By Gordon Sherman, Ph.D.
Brains of people with dyslexia are different in many ways. Starting early in life, the language network and certain sensory systems develop along a unique trajectory. It is the interaction between genes and environment that modifies the development of these systems, producing a distinctive learning profile we call dyslexia. Dyslexia varies from individual to individual in the combination and degree of strengths and weaknesses due to the intricacies of brain development and countless environmental variables. Dyslexia is lifelong but amenable to educational intervention.
How does this neuroscientific view of dyslexia inform teaching of children and adults with this learning disability? Let's explore the interaction of these brain-based differences with the environment.
In dyslexia, the cortical language network of the brain is a network distinctly different in appearance, organization, and function. These differences probably account for the fact that most people with dyslexia need direct instruction in phonological processing (producing/interpreting language sound patterns) and in alphabetic skills (written symbols representing speech). Weak phonological and alphabetic skills set the stage for a complex set of consequences, including difficulty learning to read, write, and spell.
Another difference involves the sensory nuclei of the thalamus. There are smaller nerve cells in lower-level visual and auditory processing centers that may affect processing of fast information - like flashing pictures or rapidly presented words or sounds. (Some findings link a deficit in fast processing with severe language difficulties, although this hypothesis is controversial.)
Clearly, brains with atypical language and sensory systems are at a disadvantage in a traditional educational environment, where fast-paced, linguistically loaded instruction prevails.
Another brain-based condition, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), may exacerbate dyslexia. Motor, attention, and arousal systems differ in many people with dyslexia. Add increased impulsiveness, distractibility, and hyperactivity to modified language and sensory systems and big challenges can ensue, particularly in learning to read.
Achieving success with dyslexia, especially when combined with AD/HD, can be a circuitous and uphill struggle. Nevertheless, people with this learning disability often excel in life. Almost always, though, their stories involve painful struggles with the educational system - where most dyslexic brains function as square pegs in round holes. Not because they are inferior, as the achievements of people with dyslexia attest, but because the peg and hole do not always match.
The point here is subtle but important - the environment can render the learning difference a learning disability. Far from an esoteric or semantic distinction, this scientific perspective informs enlightened educational planning and policy, illuminating solutions and reasons for implementing them. Dyslexia is an example of human brain variation. Human diversity is more than a politically correct concept. Diversity propels evolution by permitting adaptability to various environments. History and science tell us that environments inevitably change and that brain diversity may benefit our species.
This is not to say, however, that dyslexia is a minor learning problem or some inconsequential blip falling within the normal range of variation. Parents and educators alike must recognize that dyslexia is a distinctly different brain organization that can be profoundly disabling, particularly in the context of a poorly designed educational environment.
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