Recognizing Dyslexia May Prevent Low Self-Esteem and Anxiety

Understanding dyslexia may help people avoid problems later in life.

Posted May 28, 2019

A greater understanding of the nature of dyslexia can have a life-long impact, even if one discovers she has dyslexia in adulthood. Yet our schools still have ineffective screening and a sluggish response to an explosion of new scientific knowledge about dyslexia. Many millennials with a late-in-life dyslexia diagnosis report having spent most of their lives feeling stupid. And that has consequences.

So what are the psychological challenges? According to a Canadian study in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, 15 to 44-year-olds with self-reported learning disabilities “were more than twice as likely to report high levels of distress, depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts, visits to mental health professionals, and poorer overall mental health than were persons without disabilities.” (Wilson et al., 2009, p. 24) While most people with dyslexia do not have psychological and emotional disorders, research shows they are disproportionally at greater risk for the following (Cosden, Patz, and Donahue, 2010):

  • Low self-esteem
  • High anxiety
  • Difficulty reading social cues (Ryan, 2004)
  • Poor social relationships
  • Depression
  • Likelihood of substance abuse including drugs, tobacco, and alcohol (Cosden, 2001)
  • Poor understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses (California Dyslexia Guidelines, 2017)

What’s It Like to Be Diagnosed at 24 Years of Age?

I was interested to learn about the experience of a very smart and academically accomplished 24-year-old who was diagnosed by a psychologist at a university dyslexia and learning disabilities center. The diagnosis entailed lengthy sessions over eight days—fifteen formal tests, questionnaires, interview assessments, and consultations. After telling me about Emily-Ruth’s diagnosis, her mom invited me to go through a large crate of Emily-Ruth’s memorabilia collected from kindergarten through college. Would the memorabilia reveal early symptoms of dyslexia?

The testing revealed Emily-Ruth’s superior intelligence. Her Full Scale IQ score on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale-IV was 128, which is at the 97th percentile, placing her in the superior range. Her parents knew she was intelligent before kindergarten due to her vast vocabulary, concept level, and creativity. As a preschooler, she was happy and well adjusted.

Dyslexia may occur in combination with other handicapping conditions. Emily-Ruth’s dyslexia diagnosis included the following:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) for which she had previously been diagnosed and prescribed medication. It is common for dyslexia and ADHD to co-occur.
  • “Double-deficit dyslexia”—a more severe form of dyslexia—based on the theory that Emily-Ruth demonstrated deficits in both phonological awareness and rapid naming speed. Auditory memory and sequencing skills were reported to be at a fifth-grade level.
  • Dysgraphia. Emily-Ruth’s crate included outstanding samples of talented writing at every level of schooling, yet there was early evidence in first grade of symptoms of dysgraphia such as difficulty spacing things out on paper or within margins, inconsistency in letter and word spacing, and unfinished words or missing words or letters.
  • A “severe degree” of Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual processing disorder for light, color, and contrast sensitivity, such as difficulty with fluorescent lights, which Emily-Ruth self-reported. The report seemed to imply that this was one of the most important findings.

Issues with spelling are often a first and easily observed symptom of dyslexia once children enter school. Five early phases of invented spelling and word reading are normally observed outcomes as reading circuitry is being built and refined in kindergarten and first grade (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019; Ouellette & Sénéchal, 2017).

There were only a few abnormalities in Emily-Ruth’s kindergarten and first-grade spelling, although spelling issues showed up on the adult tests. The simple explanation is that Emily-Ruth had already moved beyond the early phases of invented spelling and word reading. There was evidence in the crate that she entered kindergarten likely reading above first-grade level.

Emily-Ruth reported that she remembered reading by herself before going to school and she recalled that during kindergarten reading lessons she “went to the corner to read.” I wondered if she had felt socially isolated, different from the other kids, and if this had caused anxiety. In today’s kindergarten classroom exemplary teachers often use heterogeneous groupings enlisting all students as “helpers” and drawing upon each child’s strengths in collaborative learning. An early student-centered approach can help children build self-esteem and promote good peer relationships (Feldgus, Cardonick & Gentry, 2017).

A greater understanding of the nature of dyslexia can have a life-long impact not only for children but for adults. What seems to be missing from Emily-Ruth’s report is a focus on her strengths including a number of support systems that were in place when she was a child: a stable and happy family life, supportive parents, good teachers and accomplishments in school, and her own resilience and achievements. Several of her writing samples across time showed great commitment to helping others. In the final analysis, Emily-Ruth has developed her own system of repeated readings which in my opinion works remarkably well for her even as an adult. Dyslexia comes with both gifts and inconveniences.

It’s been said that dyslexics have a beautiful brain. That’s how I would describe Emily-Ruth based on what I found in the crate. “You are dyslexic and gifted with benefits that come with having dyslexia. Keep on loving who you are!”

Two Tips about Dyslexia:

  1. Some experts present evidence that dyslexics are gifted beyond what is found in non-dyslexic individuals and often have special talents such as thinking outside of the box, visualization in three dimensions, and being creative, entrepreneurial, artistic, and athletic. Dyslexia can lead to positive life skills that are developed within oneself such as grit and resilience, being optimistic and in-tune with one’s passion, taking positive risks and getting the job done, all qualities of “the entrepreneurial spirit” (Ehrlichman, 2015) which seems to be in great abundance in millennials.
  2. Early screening, intervention, and proper support in school may help children avoid social and emotional issues or problems meeting adult challenges later in life (Cosden, Patz, and Donahue 2010). Parents, educators, and schools should embrace dyslexia with compassion, positivity, and support services. People with dyslexia make the world a better place.

References

California Dyslexia Guidelines (2017). Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education. Retrieved from https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/ac/documents/cadyslexiaguidelines.pdf

Cosden, M. (2001). Risk and resilience for substance abuse among adolescents and adults with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(4), 352-358.

Cosden, M., Patz, S., & Donahue, M. (2010). Psychosocial problems and psychotherapy for persons with dyslexia. In Neil Alexander-Pass (Ed.), Dyslexia and mental health: Investigations from different perspectives. New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Ehrlichman, M. (January 5, 2015). 5 characteristics of entrepreneurial spirit. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/matt-ehrlichman/5-characteristics-of-entrepreneurial-spirit.html

Feldgus, E., Cardonick, I., & Gentry, J.R. (2017). Kid writing in the 21st century. Los Angeles

CA: Hameray Publishing Group.

Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G.P. (2019). Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Ouellette, G., & Sénéchal, M. (2017). “Invented Spelling in kindergarten as a predictor of reading and spelling in grade 1: A new pathway to literacy, or just the same road, less known? Developmental Psychology, 53: 77-88.

Ryan, M. & International Dyslexia Association. (2004). Social and emotional problems related to dyslexia. WETA publishing. Retrieved from http://www.ldonline.org/article/19296/

Wilson, A.M., Armstrong, C.D., Furrie, A., & Walcot, E. (2009). The mental health of Canadians with self-reported learning disabilities.  Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42(1): 24-40.