On Overcoming Dyslexia — and ADHD

Dr. Edward Hallowell, renowned expert on ADHD, shares his inspiring personal journey toward overcoming dyslexia, along with insight into ADD’s comorbid learning disabilities and tips for treatments in adults and children.

A person holding a book open. Overcoming dyslexia, a reading disorder, involves treatments and constant encouragement.

A Story of Overcoming Dyslexia: The Beginning

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. 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.

A Story of Overcoming Dyslexia: The Importance of Support

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.

[Take the Test for Dyslexia in Children]
[Take the Dyslexia Test for Adults]

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 have dyslexia, I would say, “Lucky you!” You have untestable, unmeasurable potential. You are a surprise package; no one knows what you can do, including you. But I can tell you from years of experience 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.

[Click to Read: “How My Dyslexic Son Fell Out of Love with Books and How I Brought Him Back”]

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

A Story of Overcoming Dyslexia: Dispelling the Myths

Dyslexia may be defined as a 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.

Dyslexia is common, more common that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), affecting around 15 to 20 percent of the population. It is also common in people who have ADHD. Exact figures are hard to calculate, but at least 20 percent of those with ADHD also have dyslexia. For a diagnostic workup and treatment you should consult a reading specialist.

Sometimes people confuse dyslexia and ADHD, but in fact they are distinct and separate. Dyslexia refers to a reading problem. ADHD refers to a problem with sustaining attention and organizing your life. When ADHD symptoms are treated, the symptoms of dyslexia may improve, but this is only because everything that the person does, including reading, improves when they can sustain attention. While medication is an effective ADHD treatment, there is no medication that helps dyslexia.

A Story of Overcoming Dyslexia: Treatments That Work

What helps is specialized tutoring. You need to develop phonemic awareness, the ability to break down words into the component sounds as symbolized by the letters. Sally Shaywitz, one of the great figures in the field of dyslexia, calls this “breaking the code.” But you also need to develop fluency. You can detect a nonfluent adult by asking them to read aloud. If they stumble and stop and start, they are not fluent and likely have dyslexia. The good news is that they can be treated, although treatment is much easier in young children.

While Shaywitz and other experts stress the importance of phonemic awareness, breaking the code, and becoming fluent, British expert Dr. Roy Rutherford offers a new, and still unproven, approach that may be an adjunct treatment for dyslexia. He and his colleagues have developed the Dore method of exercises to stimulate the cerebellum, located at the base of the brain. Rutherford believes that specialized tutoring, the standard treatment for dyslexia, should be combined with cerebellar stimulation for best results.

“Phonological skill is only one part of the problem,” he says. “Training only phonemic awareness is like training only the forehand in tennis. If you practice your forehand for a year, you will develop a superb forehand, but that doesn’t mean you’re a superb tennis player. If you measure excellence at tennis by assessing only one skill, you are obviously not addressing the whole game. So it is with dyslexia.”

As in treating ADHD, it is important in treating dyslexia to identify areas of interest and to build on talents and strengths. Otherwise, the child or adult will simply feel that he or she is stupid. You need to provide accommodations, like books on tape or keyboarding, to allow the individual to develop and express the creativity and dexterity with ideas that most dyslexics possess. The strength-based approach is vital. Whatever the treatment a person receives for either dyslexia or ADHD, promoting talents and strengths will invigorate the treatment and make it far more valuable.

The individual with dyslexia (or ADHD) needs an optimistic, well-trained guide who looks for the positive and sets up the conditions for the positive to emerge. He needs the Mrs. Eldredges and the Sally Shaywitzes of this world, who will smile when you write funny or read upside down or make up words, not cast looks of deep concern. The dyslexic person needs a guide who has been there and seen it. The dyslexic person needs a guide who knows that with an arm around them they can soar.

Soar where? That is for us to find out. But the dyslexic individual needs a guide who knows that as they misspeak, get flustered, underachieve, makes messes and miss the social cues they are so famous for missing, and put their shoes on backward, that they have a zany angel inside them. If we can keep them from believing the bad things ignorant people say about them, they will eventually lead those ignorant people to a better world.

[Read This Next: The Defining Signs of Dyslexia Too Often Ignored]


From Delivered from Distraction, by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, Copyright ©2004. Published by Ballantine books.