Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a brain-based learning disability that affects an individual’s ability to read and process language. People with dyslexia may have difficulty with word recognition, spelling, and reading comprehension. According to the International Dyslexia Association, as many as 15 to 20% of people in the U.S. may have symptoms of dyslexia. Approximately 1 in 5 children has dyslexia.

Common signs and symptoms of dyslexia include difficulty with letters and sounds, trouble sounding out words, difficulty rhyming, stumbling over common words when reading, or omitting short words like “and.” Children may receive poor grades that don’t seem to reflect their actual intelligence or work level.

Dyslexia does not affect a person’s intelligence or cognitive ability, but because people with dyslexia struggle with tasks that are easier for other people their age, they are sometimes (inaccurately) viewed as “stupid” or “lazy.”

No one knows exactly what causes dyslexia. The condition may be hereditary; if one or both of your parents has dyslexia, you are more likely to have it as well.

Without treatment and intervention, people with dyslexia may fall behind in school and struggle in work and life. With appropriate support, individuals with dyslexia can thrive.

What are the different types of dyslexia?

Whether there are different types of dyslexia is currently a topic of debate. Some people describe subtypes of dyslexia; others believe it’s more appropriate to use the term “developmental dyslexia,” the term listed in the ICD-10, the latest International Classification of Diseases.

Terms used to discuss possible subtypes of dyslexia include:

  • Phonological dyslexia: difficulty breaking down the sounds of language and matching them with written symbols

  • Surface dyslexia: difficulty recognizing common sight words or reading words that don’t sound like they’re spelled

  • Rapid naming deficit: difficulty rapidly naming a bunch of colors, letters, or numbers 

  • Double deficit dyslexia: difficulty with at least two of the issues mentioned above

What are the symptoms of dyslexia?

Symptoms of dyslexia vary from person to person. The common denominator is difficulty with reading and processing language.

Common symptoms of dyslexia

The most common symptoms of dyslexia include difficulty or delayed development with literacy tasks such as:

  • Associating sounds with letters

  • Following directions

  • Learning to read

  • Learning to tell time

  • Memorizing math facts

  • Rhyming

  • Reading fluency

  • Reading comprehension

  • Spelling

  • Sounding out words

  • Telling left from right

Because dyslexia affects a child’s ability to meet academic expectations, a child with dyslexia may avoid or have trouble finishing assignments, dislike school, and attempt to deflect attention in the classroom.

What causes dyslexia?

Scientists know that the brains of people with dyslexia work differently than others’, but they don’t necessarily know why. In many instances, dyslexia is hereditary. Parents with dyslexia are likely to have a child with dyslexia. Researchers have identified some genes that may be related to dyslexia, but more research is necessary to understand exactly what causes this condition.

What are the risk factors for dyslexia?

People are more likely to have dyslexia if:

  • They have a family history of dyslexia or learning disabilities.

  • They were born prematurely.

  • Their mother used nicotine, alcohol, or drugs during pregnancy.

Early intervention for dyslexia

The earlier parents and others recognize and respond to the signs of dyslexia, the better. Children who receive learning support as early as kindergarten and first grade tend to do better than children who are not identified (or helped) until later.

When dyslexia isn’t recognized, teachers and parents sometimes mistakenly assume the child is “lazy” or “not trying.” Frustrated children with unidentified dyslexia often come to view themselves as stupid and may stop trying in school. With support, children with dyslexia can succeed.

What are some conditions related to dyslexia?

Some people with dyslexia have other learning disabilities or mental health challenges, including:

  • Dyscalculia, a mathematical disability characterized by difficulty manipulating numbers and understanding math concepts

  • Dysgraphia, or difficulty writing by hand 

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that may be marked by impulsivity and difficulty paying attention to non-preferred subjects

  • Anxiety. The learning challenges associated with dyslexia can trigger anxiety in some children, especially in classroom settings.

How is dyslexia diagnosed?

No one test can diagnose dyslexia. Instead, diagnosis is a process that requires input from parents, teachers, and the affected individual. Medical testing may also be conducted to rule out other causes of learning difficulties, including hearing loss or visual challenges.

Steps that may be part of a dyslexia diagnosis include:

  • Parent and teacher observations. Usually, the child’s parents or teachers are the first to notice problems with learning and language. It is helpful if parents and teachers can collect or record examples of learning challenges. 

  • Medical appointment. Your family physician can check your child’s overall health and conduct tests to see if your child’s hearing, vision or brain function are contributing to difficulty with learning. Your child’s doctor will also ask about your family history.

  • Educational testing. Your child’s school or teacher may want to administer some tests to assess your child’s reading and spelling ability, as well as their ability to hear and manipulate sounds and words.

  • Psychological testing. Some educational psychologists administer questionnaires and tests that can help diagnose dyslexia. Psychological testing can also detect issues such as anxiety, depression, and ADHD.

What are the treatments for dyslexia?

Treatment for dyslexia can preserve a child’s self-esteem and facilitate learning and independence. Unfortunately, there are no “quick fixes” for dyslexia. Treatment is usually multi-faceted and includes home and school interventions.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, most people with dyslexia will need extra support from a teacher, tutor or therapist to develop their reading and writing skills. Individuals with dyslexia do best when teachers and tutors use a multi-sensory, structured approach to teach reading and writing. One-on-one help is usually necessary and beneficial.

Under the Individual with Disabilities with Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate public education that meets their needs. You may need to go through the special education referral and evaluation process to obtain educational support for your child.

Home support for children with dyslexia

Reading aloud to your child can support language development and reading comprehension. Read expressively and stop periodically to discuss the story.

Unconditional love and support are especially important for children with dyslexia. Acknowledge your child’s strengths, and encourage and support them as they pursue activities they enjoy.

How does dyslexia affect quality of life?

Dyslexia affects the whole family. When your child struggles in school, parents and siblings feel stress as well. Parents of children with dyslexia need to process their fear and anxiety so they can support their child without adding to the stress the child is already feeling.

Talking to other people who have dyslexia and are doing well can be helpful. Making time for fun as a family, when dyslexia is not the focus, is also helpful.

What are the potential complications of dyslexia?

Without adequate treatment and support, dyslexia can lead to:

  • Academic underperformance. A child with undiagnosed or inadequately treated dyslexia may “give up” and stop trying in school. Failing grades and lost learning may be the result. 

  • Social problems. A child who is falling behind peers is a target for bullying and social ostracization. Additionally, some children with dyslexia act out in class to distract others from their learning challenges. Disruptive behavior can lead to behavioral referrals and social challenges. 

  • Low self-esteem. Individuals with dyslexia who don’t receive proper support may come to believe they are stupid or lazy. This negative self-perception can persist and may keep people from pursuing opportunities in the future.
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 3
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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