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What's It Like To Have Dyslexia?

And what causes it?
PHOTO: getty images

Jennifer AnistonKeira Knightley. Regine Velasquez. That’s a pretty interesting trio of names, sure, especially when you realize that what they have in common isn’t just fame, fortune, and talent. These three talented women have all talked about life with dyslexia.

But what is dyslexia, exactly? Is it just about getting the letters b and d and p confused? Is it dyslexia if you get numbers mixed up, too? And is it possible to have dyslexia and not know it?

Cosmopolitan Philippines talks to psychologist Rhea Lopa-Ramos, who has a PhD in School Psychology with training in Neuropsychology from Fordham University, New York. She’s a consultant at the Neurodevelopmental Center of St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City, and she assesses children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental and neurological conditions like ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and specific learning disorders or learning disabilities like dyslexia.

What exactly is dyslexia?

According to Dr. Lopa-Ramos, a learning disability or a learning disorder is a brain-based condition that affects how an individual processes information, and dyslexia is one kind of learning disability or learning disorder.

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“Dyslexia involves difficulties in reading and spelling primarily due to problems in the language areas of the brain, areas that are responsible for recognizing and manipulating speech sounds/phonemes and learning how these sounds relate to letters/graphemes and words (phonological processing). [People with dyslexia] have difficulties matching letters with the sounds those letters or letter combinations make, sequencing those sounds, and blending them and putting them all together in order to read words. [These] difficulties with connecting letters and sounds also have an impact on spelling.

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There’s an organization called the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), and they define dyslexia as “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

What causes dyslexia?

First of all, it has nothing to do with intelligence! And definitely not caused by bad parenting. “Nor [is] it due to a child’s laziness or lack of effort,” Dr. Lopa-Ramos says.

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She shares some insights from Dr. Sally Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. “Often, individuals with dyslexia are bright, curious, engaging and talented in many other areas. Dr. Shaywitz also characterizes these individuals as having an area of weakness in a ‘sea of strengths.’”

Researchers have not yet been able to pinpoint the exact causes. As with most neurodevelopmental conditions, the causes are multi-factorial. Studies have shown that there is a genetic basis for the condition. Many different genes have been linked to problems in how the brain processes language and reading. Dyslexia often runs in families. Data indicate that about 50 percent of parents of children with dyslexia and 40 percent of siblings of children with dyslexia have the condition as well. There has also been evidence of differences in the brain structure and functioning of children with dyslexia compared to those without the condition.”

What is it like when you have dyslexia?

Ma. Rona Ermitaño is the founder of Reading Specialists in Muntinlupa City, and she has master’s degrees in Elementary Education and Reading Specialist from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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"They have a hard time mastering letter-sound relationships, and applying this knowledge to decode words."  

Ermitaño has students who have dyslexia, and she shares, “The reading development of children with dyslexia is significantly delayed compared to their peers. They have a hard time mastering letter-sound relationships, and applying this knowledge to decode words.  They may also have a hard time recognizing common words despite encountering them several times. Dyslexics tend to read words inaccurately (for example, they guess at words, mispronounce or skip them, and commit word substitutions i.e. saw as “was”) and/or read in a slow or laborious manner. Such difficulties potentially compromise their ability to understand what they read.

These difficulties can affect other parts of life too. Ermitaño says, “Challenges include ridicule, shame, anxiety, anger, depression, and academic failure, which could lead to low self-esteem/poor self-image, learned helplessness, and delinquent behavior. There is also research that shows a strong correlation between dyslexia, low educational attainment, and unemployment.”

"Some individuals find it hard to read social cues and may be awkward in social situations."

Dr. Lopa-Ramos adds that there could be social challenges too. “Because they don’t read as much, individuals with dyslexia might not get jokes, puns, or idioms. They may avoid texting or messaging friends because they are embarrassed about their spelling. Some individuals find it hard to read social cues and may be awkward in social situations. [They may also have] difficulties in using the right words or groping for words to use, which can impact social conversations. These challenges may lead to feelings of isolation or a tendency to withdraw from friends and family.”

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How do you know if it’s dyslexia?

As with many learning disorders, there are signs that might point to dyslexia. Ermitaño says, “It is important to look for a group of symptoms, rather than just focus on one, to determine who needs to be evaluated for dyslexia.”

A few of the symptoms are:

  • family history
  • oral language difficulties (e.g. speech delay, word finding difficulties)
  • weakness in processing sounds (i.e. cannot detect rhyme, provide rhyme, blend sounds, or pull apart words into separate sounds stop…/s/-/t/-/o/-/p)
  • trouble learning the alphabet letter names and sounds
  • inaccurate and/or slow reading
  • difficulty with reading unfamiliar and nonsense words
  • poor spelling

Some of these signs can be observed as early as preschool, but they become more evident when children are in grade school and are expected to learn to read and spell.

