Dyslexia is a brain-based learning disorder that causes difficulties with reading and processing written language. Symptoms are often discovered when children learn to read. In school, children may struggle to retain language, remember the symbols for certain sounds, and understand the grammar and syntax needed to communicate in writing. While the condition is most often identified in elementary school, a diagnosis can come at any time in a person’s life. Dyslexia has no connection to intelligence—only to the complicated brain functions needed to process written language.
Dyslexia is the most common reason for difficulties in reading, writing, and spelling, and affects individuals regardless of gender or socio-economic background. It also occurs in populations across all languages.
Most common learning disorder
Of individuals diagnosed with a language-based learning
Up to 20%
Of individuals affected by some symptoms of dyslexia
Signs & Symptoms
Movies and media often portray dyslexia by having letters and words shift on a page. In reality, the signs and symptoms are more complicated—and can differ from case to case. People with the illness typically experience slow reading; adding, missing, or transposing letters in words; needing to read something two or three times to comprehend its meaning; and discomfort when reading out loud. Sometimes, it also affects spoken language and can make conversations difficult to join and understand.
The signs of dyslexia often look different depending on age. In young children, it can show up as a delay in talking, reversing sounds in words, and trouble remembering colors, letters, and shapes. Children may also struggle to remember nursery rhymes or songs. Once children begin school, symptoms often include reading below grade level, avoiding activities that involve reading, and experiencing difficulty answering questions, sequencing events, and sounding out unknown words.
Sometimes, dyslexia is not diagnosed until someone grows into a teenager or an adult. In those cases, symptoms can include reading slowly, mispronouncing or misspelling words, and experiencing difficulty with memorization and activities that require it, such as learning a foreign language or solving math problems. Teens and adults with dyslexia may also have trouble grasping jokes and wordplay or summarizing a story.
Causes and Risk Factors
predispose someone to develop this brain disorder. Other risk factors include low birth weight, being born premature, and exposure to substances during gestation that affect brain development.
The specifics of what causes dyslexia are still unclear, but MRIs show that dyslexia connects to brain structure. Even in people without dyslexia, reading is an incredibly complicated function. Multiple brain regions and cognitive processes come into play when someone connects the symbols of the alphabet to the meaning those words convey. A dyslexic brain develops and functions differently. For people with dyslexia, wiring in the left-brain hemisphere makes processing written language difficult.
For most people with dyslexia, a diagnosis often comes at a young age when they first have trouble learning to read and write. Schools track students’ reading levels and expect them to hit certain educational benchmarks. However, someone with dyslexia may not hit those levels on the same schedule. If learning to read and write seems especially difficult for a student, comprehensive evaluations may indicate a dyslexia diagnosis.
A licensed educational psychologist or a neurologist can diagnose dyslexia after assessing factors such as medical history, questionnaires, reading tests, and hearing, vision, and brain exams. An evaluation for this disorder measures both intellectual and academic abilities—the skill to recognize words in isolation and process the context of sentences. While dyslexia diagnoses tend to come early in life, there is no deadline for discovering and treating this learning disorder.
There is currently no cure for dyslexia. Each case is different, and so each treatment plan is different. Most people with dyslexia can learn to read and write effectively. However, dyslexia treatment does not come from medical intervention but from modifying learning methods and environments to better fit an individual’s needs. Because dyslexia symptoms vary so much in type and severity, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. A childhood diagnosis and early intervention help find what strategies work for an individual’s needs early on. That way, educators can integrate those methods into the rest of their education.
Educational methods including one-on-one support, structured study time, multi-sensory approaches, and immediate feedback can help a student build word recognition and reading comprehension. A specially trained interventionist will often use multi-sensory approaches, incorporating hearing, touch, and sight with language practice. Other classroom accommodations may include oral exams, extra time, reduced course load, or smaller class size.
For individuals with dyslexia, support at home is also beneficial. A parent can help their child build vocabulary, language fluency, reading comprehension, and confidence by reading aloud. Audiobooks may also help individuals of all ages further develop these skills. There is no deadline for diagnosing and treating dyslexia, and many teens and adults find effective coping strategies later in life.
