Dyslexia is not a visual problem, or a gift58 Replies
Dyslexia means severe difficulty reading words, despite adequate intervention and effort. It can start in adulthood after a stroke or injury, but typically begins in childhood for no immediately obvious reason. A detailed definition can be found here.
Is dyslexia a visual problem?
Dyslexia is not a visual problem, it’s a language-based problem. Like many others, I’ve said this before (here, here, here, here, here, and here) but the zombie idea of ‘visual dyslexia’ still seems to be wasting children’s time, and parents’ and taxpayers’ money, so it bears repeating.
The American Academy of Paediatrics’ Opthamologists’ Joint Statement on Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision says:
“Vision problems can interfere with the process of learning; however, vision problems are not the cause of primary dyslexia or learning disabilities. Scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses for improving the long-term educational performance in these complex pediatric neurocognitive conditions. Diagnostic and treatment approaches that lack scientific evidence of efficacy, including eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses, are not endorsed and should not be recommended”.
American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Ophthalmology Executive Committee, 2008-2009, reaffirmed 2014, https://www.aao.org/clinical-statement/joint-statement-learning-disabilities-dyslexia-vis
This statement has been endorsed by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Opthamologists. It has five pages of scientific references. Please share it with anyone who is considering vision-based dyslexia interventions like behavioural optometry, coloured overlays, Irlen lenses, the Lawson anti-suppression device, or special dyslexia fonts.
For more detail on controversial vision theories and therapies, visit the American Academy of Opthamology website, read this 2019 article in The Conversation, this 2018 article on the website Science Based Medicine and/or this article by Dr Kerry Hempenstall in the 2020 International Dyslexia Association journal. A 2019 systematic review re “Irlen Syndrome” (read it here), found lack of evidence that Irlen Syndrome exists, and lack of evidence that the treatments proposed for it work.
Children’s learning time is precious, and parents’ and taxpayers’ money needs to be spent wisely.
Do dyslexic people have special talents/gifts?
There are lots of smart, talented, capable people with dyslexia. Some have achieved great things in mathematics, science, art, architecture, entrepreneurship and other fields. They have shown that it’s possible to have dyslexia and still succeed in life.
It’s complete nonsense to flip this and suggest dyslexia gives you special talents and makes you more likely to succeed in life than average. The plural of anecdote is not data.
However, these claims persist, and interventions which lack scientific evidence are still being promoted and taken seriously. A Melbourne school this week helped market a Davis Dyslexia webinar, with an ad making extravagant claims about the special talents of people with dyslexia. Happily, readers of this blog alerted the school leadership to what turned out to be a mistake by the marketing team (thanks, Karen, Heidi and Nancy!), and the ad was removed, kudos to the school for acting so swiftly.
To establish a correlation between dyslexia and life achievement, scientific researchers would need to study a large, random sample of the population. They’d measure reading skills and levels of success/achievement (however that’s defined, I’m sure sociologists have ideas). They’d statistically analyse their data.
Three outcomes would be possible: 1) no correlation beyond what could be accounted for by random chance, 2) a correlation with above-average achievement, and 3) a correlation with below-average achievement. Even if a correlation were found between dyslexia and high achievement, correlation is not the same thing as causation. A third factor might be involved, or there might be multiple factors.
After this blog post was published, I heard from one of the co-authors of a 2021 systematic review of research into whether dyslexia conveys a creative benefit. Their results suggest that “individuals with dyslexia as a group are no more creative or show greater variability in creativity than peers without dyslexia”.
The whole ‘gift of dyslexia’ idea is also IMHO also rather cruel. It’s like telling a dyslexic child, ‘Not only are you expected to overcome your dyslexia, but I expect you to excel at something like art, architecture or entrepreneurship. No pressure.’
Children with word-level reading difficulties, whether they have dyslexia diagnoses or not, should have intensive, systematic, synthetic phonics teaching as part of a literacy curriculum based on scientific research (a useful, free evaluate-your-curriculum checklist is here). Like other children, they should be told they’re expected to play, have fun, rest and do their best at things that matter and things they love, however they decide to spend their one wild and precious life.