Understanding Dyslexia

updated 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/22/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For many children, the beginning of the school year is fraught with anxiety. But few have more reason for concern than the tens of thousands of undiagnosed dyslexics who face the torment of being asked to read aloud or to add a column of numbers that, to them, may be mere jumbled scribblings. Often, kids with dyslexia—a disability that afflicts one in 10 Americans—are thought to be slow-witted or lazy. But the truth, says Gordon Sherman, director of the Dyslexia Research Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, is that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence or motivation. Sherman, 43, recently spoke with PEOPLE'S Stephen Sawicki about the critical importance of early diagnosis of a disability that has plagued people as accomplished and diverse as Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Whoopi Goldberg.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a specific problem that affects the ability to learn how to read, write, spell and sometimes pronounce words. I want to stress that it's not a visual problem or an auditory problem, but a language problem. Dyslexic children often have trouble recognizing certain basic sounds—phonemes—that form words and are the building blocks of alphabetic language. When most of us see an unfamiliar word, we can sound it out. We're aware of sounds within a word, put the sounds together and pronounce it. But when a dyslexic child sees a word like "cat," he may not be aware of the sequence of phonemes needed to pronounce it. Without being taught very specifically, learning the rest is incredibly difficult.

What are dyslexia's symptoms?

Some symptoms, such as delayed speech development, are seen pretty early. A child's inability to rhyme can be a flag. Problems spelling and reading simple words can be signs. So can difficulty comprehending directions, such as right or left, or following steps in math, which is in itself a language. Dyslexia differs in severity, ranging from those with severe language problems who can't read or write a sentence, to those who just have problems with spelling. A child who's not severely dyslexic may have no problems early on with words like "dog" or "cat." But the problems may surface as the demands of language become more complex. Dyslexics do, at times, reverse letters, such as "b" and "d," but it is not a key component.

What causes dyslexia?

Over the years, many hypotheses have been put forth: that dyslexic kids were lazy, had been deprived of intellectual stimulation, or had suffered deep psychological trauma. We now know that dyslexia is highly inheritable. Studies show a number of genes may set the stage for its development.

How does it develop?

As the brain grows during the first six months of gestation, neurons—cells that conduct impulses—are churned out in the brain's ventricular zone. Attached to fibers, the neurons travel to the cerebral cortex, which contains the language centers. Here they hit a barrier, stop and take their place in layers above previously deposited neurons. In the brains of dyslexics, however, there are breaches in the barrier and the neurons enter them, leaving clumps of nerve cells called ectopias, which appear to interfere with the brain's ability to receive and transmit certain messages.

Is dyslexia confused with other neurological problems?

Not often. But the first thing that many parents jump to when kids fail early reading and language tests, after they've done perfectly well in preschool and kindergarten, is that the kids aren't trying hard enough.

Is there any gender, racial or ethnic predisposition to dyslexia?

Until 10 years ago, boys were believed four times as likely to be dyslexic as girls. The latest research shows it's pretty equal. It's also thought that dyslexia strikes all cultures and races equally.

What's the best way to treat it?

Multisensory, structured language programs, using hearing, seeing, touch and movement, have proved remarkably effective. You involve all the senses in teaching things like reading and writing, which most of us learn using just visual or auditory cues. You may, for instance, help a dyslexic child learn how to spell a word by repeatedly showing it to him, pronouncing it, having him say it, write it on paper and, sometimes, write it in the air. You try to get other parts of the brain to chip in, in ways they normally wouldn't.

What can parents do to help?

Enrich the environment any way they can, the earlier the better. It's tricky, because it's hard to diagnose the disability before children reach school age. But if there's dyslexia in the family, assume that your child might be dyslexic and provide as much language stimulation as possible. Either way, you haven't lost anything.

Is there a cure?

Dyslexia is not a disease. There is no cure. It's conceivable that some day we'll have a biological or genetic solution. But I don't think we want to go that way. There are strengths that come along with dyslexia. The organization of the brain that produces the disability may also account for unique artistic, musical and athletic abilities. As imaging techniques improve, scientists will have a better chance of seeing how the brain of a dyslexic functions and refining language programs for dyslexics.

Is there any magic bullet for dealing with the problem?

No, but this is an incredibly exciting time. We know how to diagnose dyslexia accurately. We know how to treat it with these multisensory language techniques. We must let parents know they're available, though not easy. Teachers have to invest time to learn them and work with kids. But if there's any magic in the field, this is it.

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