Normally dyslexia is considered a “handicap,” a “disability,” and some people call it a mental deficiency that makes reading, long-division and remembering whether letters and numbers face left or right difficult. Challenging this view, learning disabilities experts Brock and Fernette Eide argue that dyslexia is an alternative way brains can be wired — one with many advantages. Here are excerpts from a recent interview in Wired. Click here to read the whole interview.
While dyslexic children may struggle in the early grades, they often grow into gifted story tellers, inventors and entrepreneurs. The Eides’ new book The Dyslexic Advantage, helps dyslexics and their families recognize and nurture the benefits of a dyslexic brain. The authors recently discussed some of these benefits with Wired.
Wired: What is your working definition of dyslexia?
Brock Eide: The generally accepted definition focuses on the difficulties with reading and spelling that are unexpected, given a child’s individual level of intelligence and their educational exposure. We think that definition is inadequate for practical use, because the actual symptoms vary a lot. We’ll see dyslexic kids with a verbal IQ of 140 or 145 who will read with good comprehension, and as a consequence won’t be recognized as dyslexic. But they still read at fairly slow pace relative to other students in the gifted programs, and their performance will suffer from their slow reading speed.
Wired: What are the major misconceptions surrounding the condition?
Fernette Eide: One of the biggest misconceptions is that dyslexic brains differ only in the ways they process printed symbols, when in reality they show an alternative pattern of processing that affects the way they process information across the board. Dyslexic brains are organized in a way that maximizes strength in making big picture connections at the expense of weaknesses in processing fine details. They establish a different pattern of connections and circuitry, creating a different kind of problem-solving apparatus. The difference is global, not just in certain areas of the brain. This difference in development creates a real mismatch between what they need to learn and the way that traditional education is doled out in the early grades.
Wired: What are the major strengths of having a dyslexic brain?
Brock: We outline four major strength profiles in the book, and fundamentally each of these profiles reflects a different but related way in which dyslexic brains are especially good at putting together big pictures, or seeing larger context, or imagining how processes will play out over time. Some dyslexic individuals are especially good at spatial reasoning. Interconnected reasoning is another kind of strength. Most dyslexics tend to remember facts as experiences, examples or stories, rather than abstractions. We call this pattern narrative reasoning, which we consider the third strength. The fourth ability we outline is the ability to reason well in dynamic settings when the facts are incomplete or changing.
Wired: Do most dyslexic individuals demonstrate a particular strength, or do they show combinations?
Brock: Most dyslexics show combinations of these strengths. Probably 80 to 90 percent of the dyslexic individuals we’ve worked with show a narrative-type brain, and many of these individuals show strengths in dynamic reasoning. Interconnected reasoning is similarly common. Surprisingly, spatial reasoning, which is often viewed as the quintessential dyslexic skill, is a bit more hit or miss.
Wired: What is an example of a perceived mental weakness that hides a mental strength?
Fernette: Most of what is done in the classroom in the early grades focuses on acquiring the kind of rote skills that are dependent on perceiving visual or auditory things very clearly, and learning skills automatically to the point where you don’t have to think about them. These are just the kinds of rote and fine detail skills that dyslexic kids tend to have difficulty learning.
Wired: You make the case in your book that the brains of dyslexic people are wired differently. What do you mean by that?
Brock: From our perspective the most interesting data comes from Dr. Manuel Casanova, from the University of Louisville, Kentucky. He’s found that some people have tightly packed minicolumns of neurons, for others they are spaced widely apart. People with broadly spaced minicolumns, tend to create more connections between functionally more diverse parts of the brain, which can help to support very life-like memories of past events, and more complex mental simulations and comparisons. It’s at this end of the spectrum that Casanova tended to find people with dyslexia.
Wired: If I was the parent of a dyslexic child, what advice would you give to me?
Brock: One of the most important things is to remember to focus on identifying and building strengths. Too often all the focus is on “fixing what’s wrong” rather than celebrating and nurturing what’s right, and that’s a big mistake. But when it does come to improving performance in areas of struggle, help should be tailored to the specific child.
For other personal perspectives, read this reflection by Dr. Blake Charlton, physician and novelist, and this one by Pulitzer Prize winning author Phillip Schultz.
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