Have you had lifelong difficulties with understanding words, letters, and numbers? Does your child have trouble with reading or spelling? These struggles might be signs of dyslexia, a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to process language.
“Dyslexia is a reading disorder characterized by a primary phonological processing deficit,” says Katie Davis, PsyD, an educational neuropsychologist and neuroscience researcher based in New York City. “People with dyslexia struggle to decode individual words and have poor spelling abilities.”
Those with dyslexia may also have difficulties with reading fluency, reading comprehension, and pronunciation, though symptoms vary from person to person, as the Mayo Clinic notes. (1)
Dyslexia isn’t a new condition and was first described almost 150 years ago. In 1878, a German neurologist noticed that some of his patients had difficulty reading and would consistently put words in the wrong order. He described this as “word blindness.” In 1887 a German ophthalmologist named Rudolph Berlin replaced the term word blindness with dyslexia, meaning difficulty with words, according to the Rudolph Berlin Center. (2)
Dyslexia is a type of learning disability, but that doesn’t mean that individuals who have it are not intelligent. (3) It’s very possible for people who are diagnosed with dyslexia to perform well at school and on the job. But children, depending on the severity of their condition, should enroll in tutoring programs or receive specialized education.
It’s important to seek help and have a specialist evaluate dyslexia, because if left untreated, dyslexia can have repercussions that reach beyond the classroom or workplace. In particular, dyslexia is associated with anxiety, anger, embarrassment, discouragement, and depression. (1)
With intervention and the right treatment, it is possible for people with dyslexia to improve their reading, spelling, and other language comprehension skills.
Signs and Symptoms of Dyslexia
Dyslexia can be mild or severe, and it’s estimated that 15 percent to 20 percent of the population has symptoms of dyslexia, according to the International Dyslexia Association. (4)
Children may not be diagnosed with dyslexia until they start school and have problems comprehending written language. It’s important to note that dyslexia affects different people in different ways, so symptoms vary among those living with the condition. Some people don’t realize they have dyslexia until they’re well into adulthood. (1)
“Dyslexia is typically first noticed by a teacher or parent who observes reading problems within the classroom setting,” says Kimberly R. Freeman, PhD, the executive associate chair of social work and social ecology at Loma Linda University in San Bernardino, California. “At that point, children are often referred to a psychologist or other specialists for a formal evaluation in order to determine diagnosis and intervention needs."
But while this condition can be difficult to diagnose, there are signs you can look out for. Symptoms vary depending on age — a young child may have symptoms that differ from those of a school-age child, and a teenager's symptoms may differ from an adult's.
Here are some signs of dyslexia in different age groups, according to the Mayo Clinic and Yale University. (1,5)
Signs of Dyslexia in Non-School-Age Children
- Late to talking
- Difficulty learning and remembering letters
- Mispronouncing words
- Difficulty learning nursery rhymes or rhyming songs
Signs of Dyslexia in Elementary-School-Age Children
- Reading below grade level
- Difficulty processing language
- Trouble understanding speech
- Inability to remember sequences
- Difficulty seeing and hearing similarities and differences in words
- Difficulty finding the right words
- Trouble spelling or sounding out words
- Avoidance of reading
Signs of Dyslexia in Teenagers and Adults
- Slow reading
- Spelling difficulties
- Mispronouncing words
- Spending long periods of time on writing exercises
- Difficulty memorizing
- Trouble completing math problems
- An inability to understand jokes or expressions
Keep in mind that having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that you or your child has dyslexia. Even so, you shouldn’t ignore problems with reading, spelling, or language comprehension because they could be signs of another condition.
Common Questions & Answers
Causes and Risk Factors of Dyslexia
Brain imaging studies have shown differences in the brains of those with the disability. These differences are found in the part of the brain that involves reading skills, as the International Dyslexia Association notes. (6)
“Dyslexia is caused by dysfunction within a neural circuit that supports reading,” says Dr. Davis. This circuit involves regions in the temporal and frontal lobes in the left hemisphere of the brain, she says. These are the areas responsible for language comprehension and expression.
