Dyslexia a Strange Neurological Disorder has been around for a long time and has been defined in different ways. For example, in 1968, the World Federation of Neurologists defined dyslexia as “a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing, and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities.”
The International Dyslexia Association offers the following definition of dyslexia:”Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
The last seven or eight decades have witnessed some of the greatest advances in medical science. Scientists have zeroed in on the causes of many diseases and have found the cures or vaccines for most of them including such dreaded scourges as malaria, typhoid, jaundice, diphtheria and measles. But a few major ailments like cancer, still continue to take a heavy toll of human life. Now Covid-19 is sweeping across the world causing mortality on a scale greater than the Bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, Ebola fever and SARS combined.
It is however tragic that a neurological disorder like dyslexia is causing misery to lakhs of children all over the world which in turn is causing anguish and pain to their parents .
Dyslexia severely inhibits a child’s ability to spell, write and read and even speak correctly. Children Dyslexics cannot follow or remember even simple instructions. Some cannot differentiate between right and left. Some write only backwards from right to left—a peculiarity described as mirror writing.
Dyslexia severely inhibits a child’s ability to spell, write and read and even speak correctly.
Some typical spelling mistakes they make when writing the following words
a) Spelling words as they sound e.g wont instead of want,
b) Mixing up the sequence of letters e.g ‘hlep’ instead of ’help’
c) Reversing the sequence of letters e.g ‘was’ instead of ‘saw’
d) Missing out a letter e.g ‘wich’ instead of ‘which’
e) Using the wrong letter e.g ‘showt’ instead of ‘shout’
f) Adding an extra letter e.g. ‘ whent’ the instead of ‘went’
g) Using a ‘t’ instead of ‘ed’ e.g lookt’ instead of looked’
h) Cant remember when to use ‘ck’ or ‘ke’ at the end e.g ‘lick’ instead of ‘like’
Words and sentences get twisted.)
Researchers have long been struggling to understand the cause of this disorder. They had variously attributed the disorder to environmental, genetic or psychological factors. Now for the first time after looking deep into the human brain, neurologists have discovered convincing evidence of its true cause; the brains of dyslexic children are physically different from those of normal children.
To identify those vital differences scientists have now performed autopsies on dyslexics who had died in accidents and studied the brain wave patterns of children who suffer from the affliction. A sophisticated diagnostic technique that permits post-mortem examination of layers of brain cells reveals dyslexic abnormalities, never before seen in such minute detail. New equipment that combines a computer with an electroencephalograph enables researchers to pinpoint the distinctive wave patterns in the brains of dyslexics— which should lead to a better diagnosis at an earlier age in children.
As scientists are getting closer to the neurological causes of dyslexia, child psychologists and doctors are laying more emphasis on the fact that special training, patience and hard work can enable dyslexics to have successful and productive careers, sometimes in difficult professions. A study of the progress made by about 600 graduates of America’s oldest school for dyslexic boys, the Gow School in South Wales, New York near Buffalo, has shown positive and encouraging trends. Their academic record was impressive in terms of degrees earned.
About 50 per cent of the college graduates went on to take up jobs at the managerial level; almost 20 per cent went in for professional or technical careers in fields such as architecture, engineering and teaching. Another 15 per cent became salesmen. But what is more surprising and perhaps significant is that more than half have taken up ‘reading’ for pleasure and most of the graduates of Gow School have gone into disciplines that require a fair amount of reading.
It has been noticed that dyslexic children often experience embarrassing ordeals as they are not only prevented by their ailment from mentally processing words as normal children do but are also misunderstood and humiliated by their teachers. Their emotional state is characterized by a bruised self-esteem.
Though many parents, teachers and even psychologists treat dyslexics as slow and unmotivated and sometimes mentally retarded and as such subject them to innumerable psychological tests and rounds of counselling the fact is that most dyslexics have normal or above normal levels of intelligence. Though dyslexia is regarded as a learning disorder it cannot be viewed as just a disability in comprehending words. It is much more complicated. Scientists now suspect that language, hearing and seeing all may be involved and causing confusion that could take endless variations.
