About Dyslexia: Symptoms, Signs, Statistics, and a Personal Story

Dr. Ned Hallowell examines his past with dyslexia and provides information on diagnosing and treating dyslexia.


Filed Under: Learning Disabilities, ADHD Symptoms, Self Esteem,
How to Improve Reading Skills in Children with ADHD or Learning Disabilities ADDitude Magazine

You need someone who will smile as you write funny, read upside down, or make up words.

Edward Hallowell, M.D.

Let me tell you about a first-grader who had trouble learning to read.

He entered first grade in 1955 in a public school in a small town on Cape Cod. He had trouble with Dick and Jane and letters, sounds, and words.

His teacher, a kindly woman with white, curly hair, wore lots of powder that sprinkled down on her students as she walked by. She was a human sugar doughnut. Her name was Mrs. Eldredge, and while she was firm in preserving order in the classroom, she never ridiculed or embarrassed anyone.

During reading period, as the students sat at round tables and took turns reading aloud -- "See Spot run! Run! Run! Run!" -- Mrs. Eldredge went from table to table, listening and correcting pronunciations, sprinkling powder on her students as she passed by. When she came to the boy who struggled with reading, she pulled up a chair and sat down next to him, putting an arm around him and drawing him closer to her prodigious, protective bosom. As he stammered and stuttered, unable to produce the right sounds, Mrs. Eldredge hugged him to her. None of the children laughed at his clumsy reading because he had the enforcer next to him.

I was that little boy. At the end of first grade, I was still a poor reader, and, to this day, I'm painfully slow at getting through a book. I would have benefited from an Orton-Gillingham tutor back then.

The intervention I needed most, though, I got. It was Mrs. Eldredge's arm, which took the fear out of trying to read. When her arm encircled me, I felt no shame in having my kind of brain. I have a dyslexic brain, a disordered brain, call it what you will. But if it weren't for Mrs. Eldredge, I wouldn't have come to enjoy my poor old brain. My brain got me through Harvard as an English major and a pre-med minor. I graduated magna cum laude and went on to medical school, residency, and fellowship. I write books.

None of this would have happened without Mrs. Eldredge's arm. Even though Mrs. Eldredge now resides in heaven -- perhaps sprinkling powder on clouds as I write -- she continues to help me. I remember to thank her almost every day.

If you're born with a brain that harbors dyslexia, I would say, "Lucky you!" You have untestable and immeasurable potential. You're a surprise package; no one knows what you can do, including you. But I can tell you from years of experience that you can do special things. You have many talents that can't be taught, and a brain that eludes the predictive powers of our wisest sayers of sooth.

But I would also say, "Watch out!" You need a guide, one who has been down these trails and can show you how to get through the desert and over the mountains. You need someone who will never let you give up, someone who can make you know that there's more to you than you can show or tell right now.

You also need a careful, diagnostic workup. You need the benefits of the wonderful treatments for dyslexia. You are lucky to have dyslexia in 2004, because the process of treatment for it is possible now.

Learning Disabilities may be defined as difficulty learning to read and spell that can't be explained by lack of education, poor eyesight, or deficient mental capacity. If you have dyslexia, you may learn to read, but you will read with difficulty. You will struggle to develop fluency, or the ease reading takes on for people who don't have the condition. For them, reading becomes as automatic as riding a bike. They don't have to think about maintaining their balance. That's what it means to be fluent. But for the dyslexic, fluency is tough to acquire. He can read, but only slowly and only with effort and concentration.

Learning Disabilities affects 15-20% of the U.S. population. It's common in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). Exact figures are hard to come by, but at least 20% of those with ADHD also have dyslexia. Consult a reading specialist to get a definitive diagnosis.

Sometimes people confuse ADHD with dyslexia, but they are different disabilities. Learning Disabilities is a language-based learning disability; ADHD is a deficiency of attention. When you treat ADHD, the symptoms of dyslexia may improve; the new-found capability for paying attention helps in reading. While medication is an effective ADHD treatment, there is no medication that helps dyslexia.

What helps is specialized tutoring. You need to develop phonic awareness, the ability to break down words into their component sounds -- symbolized by the letters of the alphabet. Sally Shaywitz, one of the pioneers in dyslexia studies [and author of Overcoming Learning Disabilities], calls this "breaking the code." Fluency is a problem for a dyslexic. Ask an adult to read something aloud. If he stumbles and stops and starts, most likely he has dyslexia. The good news is that he can be treated, no matter what his age.

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