According to Dr. Lopa-Ramos, “The child may struggle compared to his/her peers, take longer to achieve the insight about sound and symbol/letter relationships, make persistent errors (adding, omitting, substituting sounds/letters when they try to read or spell), read or spell slowly, skip words or lines when reading or writing. Comprehension also gets affected because they are not able to accurately, quickly and fluently read the text; but when an adult reads the same text for them, they usually show adequate understanding.

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The difficulty of actually reading the words takes up so much effort that they don’t have much energy left to figure out what they just read.

Diagnosis requires a pretty comprehensive evaluation by trained specialists like Dr. Lopa-Ramos. In addition to a review of extensive background history, they also review progress reports, work samples and observations from school, and do testing using standardized tools like IQ tests and academic achievement tests. They also check reports from other specialists like neurodevelopmental or developmental pediatricians and speech-language pathologists. Sometimes they also recommend additional tests via other specialists, like vision and hearing tests, and consultations with neurologists to check if there is another disorder causing the difficulties or possibly contributing to those difficulties.

What if you’re an adult and you have trouble with reading and spelling sometimes? How do you know if it's dyslexia?

Having a few of the symptoms does not necessarily mean you have dyslexia.

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Dr. Lopa-Ramos says, “An adult would usually present symptoms like a very slow reading pace or lack of fluency, dislike for reading or not reading for pleasure, or spelling errors in writing (like in Regine Velasquez’s post). Dyslexia is a dimensional condition—it’s not just black or white; everyone may display various degrees of reading or spelling problems but that does not mean they have dyslexia.

There is a pattern of difficulties that needs to be seen, and the symptoms would have to significantly interfere with your normal functioning, like at work or in carrying out daily activities. An adult who may have undiagnosed dyslexia could still see a specialist, but the evaluation process will be different.

Is it dyslexia if you have a problem with numbers, too?

If it’s numbers you have difficulty with, it could be dyscalculia.

Ermitaño explains, “Dyslexia is primarily a problem with word reading, while dyscalculia refers to difficulty with math/numbers. Some dyslexics may have dyscalculia.” These are two separate types of learning disabilities, but they may both occur in the same person!

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How common is dyslexia?  

Dr. Lopa-Ramos says dyslexia is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. The IDA indicates a prevalence rate of approximately 15 to 20 percent in the general population, and about six to seven percent in the school population, but these are all U.S. statistics.

Dyslexia affects both men and women at fairly equal rates. Dyslexia can also be found across different racial backgrounds and social-economic classes.

There are currently no statistics on dyslexia in the Philippines.

How do you treat dyslexia?

First of all, dyslexia is a life-long condition, so there is no treatment, cure or medication for it, Dr. Lopa-Ramos says. “But there are evidence-based approaches for intervention and support. It can be managed, and individuals with dyslexia can learn to compensate for their difficulties. They can thrive and be successful! Early detection and early intervention are critical for the best outcomes.”

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Ermitaño adds, “Even if adults are diagnosed late, they can still participate in similar structured literacy programs. Texts they read, however, would not only have to be appropriate for their reading level, but the topics should be suitable to their interests and age.

Dr. Lopa-Ramos stresses, “Reinforcing the individual’s strengths and developing their interests and talents are equally important, aside from addressing their challenges (e.g., affirming them for their positive qualities, giving them opportunities to do things they enjoy and are good at—highlighting and developing their strengths). Doing so will help bolster their self-esteem and confidence.”

And believe it or not, love helps! “Acceptance, understanding, and unconditional love are paramount because these individuals struggle not only with the learning difficulties but with the accompanying feelings of anxiety, embarrassment/shame, self-doubt and low self-esteem that often comes with the learning difficulties they experience. Working with a psychologist or guidance counselor and undergoing counseling support may be helpful,” adds Dr. Lopa-Ramos. 

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Ermitaño offers these tips to help dyslexics in school and at work:

  • Break down big projects into smaller manageable tasks.
  • Use a planner to map out assignments or projects.
  • Use a task management app to keep track of deadlines.
  • Make annotations while reading (i.e. highlight important information, write main points in the margins).
  • Read using audible books or text-to-speech apps.
  • Read using e-readers. Using e-readers can make reading and comprehension easier because the look/appearance of the book can be changed (bigger text size, shorter and fewer lines) and dictionary apps can be accessed quickly.
  • Use the dictation feature of your smartphone, tablet or computer to compose written work.
  • Though not always foolproof, spell checkers can minimize spelling errors.
  • Ask a friend, family member, teacher to go over your work.

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