Current research efforts funded through the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and other institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are focused on understanding the potential biological and genetic causes of learning disabilities and determining techniques for better diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. Other researchers are looking to understand brain function during activities like reading.
Orlena was driving with her young daughter in the car when she suffered a stroke because of a rare brain vessel disorder called Moyamoya. After two brain surgeries and six months unable to care for her daughter, Orlena began to reclaim her independence and became a Moyamoya advocate.
At 15 years old, Zoe has been navigating her Tourette syndrome diagnosis for eight years. “I had to figure out at a young age how my emotions affect my tics, from good to awful ways. It has been frustrating to figure out on my own and learn to deal with. This was the first moment in my life where my parents couldn’t fix something for me.”
Sasha was diagnosed with epilepsy after sustaining a soccer-related brain injury in high school. Since then, Sasha has worked to find both a treatment that controlled her seizures and a career that fulfilled her desire to care for others. “Life isn’t meant to be lived taking multiple medications and having seizures you can’t control.”
Before frontotemporal lobe dementia, sometimes called Pick’s disease, Ken Keene Sr. was a respected community member and a handyman who could fix anything. For his oldest son and namesake Ken Keene Jr., there was nothing his father couldn’t do: “To my family, he was just that super dad. Then all of a sudden he’s reaching out for help.”
It started with a twinge. After a simple surgery and some physical therapy, Morgan wasn’t getting better. It took two more surgeries before she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) type II.
In 2018, Kelly was diagnosed with glioblastoma after an MRI confirmed that a golf-ball-sized tumor above her right ear was affecting the left side of her body. After surgery to remove the tumor, Kelly was able to get through her darkest days with a healthy dose of humor. Now she is an advocate for other patients living with strokes and brain tumors.
When her father was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2005, Nancy quickly shifted into the role of his caregiver. Nancy and her sisters drew from their individual strengths to provide their father with medical assistance and emotional support until his passing in 2012. At that time, he was diagnosed again with Lewy body dementia. “No matter what your financial situation, there’s probably going to be help out there… Just don’t do it alone, because burning yourself out is not going to help anybody.”
Maureen worked as a high school English teacher until she started experiencing a confusing array of symptoms that affected her ability to work, along with her relationships with family and friends. After visiting numerous specialists for years, Maureen received a delayed diagnosis of Lewy body dementia. Now Maureen wants to raise awareness about what life is like with living with this disease. “I felt that I just wanted to offer something to this community that I hadn’t been able to find really.”
For the first 32 years of his life, Joey experienced seizures from epilepsy. For several years, Joey worked hard in his career as a pipe welder and in construction until his seizures started happening more frequently and intensely. Brain surgery became Joey’s only viable option for treatment. Doctors were unsure if Joey would be able to survive after finding more brain damage than expected, but he surprised everyone by thriving during his post-surgery recovery.
At age 40, Ben was perfectly healthy and active until he started noticing the early symptoms of a neurological condition that weakened his physical movements. After a 2-year search for his diagnosis of X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy, he began his journey as an advocate for others living with rare diseases. Last year, Ben joined the board of the American Brain Foundation to further his impact.
In 2002, while her young daughter battled a fatal diagnosis of pons glioma, Michele experienced a life-threatening brain hemorrhage when a brain malformation she likely had since birth ruptured. She experienced drastic changes in the way her brain functioned, especially in regard to memory and spatial awareness. Today, Michele is still learning to adjust. “When someone’s brain is not functioning correctly it impacts everything in their life. It impacts how they think, how they feel about themselves, it’s a very hopeless space to be in as a person.”
Matt is a husband, father, and professional photographer. Over the past 11 years, he has had surgeries and radiation to remove five benign brain tumors. Following the third surgery, he began to experience more struggles in his daily life. “I think the biggest loss is my relationship to my family. They saw me as the dad and strong. Now they can’t count on me as much. It’s important to support people with brain disease ‘cause it can happen to anybody.’”
When she was in her early 30’s, Mary Jo’s relationship with her parents was forever altered by brain disease. Her father suffered a subdural hematoma, was diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy, and experienced a stroke while her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. “They’re a responsibility that I have to take care of as they have taken care of me.”