives

them unique abilities and skills. Conversely, it is unsettling to know that the ‘help’ (special classes, extra classes etc.) given to dyslexic students does more harm than good. It is like hammering a nail on the wall. You might get it through and hang your favorite painting but the wall is damaged in the process.



As mentioned earlier, it is a condition that stems from the difference in the wiring of the neurons in the cortex of the brain. These might be widely considered as ‘defects’, but they are actually trade-offs. A dyslexic brain gives up abilities in some areas to excel in others. This manifests in dyslexic people performing poorly in tasks that have a higher degree of procedural instructions. For example, tying shoelaces [11]. Whereas they tend to do better in tasks that involve creativity.



Figure 3 shows an MRI scan of a dyslexic and non-dyslexic person superimposed on each other.


A technique called diffusion tensor imaging is used to show active axonal pathways of the brain when the individuals were administered a reading task. The axonal fibre pathways in blue correspond to a dyslexic individual whereas the one in yellows represents axonal pathways in the non-dyslexic individuals. This suggests that the regions involved in the brain for reading are different [13].


Every dyslexic person is unique in their condition. Therefore, not only are the challenges very different from person to person but the strengths are very different as well. Finding and developing the strengths is the challenge for the child, teacher and the families [11]. Some educational interventions [14] (which could be put to practice as home as well) that are available are as follows:

  1. Teaching in small groups of students or one-to-one lessons with a specialist teacher.

  2. Focusing on phonological skills. This is the ability to identify and process word sounds.

  3. Teaching children in a multisensory way, where they use several senses at the same time.

  4. Reading to children to improve their vocabulary and listening skills. This will also encourage their interest in books.

  5. Share reading as a class activity. Here, once a book is read the students will discuss various aspects of the book.

  6. Bring in technology by using visuals, graphics, various 3D images and cartoons. Most web browsers also have text to speech functions that can be utilised.

  7. Speech recognition software can also be used to translate what a child is saying into written text. This can be used, as children with dyslexia often have better verbal skills than their writing skills.

  8. There are also a lot of educational interactive software applications and MOOCs (massive open online courses) that are available [2]. This provides children with a more engaging way of learning a subject, rather than simply reading from a textbook.

  9. Drawing and art can be used as another mode of learning and expression. Example: mind maps, diagrams, visual representations so on and so forth.

  10. Providing assistance technology, such as digital recorders and extra time on tests.


These interventions should ideally be delivered in a highly structured way with development in small steps and should involve regular practice of what has been learnt. When dyslexics recognise or are helped with recognising this innate intelligence the world would be their oyster.


I would like to conclude by stating a few lines from Jonathan Buchanan TEDx [11] -

Perhaps, the case is that people succeed not despite their dyslexia but because of it. Maybe it’s time for people with dyslexia to find things they are good at and work on it. So that instead of trying to fit in with everybody else, they can pursue something they are good at”.


References

  1. E Sioned, The effectiveness of teaching strategies for students with dyslexia based on their preferred learning styles, British Journal of Special Education, Volume 30, 2003.

  2. B d Leila ‘How this founder gets the world to care about dyslexia’, posted in Forbes, 2016 (accessed December 2020).

  3. J Schumacher et.al., Genetics of dyslexia: the evolving landscape, Journal of Medical Genetics, 2007.

  4. Dyslexia, symptoms and causes, published by Mayo clinic, July 2017 (accessed January 2021).

  5. David dyslexia association international, ‘Can dyslexia be caused by an illness or a brain injury?’ (accessed January 2021).

  6. http://enteringtheborderland.blogspot.com/2015/12/mirror-reversal-dyslexia-what-it-looks.html (accessed December 2020).

  7. https://ldapei.ca/corporate-sponsorship-opportunities.html (accessed December 2020)

  8. M Alesi, G Rappo, A Pepi., Depression, Anxiety at School and Self-Esteem in Children with Learning Disabilities, Journal of Psychological Abnormalities in Children, 2014.

  9. B De Leila ‘How this founder gets the world to care about dyslexia’, posted in Forbes, 2016 (accessed December 2020).

  10. J Sonali, Dyslexia and Substance Abuse: The Under-Recognized Link, Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2015.

  11. Stop Climbing, Start Swimming: The hidden advantages of dyslexia: Jonathan Buchanan at TEDxWarwickED (accessed December 2020).

  12. B Bowers, ‘Stronger links between entrepreneurs and dyslexia’, published in ‘The New York Times’, November 2007 (accessed December 2020).

  13. C M Leonard and M A Eckert, Asymmetry and Dyslexia, Journal of Developmental Neuropsychology, 2009.

  14. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dyslexia/living-with/ (accessed December 2020).


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