If the Strange Words Above Look Familiar, You May Be a Victim of Dyslexia

updated 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Gary, the youngest of Sally Smith's three sons, had such severe learning difficulties as a child that his teachers told his mother he would never read. In 1967, when Gary was 7, Smith sought but could not find a special school for him. So she dusted off her 1955 master's degree in education from New York University and set up one herself. "It was an act of a desperate mother," says the 50-year-old divorcee and associate professor in charge of the learning disabilities program at American University in Washington, D.C. Located not far from her home, Smith's Kingsbury Lab School struggled for the first five years to obtain adequate funds and win educators' acceptance, but ultimately prevailed. Smith's individualized teaching methods have helped more than 150 children surmount learning disorders. One of them was Gary, now 19, who is about to receive his high school diploma. Among such learning disorders, probably the most familiar to the public is dyslexia, which is defined in its simplest form as an inability to deal with words. In 1978 Smith published a book on dyslexia, No Easy Answers, which became one of the National Institute of Mental Health's best-selling titles. She discussed this widespread and little-understood learning handicap with Garry Clifford of PEOPLE.

What are the symptoms of dyslexia?

The child has enormous difficulties learning to read, write, spell and sometimes even speak correctly. There are visual aspects: The child confuses the letters b, d, p and q, for instance, and will read "dog" as "bog." Often there are auditory aspects: The child does not hear differences between words. He may hear "pen" as "pin." Cramped, illegible handwriting is another frequent symptom, and so is transposing letters without realizing it when writing a word—the brown dog becomes "the borwn dog."

Are the causes understood?

Not entirely. They do seem to fall, however, into four categories. Before birth, dyslexia in the child can be related to German measles, alcoholism or toxemia—a form of blood poisoning—in the mother. During birth, anoxia—too little oxygen getting to the brain—can be a factor. After birth, dyslexia may be linked to a high fever, a head injury or oxygen deprivation. Heredity may also be involved somehow. In many families, reading disabilities can be traced through several generations.

Is brain damage a main cause?

Neurologists have not found any evidence of brain damage in most dyslexics. As recently as 10 years ago, however, the dyslexic child was often considered brain-damaged or retarded. In fact, Albert Einstein, whose dyslexia prevented him from learning to read until he was 9, was considered by his teachers to be retarded. We now know that the condition mainly affects children of normal to above-average intelligence and even people of superior intelligence like Einstein.

How does dyslexia affect speech?

The child may forget words that he understands and draw a blank in his mind when he tries to say them. Such a child, not being able to recall the word "restaurant," may blurt out, "You know, the place where we go to eat."

Is dyslexia the same thing as a learning disability?

The term dyslexia has become the socially acceptable "in" word for the broader term learning disability or learning disorder. If a parent says, "My child is dyslexic," right away it connotes that the child is bright and has a reading problem. Personally, I prefer learning disorder because the child's hardship with learning—and the experts do agree on this—literally stems from a lack of order in the brain.

In what sense?

The child is literally consumed by disorder. His central nervous system is late in developing and is not equipped to filter out the irrelevent. His brain gets overloaded easily. We tend to think of distractedness as not paying attention. But dyslexics are paying attention to too many things at once.

How does competition between the brain hemispheres affect the problem?

Somewhere around the age of 6 an ordinary child begins to show a preference for left-or right-handedness, and that corresponds with a gaining of dominance by one of the two hemispheres. But in dyslexia the brain hemispheres continue to compete without resolution, and this results in left-right confusion, mirror writing and other disorientations.

When does dyslexia first appear?

Often not until the child is in a school setting and has to work in a group, focus attention for long periods of time or link sounds with symbols. It may not even show up in first grade because an intelligent child can pick up other cues from illustrations and fake the answers or memorize them.

Who is most likely to have it?

Boys more than girls—by a ratio of about seven to one. Some researchers say the ratio is 10 to one. The male organism is generally more vulnerable at birth, which is evidenced by the higher infant mortality rate for boys worldwide. In boys the nervous system tends to develop more slowly than in girls.

How many children are affected?

The Department of Education says three percent of American children, or about two million youngsters, have learning disabilities. Those of us in the field think the figures are much higher—maybe 10 to 12 million children, ranging from the potential A student who is pulling D's and F's to the severely disabled child. Precisely how many of these children have dyslexia is not known because those statistics are not kept.

What are the psychological side effects of dyslexia?

Being intelligent enough to know that other people can easily do what he cannot, the dyslexic child worries about himself. Very often he thinks he's retarded, or calls himself "crazy" or a "spaz" or "retard." There's also a sense of guilt—a "What-have-I-done-to-deserve-this?" feeling. Some children would rather be thought of as bad than dumb, so they act up in class.

Has a link been shown between dyslexia and juvenile delinquency?

A commission right now is studying the relationship. One prior study showed that 90 percent of juvenile offenders in Colorado had severe learning problems. In Minnesota it was 80 percent. But of course most are not juvenile delinquents.

Is there a cure?

There is no cure per se, but there are ways to overcome the handicap. Reading can be taught patiently with sight, sound, even touch. The important thing is to match the method to the child. If he seems more responsive to what he sees than to what he hears, we take a visual approach. Maybe we have to combine it with touch letters made of different materials or tracing letters to reinforce learning.

Do people outgrow the condition?

Maturation of the brain stem does seem to take place in stages. We often see a jump in maturation at age 9 and again at age 11. Then at age 14 there is often a huge jump, with children advancing three or four grades at once. Yet while many learn to cope with dyslexia, most do not outgrow it.

How do dyslexics fare as adults?

A huge number are poor spellers and never excel in reading, but still grow up to be achievers. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, did not learn the alphabet until he was 9 or to read until he was 11. Relatives wrote to his parents expressing sorrow because Woodrow was so "dull and backward." Nelson Rockefeller had to struggle all his life to spell correctly and read. When he made a speech he often memorized it and discarded the manuscript for fear he would mix up the numbers in it. King Karl XI, said to have been one of Sweden's wisest monarchs, was often seen reading a document upside down. We know that Thomas Edison was a failure at school, but maybe that failure helped bring us the light bulb.

How was a dyslexic like Hans Christian Andersen able to write?

Ten royal tutors of the Danish court were unable to teach him to read. He had to dictate all those lovely fairy tales to a scribe. His childlike qualities and his own suffering come through in stories like The Ugly Duckling.

Was Lee Harvey Oswald dyslexic?

He certainly acted as if he had the behavioral manifestations of a learning disability—impulsiveness, inability to stick to a task, erratic behavior. Dyslexics face frustration and humiliation, and that can lead to trouble.

Has society recognized the problem?

The biggest breakthrough was the 1978 federal law that mandates an appropriate education for every handicapped child. Parents have rights of due process to make sure the child is getting the individual attention needed. Youngsters are also given extra time to take the college boards if they can prove they are dyslexic. But the energy that goes into training a child—the faith and the courage—cannot be purchased with federal funds.

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