Dyslexia: What It Is and How to Help Your Child

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Dr. Joseph O’Neil talks about dyslexia and the impact it can have on children.

Is your child performing poorly in school? They may be suffering from dyslexia.

“Dyslexia is one the most common learning problems for children,” explains Dr. Joseph O’Neil, developmental pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “While it is mainly a problem with reading accurately, this condition may also affect an individual’s ability to write, spell and even speak. Children who have dyslexia can also struggle with reading, reading aloud and understanding what was read, which can all make school work very challenging.”

What causes dyslexia? Experts point to brain differences. Indeed, the latest research on dyslexia recently published in the journal Neuron, utilized MRIs to compare brain scans of people with and without dyslexia. They found that those with dyslexia had difficulty processing and remembering sights and sounds. For example, when a new sound or image enters the brain of a child without dyslexia, the brain gathers as much information as possible and commits it to memory for the future. It is able to adapt and separate new encounters from existing ones. But the brain of a child with dyslexia does not adapt as quickly. It may need to hear the sound or see the image many more times before it can be committed to memory. This is often referred to as brain plasticity – the ability for a brain to change over time, rewiring itself when it learns something new.

Brain imaging studies on students with dyslexia is a decades-old practice, and researchers are regularly accumulating new knowledge. While those in the field may not consider this study groundbreaking, it does further explain why these children struggle to learn and retain new content. However, this research should be read cautiously. “It is not that their brains are less adaptive and they can’t learn,” explains Patricia Mathes, spokesperson for the International Dyslexia Association. “We know that children with dyslexia do and can learn. It’s just more difficult for them.”

It is also important to understand that challenges to initial learning do not indicate intellectual function – students with dyslexia have normal intellect, says Mathes. However, these individuals have trouble processing specific kinds of information, such as letters and numbers, which is referred to as lexical retrieval. This has an impact on how they learn to read.

“We’ve known for two decades that students who are dyslexic have trouble pulling up the names that are associated with letter sounds or the sound associated with basic letter formation,” says Mathes.

These results clarify why children with dyslexia process at a slower speed, making the initial learning phrase more difficult. However, with the proper instruction, children with dyslexia can still learn. Teaching a child with dyslexia, however, requires more repetition of basic, factual information, she says.

With proof that the brains of people with dyslexia are wired differently, parents must continue to rely on what works, and good instruction is the only intervention that has been proven successful.

In the interim, experts advise parents to be proactive.

Not sure if your child has dyslexia but suspect some kind of problem? Don’t wait, seek help now. “If a parent or guardian is concerned they should talk with their primary care provider and their child’s school and have the child evaluated by skilled professionals to get to the root of the problem,” suggests Dr. O’Neil.  

-- By Gia Miller

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