What is dyslexia?

In a 2000 Roper Poll, 63% of Americans confused dyslexia with mental retardation (qtd in Willemin, par. 3). So it is important that we define what dyslexia is.

Here are just a few of the host of terms that have been used for dyslexia over the decades: Association Deficit Pathology, Central Nervous System Disorder, Congenital Alexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Dyslexia, Hyperactivity, Hyperkinetic Behavior Syndrome (an older term for ADHD), Hypoactivity, Learning Disabilities, Maturational Lag, Minimal Brain Damage, Multisensory Disorders, Neurologically Handicapped, Organic Brain Dysfunction, Perceptually Handicapped, Primary Reading Retardation, Psycholinguistic Disabilities, Strephosymbolia, Word Blindness (West, p. 307).

What all these terms have in common is an emphasis on the problems, the negative aspects, of visual learning. Perhaps this came out of the efforts to deal with teaching students with dyslexia. Neurologists, psychologists, and educators were collecting data and trying their best to make sense of the flood of, sometimes contradictory, information. Educational and psychological models were made, but for decades they focused almost exclusively on the weaknesses of the dyslexic student while taking almost no notice of his strengths - oftentimes with negative side effects on the dyslexic student's self esteem.

It is only relatively recently, in the last 25 years, that the connection between giftedness and dyslexia had been made. Susan Baum talks about the seeming paradox, "How can a child learn and not learn? Why do some students apply little or no effort to school tasks while they commit considerable time and effort to demanding, creative activities outside of school? These behaviors are typical of some students who are simultaneously gifted and learning disabled. For many people, however, the terms learning disabilities and giftedness are at opposite ends of a learning continuum. In some states, because of funding regulations, a student may be identified and assisted with either learning disabilities or giftedness, but not both.

"Uneasiness in accepting this seeming contradiction in terms stems primarily from... incomplete understandings. This is not surprising, because the experts in each of these disciplines have difficulty reaching agreement. Some still believe that giftedness is equated with outstanding achievement across all subject areas. Thus, a student who is an expert on bugs at age 8 may automatically be excluded from consideration for a program for gifted students because he cannot read, though he can name and classify a hundred species of insects. Many educators view below-grade-level achievement as a prerequisite to a diagnosis of a learning disability. Thus, an extremely bright student who is struggling to stay on grade level, may slip through the cracks of available services because he or she is not failing" (par. 1).

The Visual Thinker

While working with gifted students, Dr. Linda K. Silverman developed the idea of the visual-spatial learner. In her words, "Around 1980, I began to notice that some highly gifted children took the top off the IQ test with their phenomenal abilities to solve items presented to them visually or items requiring excellent abilities to visualize. These children were also adept at spatial tasks, such as orientation problems. Soon I discovered that not only were the highest scorers outperforming others on the visual-spatial tasks, but so were the lowest scorers. The main difference between the two groups was that highly gifted children also excelled at the auditory-sequential items, whereas children who were brighter than their IQ scores had marked auditory and sequential weaknesses. It was from these clinical observations and my attempt to understand both the strengths and weaknesses that the concept of the 'visual-spatial learner' was born" (par. 2).

Auditory-sequential learners think primarily in words and are straight-line logical thinkers; our educational system is geared to teaching this type of student. The general instructional approach is to teach simple concepts first and gradually advance sequentially to harder material, to build the whole picture out of a collection of puzzle pieces. Typically, students will be taught to read first - whether reading phonetic, mathematical, or musical symbols - then later they are taught information and skills through lectures and books. This type of student generally does well on written, timed tests.

Visual-spatial learners think primarily in pictures and have a tendency to grasp the whole, but miss the parts. This type of student may test poorly on written, timed tests, but will often do well in real-world situations and practical exams. Visual-spatial learners can be as different from each other as they are from verbal-sequential students.

Silverman studied 750 middleschoolers using the test she developed, called the Visual-Spatial Identifier. The results showed that 33.3% of the students where firmly visual-spatial, and another 30% had a small preference for visual processing, but only 23% where firmly verbal-sequential, which suggests that almost two-thirds of students would benefit, to one degree or another, from multisensory teaching methods.