It’s also believed that dyslexia runs in families, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (7) So if you or a family member has dyslexia, there’s a chance that your child will also develop this condition, although it is nowhere near 100 percent.
In addition to family history being a risk factor, there’s a greater risk for dyslexia in individuals who were born prematurely or had a low birth weight. Being exposed to alcohol, drugs, or infections while in the womb can also raise the risk. (1)
Learn More About Causes of Dyslexia: Common Risk Factors, Genetics, and More
How Is Dyslexia Diagnosed?
If a teacher doesn’t notice reading problems in your child, but you do, speak with your pediatrician. There’s no single test, like a blood test, that can diagnose dyslexia. Rather, your doctor will refer you to a dyslexia specialist. These specialists are usually speech pathologists, neuropsychologists, clinical psychologists, school psychologists, or professionals with degrees in education.
These specialists will then schedule a series of tests to make a diagnosis. These professionals may also include a reading specialist or a neuropsychologist. (8)
Dr. Freeman notes that the standardized assessment tools used to diagnose dyslexia depend on the individual’s age, development, and particular symptoms. These tests may assess the following:
- Oral language skills (both listening and speaking)
- Word recognition
- Rapid naming
- Auditory verbal working memory
- Phonological processing
- Reading rate or fluency
- Reading comprehension
Specialists may also inquire about family history to see if any relatives have been diagnosed with dyslexia or another learning disability.
A specialist may have a child’s teacher fill out a questionnaire to get a better understanding of the child's language abilities, according to the Mayo Clinic. (9)
Before making a diagnosis, your specialist may also suggest testing to ensure that another disorder isn’t causing symptoms of dyslexia. (9) “Other factors such as intellectual disabilities, lack of early educational opportunities, and vision, hearing, or motor disorders must also be ruled out,” says Freeman.
A proper diagnosis is crucial, because dyslexia doesn’t go away, and without treatment, it can lead to complications. Children may fall behind in school and have difficulty catching up. In addition, identification of an alternative learning disability is important so that appropriate treatment can be recommended.
Prognosis of Dyslexia
The severity of dyslexia varies from person to person, and the prognosis differs for everyone. Outcomes often depend on how soon a person receives a diagnosis and intervention to address their specific learning issue. (7)
Some people are diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, but others aren't diagnosed until their teenage years or adulthood. Generally, the outlook is positive when dyslexia is diagnosed early. (7)
This doesn't mean that those diagnosed later in life will have a worse outcome. It's never too late to seek help, and even those with a late diagnosis can thrive academically and financially. (1)
Duration of Dyslexia
Dyslexia is a lifelong condition that will not go away on its own, hence the importance of an early diagnosis and remediation. (3)
When a person isn’t diagnosed with dyslexia, or when they don't receive help, the ill effects of this condition can continue into their adult years. (1)
What Are the Different Types of Dyslexia?
There isn’t just one type of dyslexia.
One person diagnosed with the condition may have a problem with sounds, while another person may have difficulty with word order and letter order.
To ensure that those diagnosed receive the proper treatment, dyslexia specialists have categorized the condition in the following ways, according to Understood, an organization that helps people with disabilities find employment. (10)
- Phonological dyslexia This means that an individual has trouble putting sounds to the letters that make up a word.
- Surface dyslexia This is difficulty with understanding a word upon seeing it; it’s also known as visual dyslexia.
- Rapid naming deficit This is an inability to quickly name letters or numbers.
- Double deficit dyslexia This is a combination of phonological dyslexia and rapid naming deficit.
Treatment and Support for Dyslexia
You can’t cure dyslexia. But you can certainly improve your skills, and your quality of life, if you have the right team in place.
Once a specialist makes a diagnosis, they’ll design a treatment plan to best address your specific needs.
