What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a neurological condition caused by a different wiring of the brain that affects how you process language. It’s a learning disability that makes it hard to match the letters you’re reading with the sounds they make. That makes reading a challenge.
Dyslexia is sometimes called a hidden disability. It’s more common than you might think, but even as adults, many people don’t know they have it. There’s no link between dyslexia and how smart you are. It’s just that your brain works a little differently, so it’s hard for you to make the connections between letters, words, and sounds.
You might have struggled in school. And you may still find that reading is slow going, but you never had a name for what was wrong. If you do have dyslexia, it isn’t something that came on as you got older. It’s been there all along, but nobody realized it.
There are different parts of the reading process that can be hard for people with dyslexia. You may see lists of different types of dyslexia, but anyone with dyslexia can experience some or all of these:
- Dysphonesia. Difficulty pronouncing and hearing the different sounds of unfamiliar words.
- Dysnemkinesia. Trouble remembering how to make the movements need to write letters, for example writing a “b” instead of a “d.”
- Dyeidesia. Problems recognizing words by sight and connecting them to the way they sound.
Symptoms of Dyslexia in Adults
Dyslexia can lead to trouble:
- Reading (including reading aloud). You might avoid reading out loud or any kind of reading.
- Writing. It might be hard to take notes. You could avoid any kind of labor-intensive writing. It may take a long time to complete anything in writing. Even if you know a topic really well, it can be hard to explain it in writing.
- Pronouncing words. You may feel the right word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t come up with it.
- Understanding jokes or sayings. You could have trouble with phrases where words don’t have their usual meaning, like“it’s raining cats and dogs.”
- Doing math, or other tasks related to numbers.
- Responding on the spot. You might also feel anxious when you’re expected to say something.
- Learning foreign languages.
- Managing your time and meeting deadlines.
Conditions associated with dyslexia
People with dyslexia may also have other learning disabilities or emotional challenges including:
- Attention deficit disorder or attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Memory difficulties
- Dyscalculia (trouble with math)
- Dysgraphia (trouble with handwriting)
- Dyspraxia (difficulty with motor skill coordination)
- Problems with executive function (the ability to be organized and problem-solve)
Causes of Dyslexia in Adults
The exact cause of dyslexia isn’t known. But it has been linked to changes in genes that affect development of the parts of the brain involved in communication. This may be why the condition tends to run in families.
You might be more at risk for having dyslexia if you:
- Have a family history of dyslexia or learning disabilities
- Were born prematurely or at a low birth weight
- Were exposed to nicotine, drugs or other toxins during pregnancy that might have affected your brain development
- Had ear infections as a child that led to a loss of hearing
If you think you have dyslexia, but aren’t sure, you can get tested for it. Dyslexia isn’t a medical problem, so it’s not as simple as going to your pediatrician or internist for a quick test. Still, you can ask your doctor for advice on where and how to get tested. You can also check with:
- A speech therapist
- Hospitals or health clinics that are tied to universities
- Psychologists (psychology departments at local universities or colleges)
- Education departments
Once you find an expert, they’ll ask questions about your medical history and what problems you’re having. From there they can do a number of tests, including:
- Vision, hearing, or neurological (brain) tests to see if there is another condition that might be causing your difficulties
- Reading and academic skills tests to take a look at your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to speaking, reading, spelling, and writing.
- Psychological tests to better understand your mental health. This can help them figure out if social problems, anxiety, or depression are limiting your abilities.
Although there’s no cure for dyslexia, it’s something you can learn to work with. Even if you’re an adult, it isn’t too late to do something about it. If you’ve been diagnosed with dyslexia, there’s a lot you can do to make your life a little easier:
Use technology. In some cases, technology can help you get things done faster and easier. For example:
- Calendars, organizers, and reminders on your phone or computer might be easier to use than paper ones.
- Many web browsers and word processors will read what’s on the screen out loud to you. This is called text-to-speech. Some computers also have this function built into the operating system. Check your computer’s accessibility features to find out.
- Speech recognition software turns your spoken words into text so you can speak instead of typing.
- Word processing programs can correct spelling and other writing mistakes for you.
- Audiobooks/books on tape don't require reading.
Take in information in a few different ways. When you have dyslexia, it can help to try more than one way to take in info. For example, you could record a meeting or class while you take notes. That lets you use your eyes and your ears -- you have written notes you can read and a recording you can listen along to.
You might also want to use “mind mapping” instead of written lists. Mind maps give you a different way to organize information. Instead of just a list of words, you use images and keywords to help you see details and connections.
Break big tasks into small steps. If you have a big school or work project, try to break it down into smaller pieces right from the start. When you do this up front, you give yourself space to see how and when you can get everything done. You might even put a calendar on a giant sticky note or whiteboard to make it easier to see everything.
Talk to your school or employer. Dyslexia is a disability. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), schools and workplaces have to make reasonable changes to help you succeed. It’s the law. For example, they may:
- Allow extra time for tasks that are especially hard for you.
- Give you information in a way that’s most useful to you. That could mean telling you directions instead of writing them down -- or emailing them instead of printing them so you can use text-to-speech on your computer.
- Provide you with technology that helps you get your work done, like voice recorders or speech recognition software.
- Provide support or guidance for classes on managing dyslexia.