Ronald Davis describes visual-spatial learners as "picture thinkers". There are advantages to being a picture thinker. Leonardo da Vinci imagined the helicopter centuries before there was an engine to run it. Einstein had a daydream of himself riding a motorcycle on a beam of light at the speed of light and imagined what it would look like. This thought experiment helped form the theory of relativity. Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current, could perfect the design of his generators in his head by running simulations through his imagination. "Then I observed to my delight that I could visualize with the greatest facility. I needed no models, drawings or experiments. I could picture them all as real in my mind" (qtd in West, p. 143). According to Davis, a picture thinker can see his imagination as if it is real. This is the fount of the visual thinker's creativity, but this is also where problems can arise. Tesla would sometimes have difficulties telling what was real and what was his imagination. "In my boyhood... when a word was spoken to me the image of the object would present itself vividly to my vision and sometimes I was quite unable to distinguish whether what I saw was tangible or not. These were certainly not hallucinations... for in other respects I was normal and composed" (qtd in West, p. 143).

Thomas G. West, in his book In The Mind's Eye, also talks about the advantages and disadvantages of being a visual thinker. He speculates that lacking the ability to think visually would be a deficit in the wild, "In the remote past (or in distant, hidden corners of the world today), a genetic makeup that promoted a natural facility with reading, but not, say, with hunting or finding one's way easily in the wilderness, would have been considered a disadvantage... In some circumstances, such a spatial disability might have been so important that many of those with poor spatial sense would, in time, have been selected out of the population, rarely surviving to adulthood and procreation" (p. 83). Back in the hunter/gatherer days, it would have been an advantage for a woodsman to be able to recognize a rock or a tree from many different angles to keep from getting lost in the forest. Likewise, if he were to glimpse just the horns of a deer hidden in the foliage, it would have been useful to be able to extrapolate the rest of the deer in his mind’s eye so as to give him a better target. Using his imagination, the hunter could do two things: 1) recognize an object from an angle he had never seen it from before 2) mentally create an image of a whole object from a glimpse of only a part of the real object. "These are predominantly visual-spatial skills and would have little verbal content. In such a culture, a propensity toward reading skill would be relatively unimportant" (West, p. 83). The ability to mentally construct and manipulate objects in the picture thinker's head, using all his senses, and his ability to recognize patterns is the gift Davis refers to in The Gift Of Dyslexia. Davis calls this multi-dimensional thinking.

West also talks about the dyslexia aspect that can derive from visual thinking. West discusses how it can be an advantage to be able to recognize three dimensional, real-world objects, but he also illustrates how it can be a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with abstract symbols. It is West's argument that where two dimensional symbols are concerned, the orientation of the symbol becomes crucial to understanding the meaning of the symbol. For example, if someone carved a lower case "p" into a piece of wood, and threw the letter into the air, and let it land on the floor, if you did not know which letter the carver intended, you would not know if the letter on the floor was a "p", "q", "b", or "d". All of these letters are the same shape except for their orientation on the page. If, while reading, the visual thinker's abilities start to kick in, and his visual mind - at the subconscious level - starts flipping around the letters, confusion would be the result. Davis has an example of this for the word cat. It shows forty different ways the word cat can be written with the letters in various positions. I have created an example similar to Davis' on the word map. As you can see, even this small three letter word can be extremely confusing under these conditions. Besides the word map, you can get the words mad, amp, Pam, wad, bam, and dam. Most of the time, of course, this would just yield a confusing hash.

When the visual thinker's imagination interferes with his perception of the real world, Davis calls this disorientation. "[Disorientation] occurs when we are overwhelmed by stimuli or thought. It also occurs when the brain receives conflicting information from the different senses and attempts to correlate the information" (p. 15).

Davis has two simple visualization exercises, called the Davis Orientation Counseling and the Davis Alignment Procedure, which allows the visual thinker with dyslexic tendencies to quickly and easily stop disorientation. When oriented, the visual thinker will then be able to accurately perceive his surroundings - possibly for the first time in his life. My experience with Orientation has been extremely positive. It can bring dramatic results in terms of reducing a students' confusion.

More On Disorientation

The problem I have run into countless times is that a parent of a dyslexic student will often not understand why her child is having struggles. The parent can see that the student is bright, so all too frequently she will come to the conclusion that the student is lazy. It is difficult to describe disorientation to someone who has not experienced it, but it is important to understand that the student with dyslexic tendencies is not stupid or lazy. I will try to show what it is like by describing what a dyslexic sees.

What many dyslexics see is a shimmer. I am myself a visual-spatial thinker, and on the left is a normal page of text, while on the right is what I see when I am not "oriented."