If a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, federal and state laws mandate that public schools provide support or education plans to help them succeed, according to an article published in September 2018 in Perspectives on Language and Literacy. (11)
This may include giving your child extra time to complete class work and tests, or allowing your child to record classroom instructions, in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. (12)
Your specialist may work with your child’s teacher to ensure your child receives support in the classroom. If your child attends a public school, the two will come up with an "individualized education plan" (IEP) that meets your child’s needs.
Treatment plans often involve a reading program to help individuals learn how to properly match letters and sounds, notes Understood. (13) Reading programs, which are supervised by reading specialists, can also improve phonics skills and increase reading speed and comprehension.
Some treatment programs are anchored in the Orton-Gillingham approach, which uses the senses of sight, hearing, and touch to improve comprehension skills, notes the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. (14)
As a parent, there’s plenty you can do to assist your child’s reading specialist and teacher. For example, you might encourage reading at home. The more your child practices reading and uses the techniques they’ve learned, the sooner they’ll see improvement. If your child doesn’t like reading, set a positive example and read with them. It’s also important that you speak with your child’s teacher and reading specialist on a regular basis so you can keep track of their progress.
Dyslexia can take an emotional toll on the entire family, so you may consider joining a support group to connect with others living with the condition.
Complications of Dyslexia
Difficulties with processing language, spelling, or learning can make it harder for children to keep up with their class work and their peers. This can lead to discouragement, low self-esteem, and social problems. Some children might even act out as a way to cope with their frustration. (1)
When adults don’t receive treatment for dyslexia, difficulties with spelling and literacy can cause problems in college and in the workplace. Students may have trouble with note taking and test taking, and employees might feel that dyslexia holds them back at work. This prevents some people from reaching their full potential both professionally and economically. (1)
Research and Statistics: How Common Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a common condition affecting about 1 in 10 people. It's estimated that 40 million American adults are dyslexic, but only 2 million have a diagnosis. Additionally, about 20 percent of school-age children in the United States have dyslexia, according to the Dyslexia Center of Utah. (15)
This condition occurs regardless of a person’s background or intellectual level. (4) Interestingly, about 50 percent of NASA employees have dyslexia. (15)
Related Conditions and Causes of Dyslexia
Dyslexia can sometimes occur with other medical conditions. For example, people diagnosed with dyslexia are also at increased risk for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the Mayo Clinic. (1) It can be difficult to treat dyslexia when a person also has problems focusing.
When dyslexia is left untreated, feelings of frustration can escalate and affect a person’s self-image. Some people with dyslexia also have low self-esteem and low self-confidence. As a result, they may feel uncomfortable around people. They may withdraw socially and have fewer friends.
Dyslexia may also occur with developmental coordination disorders and autism. Adds Freeman: “Dyslexia can often overlap with other conditions such as slow processing speed, visual processing issues, and executive functioning issues. Problems with the physical act of writing and understanding math concepts can also co-occur.”
Some people with dyslexia also deal with dyscalculia, which refers to difficulty in computing numbers and performing calculations. Or they may also experience dysgraphia, a disorder in which a person’s handwriting appears distorted and they struggle with spelling. Some dyslexics have trouble telling the difference between left and right.
Learn More About Health Conditions That May Occur With Dyslexia
Who Are Some Famous People With Dyslexia?
A diagnosis of dyslexia can be discouraging, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t accomplish great things despite the challenges it presents. Here are a few famous people who have also struggled with the disorder: (16,17,18,19)
- Steven Spielberg
- Whoopi Goldberg
- Tim Tebow
- Anderson Cooper
- Jay Leno
- Bella Thorne
- Salma Hayek
Living and Thriving With Dyslexia Is Possible
Dyslexia is a common condition that affects children and adults throughout their life, but being diagnosed doesn’t mean that you’re not as smart as someone without the disability. Again, individuals with dyslexia are not lower in intelligence. Learning and reading may be a challenge, but with early intervention, the right treatment, and the support of those who care for you, you can succeed and learn how to successfully cope.
Favorite Orgs for Essential Dyslexia Information
This website is a one-stop resource for dyslexia. You'll find information on symptoms, challenges of living with the condition, remediation strategies, and more. The information is geared to parents and educators, but it's beneficial to anyone looking to understand a “dyslexic brain.”