For example, a dyslexic may read words correctly in one place and then read the same words incorrectly in the next paragraph! A few misunderstand oral directions or do not hear differences between words. To them ‘ten’ may sound like ‘tin’ or ‘loom’ like ‘loam’. What they write down is often not what was said. As indicated earlier the most common manifestation of the disorder is atrocious spelling. Another manifestation is a reversal of digits which can make basic arithmetic a formidable chore. Many dyslexics pronounce words incorrectly or use body talk. Some are tone-deaf, others lack a sense of coordination. They cannot tie shoelaces or cut along a dotted line or stay within the lines while colouring a picture. To differentiate between right and left, dyslexics often rely on a ring or a bracelet or a watch.
Modern neurologists attribute the disabilities of dyslexia to defects in the functioning of the brain. According to them a dyslexic’s eyes and ears function normally and pick up letters and sounds in the usual manner. But his brain scrambles or distorts the information received resulting in an incorrect processing and wrong interpretation of audio-visual material.
Until very recently scientists had felt that dyslexia was probably caused by a competition between the brain’s left and right hemispheres i.e. one side of the brain acquiring dominance over the other, a theory no doubt arising out of an observation of large number of patients suffering from‘ mixed dominance’ (i.e. a right handed person favouring the left foot or left eye). But two doctors in Boston who examined a dissected dyslexic brain for the first time were able to find several interesting facts. (The brain belonged to a twenty-year old man killed in an accident. He had been diagnosed as a dyslexic at the age of six.) The brain appeared normal during routine autopsy studies.
But when slices of it were studied under a microscope by a sophisticated technique known as cytoarchitectonics, abnormalities were revealed in the left hemisphere. Layers of cells normally arranged in precise patterns were in disarray, bits of grey matter showed up in sections ordinarily made up of white matter. One part of the left hemisphere was considerably smaller than normal. Such anomalies had been noticed in foetal brain cells indicating that dyslexia originates with a breakdown in the brain’s normal process of development.
It is now beginning to be regarded as a neurological (as opposed to a psychological) disorder traceable to foetal development in the sixteenth to twenty-fourth week of the gestation period. Examination of the brains of some other dyslexia patients has confirmed the above findings.
There is some basis to conclude that heredity does appear to be involved in dyslexia. There is also evidence to show that more males than females are vulnerable to a wide range of disorders at birth; the left side of the male brain tends to develop more slowly than that of the female brain. The male hormone testesterone is also a contributing factor. A high level of this hormone in a foetus during the formation of the brain delays the migration of the nerve cells to the left hemisphere causing left- handedness as well as learning disabilities or other disorders.
Apart from the left hemisphere, one doctor in Boston found abnormalities in still other areas of dyslexic children’s brains using the new instrument called BEAM (Brain Electrical Activity Mapping). This instrument which records and displays the brains electrical activity converts data from an electroencephalograph into a colour topographic map of the head and projects it on a video screen. After studying the brain patterns of more than a hundred dyslexic children and comparing the patterns with those of non- dyslexics this doctor noticed perceptible differences in electrical activity throughout the brain.
Diagnosing dyslexia appears to be easy but a cure is yet to be found. Some scientists feel that tranquilizers stimulants, and some synthetic brain chemicals that could improve the function of defective areas may help the patient to some extent. As of now the most effective way to treat a young dyslexic is through special educational techniques and ‘retraining.’ Special reading programmes in exclusive schools are found to be useful.
Heavy emphasis is laid on phonetic training, and word recognition drills; when a boy is reading a play, the teacher puts on a record of the play enabling the student to read along silently with the actors; speeches are videotaped to enable students to see and hear how actors deliver certain phrases. Even after years of training and guidance many dyslexics would like to avoid writing whenever possible.
Another dyslexic who contributes columns to a newspaper in Massachusetts claims that while he is good at dictating, he can hardly spell a word! Such is the plight of these unfortunate individuals who live in some sort of a twilight zone. In the meantime, however, the medical community is optimistic that sooner or later a cure for this strange affliction is bound to be discovered in by someone endowed with the genius and imagination of a Hubel or a Sperry. Who can understand the mysterious workings of the brain “which is the apparatus with which we think, we think” as someone said.