The dyslexics' eye automatically keys in on the vertical, horizontal, and slanted lines created by the negative space in the text (represented by the lines drawn on the page on the right). This creates a crisscross pattern of perceived lines intermingling with the text. First one set of lines will appear then another. This creates a shifting pattern: "the shimmer". It could be that the shimmer is the visual thinker's pattern recognition ability gone wild. The dyslexics' mind seems to lock onto patterns in the text - patterns that carry no information. Just the opposite, reading with the interference pattern of the shimmer present is like reading text though two layers of fish nets that are blowing in a breeze, or like reading a book that lies at the bottom of a shallow creek bed.

Students have claimed similar sensations for music notation, "... [it is reported that] notation sometimes appears to fall away from the horizontal or seems watery" (Westcombe, p. 12).

It could be that the reason color overlays help lessen fatigue in dyslexic readers is that the transparencies reduce the contrast between the white of the page and the black of the music notes and thus reduces the shimmer. After trying out a transparency, one of my adult students commented that it made it so that the notes did not "blink". You will observe that the optical illusions with the blue background, imitating the effect of a color overlay or colored glasses, have reduced the shimmer. (The effect is even more striking if you lay a colored transparency over a printed version of the optical illusion; the shimmer will be substantially reduced.)

It could be that the reason color overlays help lessen fatigue in dyslexic readers is that the transparencies reduce the contrast between the white of the page and the black of the music notes and thus reduces the shimmer. After trying out a transparency, one of my adult students commented that it made it so that the notes did not "blink". You will observe that the optical illusions with the blue background, imitating the effect of a color overlay or colored glasses, have reduced the shimmer. (The effect is even more striking if you lay a colored transparency over a printed version of the optical illusion; the shimmer will be substantially reduced.)

All three of the optical illusions create a pulsation that is the same as the shimmer I have described above. All of the patterns create a sense of movement from a phenomenon called optical distortion. In addition, the illusion in the middle is an impossible figure, and the sense of color from the figure on the bottom is likewise an illusion. Here is what Classic Optical Illusions has to say about the figure on the top. "Take a look at the way the design at [top] pulsates. When you look at anything too close to you, the muscles around your eyes pull into a spherical shape to get the words and pictures into focus. Because the lens of your eye isn't perfectly round, however, some parts of what you are looking at will be in focus, and others will look blurry. Normally, the differences in the clarity of your vision are on the outer edge of the object you are seeing, so you can still read the words and recognize the pictures. But in an illusion, such as this one - where all the lines come from different angles and meet at the center - it is impossible for you to focus clearly on all of it at once. Your eyes are always making tiny movements, no matter how hard you try. So the clear parts of the design and the blurry parts are constantly changing. This is called 'optical distortion', and it is what makes the picture seem to move, shimmer, swirl, or pulsate" (Brandreth et al, p. 60).


Why does the dyslexic student see the shimmer (present in text when he reads) as being similar to the pulsation in the optical illusions? My theory is that it is because disorientation and optical illusions are both perception issues. Any mind will seek out shapes and patterns; the visually oriented mind even more so. Dennis Coon defines perception as, "... the process of assembling sensations ('data' from the senses) into usable mental representations of the world... Perceptual organization may be thought of as a hypothesis held until evidence contradicts it. Perceptual organization shifts for ambiguous stimuli. Impossible figures resist stable organization altogether" (p. 129). The pattern recognition abilities of the picture thinker can make him prone to make errors in perception, i.e. disorientation, but can also allow him to see subtle patterns in data, in his surroundings, or in art (whether visual or aural) that an auditory-sequential thinker might miss.

Harry Turner, an artist who creates optical illusions, has this to say on the subject of perception, "We are not always aware of the extent to which lines in two dimensions deceive the eye (and mind). Think how you grasp a whole comic situation from the simple lines of a cartoon. The image that falls on the retina of the eye resembles a cartoon from which we try to interpret outside reality. Not surprisingly, we make mistakes. Richard Gregory [author of Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing] has described perception as continuous problem solving, because there is never enough information from the eye alone to specify external objects - the brain has to call on memorized sensory data to read a host of non-optical qualities into the images that are triggered by light falling on the retina. Our perception is so dominated by visual stereotypes that, for much of the time, we tend to see what we expect to see. All these optical illusions exploit this capacity to complete images in the mind's eye on the basis of past experience, by stimulating the imagination to override the simple logic of two-dimensional graphics" (p. 7).