This is an excellent resource for debunking myths and empowering people living with dyslexia. The site's wealth of information includes tips on how to make classrooms and workplaces more accommodating for people living with dyslexia. A noteworthy section is the site’s “Learn the Facts” page, which focuses on truths about the condition.
International Dyslexia Association
The International Dyslexia Association is an excellent resource for families and educators looking to learn more about this condition. The site contains a detailed fact sheet, a self-assessment tool, and information on how to find resources and dyslexia professionals in your area.
Learning Disability Association of America
The LDA’s vision is a “world where learning disabilities are universally understood.” The website is an another excellent place for everyone — parents, teachers, professionals, and those living with dyslexia to learn more and gain support. You'll find helpful information on teaching, guidebooks, and the most recent research.
Favorite Online Support Networks
Homeschooling allows your child to progress at their own pace. But homeschooling a child with dyslexia has its challenges. This Facebook group provides a way to connect with other parents in your situation. You’re able to ask questions, trade information, and learn about different teaching techniques.
Understandably, you may have a lot of questions about dyslexia, whether you or your child has the condition. LDOnline is an excellent place to receive input on your most important questions. Each month, experts weigh in and answer questions from within the community. Ask your own questions, or read expert responses given to others.
Favorite Reading Resources
Reading Rockets provides several helpful tools to help kids struggling to read. This site explains why reading is a challenge for some children, and provides information on isolating the problem, getting a child evaluated, and finding help.
The Davis Dyslexia Association International’s blog features posts by different authors, many who live with dyslexia themselves. It's a great opportunity to read firsthand experiences and get advice from others who understand the condition.
Favorite Resource for Becoming an Advocate
Dyslexia Advocacy Action Group
If you're a student, a parent, or an educator, you can get involved and make a difference. Here, you'll find information on becoming an advocate and helping improve dyslexia education — whether you're advocating for your child or another child.
Favorite Resource for Dyslexia Products
Good Sensory Learning provides a wide range of information on assistive technology for dyslexia. You'll find resources related to reading and writing, speech, time management and organization, and more.
Available in the App Store, Dyslexia Quest is an interactive game that tests memory and learning skills. Each game will test a specific learning skill and then provide suggestions on how to improve these skills.
Available on Google Play, the App Store, and Amazon, this app is designed to help with spelling and literacy — inside and outside the classroom. It’s a child-friendly app, but also helpful for high schoolers, college students, and older adults.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Dyslexia: Overview. Mayo Clinic. July 22, 2017.
- Home. Rudolf Berlin Center.
- Lapkin E. 7 Common Myths About Dyslexia. Understood.
- Dyslexia Basics. International Dyslexia Association. 2017.
- Signs of Dyslexia. Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.
- Dyslexia and the Brain. International Dyslexia Association.
- Dyslexia Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. June 12, 2018.
- Dyslexia Assessment: What Is It and How Can It Help? International Dyslexia Association.
- Dyslexia: Diagnosis. Mayo Clinic. July 22, 2017.
- Types of Dyslexia: What Researchers Are Studying and Why. Understood.
- Youman M, Mather N. Dyslexia Laws in the USA: A 2018 Update. Perspectives on Language and Literacy. Spring 2018.
- ADA Requirements: Testing Accommodations. U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
- Treatment for Kids With Dyslexia. Understood.
- Orton-Gillingham. Institute for Multi-Sensory Education.
- Statistics. Dyslexia Center of Utah. 2020.
- Steven Spielberg Is Dyslexic: Director Discusses Managing Learning Disability. Huffington Post. September 25, 2012.
- Morin A. Success Stories: Celebrities With Dyslexia, ADHD, and Dyscalculia. Understood.
- Crockett K. Success Stories: Jay Leno, Comedian and Television Personality. Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.
- Bella Thorne. University of Michigan Dyslexia Help.
- Celebrities Who’ve Spoken Out About Dyslexia. MSN. August 10, 2016.