Dyslexia and ADHD: Identifying, Understanding and Treating Reading Disorders in Children

8-17-15 Olivardia, Roberto PIC

Studies show that approximately 50-60% of people with ADHD also have a learning disability. The most common learning disability is dyslexia. In actuality, dyslexia should be seen as a learning difference, not disability, as it is only a true disability when it is not properly addressed.

Largely misunderstood, dyslexia affects anywhere from 8-17% of the population. It is highly heritable, with anywhere from 25% to 65% of children with dyslexia having a dyslexic parent. The prevalence rate among individuals with an affected sibling is about 50%.

Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia is not reading letters or words backwards. According to The International Dyslexia Association, Dyslexia is:

“… a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities… Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”

Dyslexia can affect the fluency and comprehension of written material in many ways. For example, people with dyslexia may have difficulty with phonemic awareness, such as breaking down the sounds of letters; trouble segmenting words, like seeing “teac-her” instead of “teach-er;” and struggle with rhyming problems and poor automaticity of sight words (such as “the”).

Features of Dyslexia Include:

  • Difficulty learning a foreign language.
  • Trouble with Dr. Seuss books (although great ones to read), since his use of ‘nonsense’ words actually test a child’s decoding skills with unfamiliar words that cannot be easily memorized.
  • Incorrectly substituting words, such as, “Hawaii has lots of tornados,” instead of “volcano”
  • Compensating through intelligence and hard work, so that someone may be able to read through material, but at a rate that is far slower than intelligence would suggest.
  • Rereading things several times to understand it.
  • Dreading writing emails or letters, even if they are short.
  • Challenges reading (or writing) in cursive.
  • Problems finding the right words. They know what they want to say but can’t always spit it out.

Neurology of Dyslexia

Substantial research has found differences in dyslexic and non-dyslexic brains, confirming that it is a neurologically-based condition.

  • Dyslexic brains have more symmetry between the two hemispheres of the brain, whereas non-dyslexic brains have one hemisphere that is typically larger or more dominant. This may explain why some dyslexics are ambidextrous in either writing or other activities.
  • FMRI studies find that the parts of the brain that are responsible for word analysis and word formation, the parieto-temporal and occipito-temporal parts of the brain, are not being activated in dyslexic brains.
  • The dyslexic brain has more reliance on the Broca’s area, or the inferior frontal gyrus, for articulation and word analysis. It is like carrying something heavy. If the weight is not properly distributed, it will be more taxing to carry.  

ADHD and Dyslexia

ADHD and Dyslexia share many features, such as information processing speed issues, working memory deficits, naming speed, motor skills deficits, and subtle cerebellar abnormalities. They can often be confused at diagnosis. If someone has both ADHD and Dyslexia, symptoms of both are exacerbated and can result in major self-esteem problems and treatment challenges.

  • When someone is known to have ADHD, any potential dyslexia reading problems can be misinterpreted as hyperactivity or inattention, which also interfere with reading development.
  • ADHD symptoms are usually apparent from day one at school. Dyslexia is often not fully recognized until fourth or fifth grade. Major problems occur when a child shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. Parents who express concern early on are often told that “every student reads differently and their child will catch up.”
  • Non-dyslexic ADHD children can read fluently and with comprehension if their interest level is high, whereas their reading will be slow if they are bored by the material. Dyslexics’ speed of reading is consistently poor despite what they are reading.
  • Dyslexic students without ADHD will exhibit concentration and attention problems when it comes to reading demands, but generally not in other situations; whereas ADHD-ers attention is low in any unstimulating event.
  • Spelling is often poor in dyslexics, whereas non-dyslexic ADHD-ers may be poor spellers as a result of impulsivity. When asked to take their time, their spelling is improved.
  • Parents sometimes fear the label of “dyslexia” or “ADHD” for their child because they do not want their child to feel different. But they feel different because they are It is our responsibility to teach parents that different is not less than.
  • Generally dyslexics are better at auditory processing than ADHD-ers.

Interventions for Dyslexia:

  • When someone gets diagnosed with either ADHD or Dyslexia, it is essential that they be assessed for the other. The longer dyslexia goes unnoticed, the harder the impact on reading development and self-esteem.
  • There are specific reading interventions for dyslexia (notably Orton-Gllingham, Wilson, and Lindamood-Bell, etc.). Guided reading is NOT an intervention for dyslexia.
  • Treating ADHD will not resolve dyslexia.
  • Consult a dyslexia expert to help your child get the right intervention. Unfortunately, not all schools are equipped to properly teach a dyslexic student.
  • Studies show that when children are given the proper label of dyslexia (versus nonspecific labels like “reading learning disability”), their self-esteem is positively impacted. They feel validated and not alone. When children do not have a framework for understanding their reading problem, they brand themselves as “stupid” and develop problems with anxiety, depression, school refusal, and conduct.
  • Acquaint children with the wonderful minds of famous people, innovators, and business moguls who have dyslexia. Walt Disney, Richard Branson, Whoopi Goldberg, and three “Sharks” on “Shark Tank” are just a few.
  • There are many gifts that come along with the ADHD/Dyslexic brain. However, these gifts only fully get expressed when the pitfalls are properly assessed and treated.

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