What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is not brain damage, nor is it mental retardation. It comes from the visual learner being a symmetrical brain type; it is a matter of hemisphere dominance. "From the 1980s onwards the area of the brain chosen for special investigation by dyslexia researchers was the planum temporale - a region on the upper surface of the temporal lobe on either side of the brain. Earlier autopsy studies had shown that in about 65% to 75% of unselected brains the two plana were asymmetrical and of different sizes, the planum on the left side usually being the larger. In a study of the brains of eight individuals known to have been dyslexic in their lifetime it was found that in all eight cases the two plana were symmetrical...
"...it has been suggested that there is significance in the fact that in the dyslexic brains examined to date the two plana were symmetrical... There is firm evidence that in most individuals it is the left half of the brain that controls speech, and it is likely, although not certain, that it is the right half that makes possible the recognition of pattern and the ability to view things as 'wholes'. It therefore makes sense to suppose that in the case of dyslexics it is the left hemisphere that is relatively weak and the right hemisphere that is relatively strong. If this is correct it would also make sense of the familiar observation that it is the balance of skills in dyslexics that is unusual: they are relatively weak at what are apparently 'left hemisphere' tasks - reading, spelling, and the memorization of symbolic material - and relatively strong at apparently 'right hemisphere' tasks, for instance those required for success in art, architecture, and engineering" (Miles, p. 3-5).

What dyslexia is can be hard to define. This is because the term dyslexia often functions as an umbrella term to describe a host of other learning issues: dyslexia (reading), dyscalculia (math), dyspraxia (coordination), dysgraphia (handwriting), hyperactivity (attention and sitting still), and more. As I have said before, people with dyslexia can be as different from each other as they are from non-dyslexics. One student may be good at math but weak at reading, another student may be the other way around, a third student may have a constellation of weaknesses and strengths. To the neurologist dyslexia means a person with a symmetrical brain type. To the attorney dyslexia is defined by the law in terms of getting services from the state for the student. To the teacher it envelopes a plethora of learning issues that need to be addressed.

It is possible that dyslexia only became an issue for teachers and psychiatrists as education became more universal. Before the nineteenth century education was optional and was often only affordable for the wealthy. If a student struggled with a subject, his options were either to buckle down and try to make things work or to quit (which was still an option back then). "Not long ago, working class (and even middle class) dyslexics could work around [academic failure] by avoiding formal schooling and going directly into a trade without academic qualifications... Unfortunately, today, especially in industrialized nations, there are few alternatives for anyone in any class who would choose to avoid the academic route. Today, even vocational schools are heavily oriented toward classroom work, written tests, and other staples of the academic approach, alternatives have become very restricted and the adverse consequences of academic failure even more pervasive" (West, p. 153). In the early 1800's the Prussian Kingdom instituted a system of public schools in an effort to unify their country politically. They were so successful that other countries soon followed suit. In the United States the advent of public education was instituted gradually state by state. "In 1852, the Massachusetts legislature passed the first compulsory school-attendance law in the U.S. By the end of the 1800's, 31 of the 45 states had school-attendance laws. By 1918, every state had such a law" (Borrowman, p. 72b).

One of the early pioneers working with dyslexics was Samuel Torrey Orton. He was a psychiatrist who, in 1924, worked in a mobile psychiatric unit in Iowa, providing services for schools, doctors, and the welfare authorities. From the hundred or so troubled students who were referred to the unit, there was a sixteen year old, designated M.P., who couldn't read at all even though he seemed intelligent otherwise. M.P. was the first case of dyslexia that Orton had dealt with. It is probably no accident that Orton was called in to work with students with "word blindness" only six years after full universal education was installed. Before compulsory school attendance came into being, schoolmasters had developed a method of instruction that was effective for many pupils. When attendance became mandatory, enforced by truant officers, it is possible that students with academic struggles began to appear in larger numbers. Because the students could no longer easily quit school, the onus now fell on the teachers and psychiatrists to deal with the problem. The past one hundred years have been spent learning how to teach the visual-spatial learner.

In my experience, the trick to teaching students with dyslexia is not to think of them as students with dyslexia, but rather as people who have a different learning style, teaching to both the strengths and weaknesses of the visual mind. (Thus why I prefer the terms visual-spatial learner, picture thinker, etc. as neutral, non-pejorative terms.)

- © 2006 Geoffrey Keith

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