What Is Dyslexia? Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Dyslexia is a learning disability associated with reading. Dyslexic children and adults may struggle with sight words, phonemic awareness, phonological processing, and other symptoms that impact reading speed, ease, and understanding. Learn about all of dyslexia’s symptoms, causes, diagnosis criteria, and available treatments.

The word "dyslexia" printed on paper macro
word dyslexia printed on white paper macro

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a brain-based learning disorder that affects reading ability. While symptoms of dyslexia manifest in many ways, dyslexic individuals often experience struggles with the components that make up reading like phonemic awareness or phonological processing. They can’t easily recognize and break down the sounds of letters, or segment words into syllables. A patient with dyslexia might report that he reads the word “doctor” as “do-ctor,” instead of “doc-tor.”

Rhyming and fast, effortless recognition of sight words (”the,” “and,” “it,” etc.) are also common problems that affect the rate, accuracy, fluency, and comprehension of text.

Retrieving already-known words can be challenging for a person with dyslexia, and the rapid naming of letters, objects, colors, and pictures may be impaired, too. Learning the alphabet, as a result, is often more difficult for children with the condition.

Other challenges include spelling, cursive writing, foreign languages, and any information that relies on rote memory (phone numbers, addresses, multiplication tables, etc.).

[Could You Be Dyslexic? Take The Dyslexia Symptom Test for Adults]
[Think Your Child May Be Dyslexic? Take the Dyslexia Symptom Test for Children]

What Do Symptoms of Dyslexia Look Like?

Dyslexia symptoms can vary from person to person, but common markers include:

  • Struggling with phonemic awareness, or the ability to differentiate between and use individual sounds in words
  • Slow or distorted phonological processing, or differentiating between various phonemes (or “speech sounds”)
  • Reading or writing letters or words out of order; poor spelling
  • Reading slowly or with frequent pauses
  • Difficulty sounding out unknown words
  • Misuse or total disregard of punctuation
  • Difficulty mastering correct spelling or age-appropriate vocabulary
  • Trouble with handwriting
  • Difficulty recalling known words
  • Delayed speech development
  • Trouble rhyming
  • Short attention span
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Trouble distinguishing letters, numerals or sounds

Dyslexia isn’t just a childhood disorder — symptoms can and often continue to manifest into adulthood.

What Causes Dyslexia?

Dyslexia’s causes are not fully understood — though like other learning disabilities, the condition appears to be highly genetic. Recent studies have also identified several specific genes that may predispose a person to developing dyslexia.

[Dyslexia and Beyond: 10 Damaging Myths About Learning Disabilities]

More than 90 percent of American adults have heard of dyslexia and recognize it as a real difficulty. It affects about 6 percent of the population, though some studies demonstrate that nearly 20 percent of Americans may have some symptoms.

Is Dyslexia a Disability?

Dyslexia is a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), meaning that employers need to provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace for adults with dyslexia that require them. Possible accommodations for adults with dyslexia include using assistive technologies, like software that can read documents aloud, and asking for summaries of lengthy reports.

Is Dyslexia a Mental Disorder?

Dyslexia is not considered an intellectual or developmental disorder. It is a neurological problem that typically stems from differences in the way the brain processes language.

Dyslexia can be confusing for outside observers, especially because symptoms often coexist with high verbal abilities.“We tend to expect good speakers to be good readers,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D. “But this is not the case with dyslexics.”

How is Dyslexia Diagnosed?

There is no one test for dyslexia. An accurate diagnosis involves getting an evaluation at school or through a private medical professional who specializes in dyslexia and/or learning disabilities.

If you’re an adult, ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a learning disabilities specialist.

For a child, the diagnostic process can start with communicating with the school if reading problems are exhibited, and then requesting an evaluation for possible special education services and accommodations. The evaluation will test the child’s proficiency with reading, rhyming, spelling, and writing, and rule out any other learning disabilities or mental disorders, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and/or anxiety. Parents can also ask pediatricians for a referral, especially after ruling out any other causes of the child’s reading problems, like vision or hearing issues.

How Do You Treat Dyslexia?

There is no medication to treat dyslexia. Accommodations and interventions to the school and work environment are commonly put in place to meet the specific needs of the person with dyslexia.

Most experts recommend that children start interventions for dyslexia by the third grade so they have the greatest chance to catch up in reading levels and comprehension. The longer dyslexia goes undiagnosed, the more it can hinder reading development and impact self-esteem, among other facets. Still, treatment and accommodations, regardless of when dyslexia was diagnosed, can be helpful at any age.

For children with dyslexia — after the school or private evaluator provides a formal dyslexia diagnosis, the school is required to hold a meeting to determine if the child is eligible for services. Dyslexia is covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Specific reading interventions for managing dyslexia include programs like Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, and Lindamood-Bell, to name just a few.

Other academic interventions might include:

  • Providing summaries
  • Vocabulary lists
  • Issuing materials ahead of time so the student has extra time to prepare.
  • Providing materials that are slightly altered to a more appropriate reading level
  • Allowing technologies like audio books and alternate media

Parents can help, too, by encouraging children to read at home. Keeping books around the house, and making sure that your child sees other family members reading as much as possible — even if it’s just skimming the newspaper over breakfast — can all work wonders toward developing stronger reading skills.

Dyslexia Symptoms & Treatment: Next Steps