Dispelling dyslexia myths

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability of children in this country. If you’re surprised at that, it’s likely because the old stereotype of a dyslexic is still pervasive — a struggling child, usually a boy, who can’t read because he mixes up similar letters like “ds” and “bs.”

While that is one symptom of dyslexia, the word dyslexia simply means “poor with words” or “trouble with reading.” Up to 20 percent of our population struggles with it. The exact causes of dyslexia remain unknown, but studies show differences in the way the brain of a dyslexic person develops and functions. Just a few years ago, statistics suggested that boys are much more likely to have dyslexia than girls are. Today, we know that dyslexia affects males and females equally, but boys still tend to be diagnosed with it more often — most likely because boys who struggle in school tend to act out in frustration, while girls often withdraw and slip through the cracks.

One of the biggest problems with the old dyslexia stereotype is that many dyslexic students go unidentified and untreated. Reading problems can turn into learning struggles, behavior concerns, and confidence issues. According to the International Dyslexia Association, “Students with dyslexia often end up feeling ‘dumb’ and less capable than they actually are.”

In actuality, people with dyslexia usually have an average or above-average IQ and are often gifted in fields that don’t rely as heavily on language arts such as engineering, science, architecture, art, music, and creative design. People with dyslexia are more likely to have a family member with reading problems and a cognitive skill weakness. Cognitive skills are the underlying mental tools we all use to reason, think, read, remember, learn, and pay attention.

“One or more weak cognitive skills can make reading and learning extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible,” says Dr. Ken Gibson, author of “Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in Your Child.” “If you can strengthen weak cognitive skills, quite often the struggles and learning differences disappear. Reading and learning become easy and the diagnosis and label no longer fit. Dyslexia does not have to be a lifelong condition.”

The link between dyslexia and cognitive weakness was confirmed in a 10-year study by the National Institutes of Health, which determined that 88 percent of all learning-to-read problems were caused by a weakness in one specific cognitive skill: phonemic awareness, which is the ability hear, blend, unglue, and manipulate sounds in a word.

Cognitive skills testing generally confirms that most people with dyslexia also have weaknesses in working memory, executive function, and attention. So, it’s not surprising that common symptoms of dyslexia are also signs of weak cognitive skills, including but not limited to:

• Inability to sound out new or unfamiliar words

• Difficulty understanding isolated words when not in context

• Poor at distinguishing similarities and difference in words (no, on)

• Weak at letter sound discrimination (pin, pen)

• Poor comprehension

• Little enjoyment of leisure reading

• Poor spelling

• Early problems with rhyming

• Trouble following multi-step instructions

• Floundering while trying to retrieve words and relying instead on “stuff” or “things”

• Trouble learning a foreign language

• Guessing while reading or substituting similar words like “puppy” for “dog” or “food” for “fork”

• Avoiding reading aloud

• Difficulty summarizing or retelling a story

• Troubles discerning left and right

• Poor grasp of if/then analogies

As with most learning disabilities, the earlier the problem is detected, the better the prognosis. A National Institutes of Health study states that 90 to 95 percent of poor readers can be brought up to grade level if they receive effective help early.

A Florida State University study showed an 87 percent reduction of reading problems with special one-on-one training. For one semester, kindergartners received one-on-one training in sound-blending and sound-manipulating skills. Four years later, of those who had NOT been given the one-on-one training, 32 percent were reading at least two years below grade level. Of those who were trained, only four percent had reading levels that low.

But even without early intervention, dyslexia doesn’t have to be a permanent diagnosis. Studies continue to show the brain can change and improve at any age. A Carnegie Mellon University brain imaging study found that the brains of dyslexic students and other poor readers were permanently rewired to overcome reading deficits after 100 hours of intensive remedial instruction.

“This finding shows that poor readers can be helped to develop buff brains. A similar approach should apply to other skills,” said neuroscientist Marcel Just, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging and senior author of the study. “Any kind of education is a matter of training the brain.”

The common key to getting those gains is intense, one-to-one training. Veteran elementary school teacher Shelly Duer turned to brain training for her own son who was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD at an early age.

“We tried everything to help him: specialized tutoring, school interventions, medication, and just about everything else I could find,” says Duer. “Nothing really worked until we found a personalized, one-on-one brain-training program. It changed his life. Now he does better work, gets better grades, completes homework quickly and easily, and his self-esteem has skyrocketed.”

Now Duer’s son doesn’t fit the dyslexia criteria; he’s no longer “poor with words,” or has “trouble with reading.” That shatters the past stereotype of dyslexia, and is an important characteristic of dyslexia today — often, with the right intervention, dyslexia doesn’t have to be a permanent diagnosis and lifelong label.

Rich Mancuso owns and directs LearningRx NYC, a brain-training company in Manhattan that specializes in identifying weak cognitive skills and strengthening them through intense, one-on-one, game-like training. Across the country, more than 25,000 students have gone through LearningRx brain training and graduates now see an average IQ increase of 14.9 points.

LearningRX NYC [115 E. 82nd St. between Park and Lexington avenues in Manhattan, (212) 738-9264]. For info, visit www.learningrx.com/nyc-upper-east-side.