What is it?

Dyslexia is a learning disability that interferes with the acquisition of reading skills—“dys” meaning “not” in ancient Greek, and “lexia” referring to reading—and can also affect a person’s ability to spell, write, and learn new words. It is the most common learning disability and affects perhaps 20% of the population. Children with dyslexia struggle with decoding, word recognition, and spelling, and for those reasons read at a level well below that predicted for their age, education, and intelligence. In most kids with dyslexia, abnormal brain development causes a problem at the finest level of language development: identifying and sequencing sounds, or phonemes. Without that skill, written language can appear indecipherable.

What to look for

Key signs that your child might have dyslexia appear in early childhood, and include difficulty rhyming, associating sounds with symbols, sequencing and ordering sounds, and trouble identifying and comprehending signs or logos in the environment. Late talking and persistent trouble with word retrieval can also indicate the disorder, as well as difficulty following simple or complex directions, difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words, and confusion with patterns. While it is a myth that all people with dyslexia read backwards, and many children occasionally reverse letters until around age 8, letter reversal (b for d, for instance) later than that age could also indicate dyslexia. Though these early signs surely make life difficult, a diagnosis of dyslexia is often delayed until a child enters school and begins learning to read in a structured and strictly monitored environment.


Dyslexia can be a product of aberrations in the brain’s development and in how different parts of the brain communicate with each other. In 80% of children with dyslexia, the brain abnormalities affect how sounds are sequenced in early language development, making it difficult to assign sounds to their visual representations later. Some 3 to 5% have trouble with visual perception, and the balance have both difficulties, or a “double deficit.” The condition often runs in families, and neurobiologists have identified certain genes that increase its probability.  In addition, children who have recurring ear infections in early childhood are at much higher risk for early language disorders and all manner of developmental problems, including dyslexia.


Though signs and symptoms of dyslexia can be noticed in early childhood, standardized testing of reading skill is required for a diagnosis. This is necessary to determine that the child’s deficit in reading ability is caused by dyslexia rather than social or environmental factors or other cognitivedeficits. Your child has dyslexia only if she tests well below the average for her age, intelligence, and education on reading evaluations; and the deficit significantly interferes with academics and daily activity. Remember, dyslexia has nothing to do with a child’s intelligence or desire to learn—people with dyslexia are just as smart as everyone else.


Treatment for dyslexia focuses on developing learning strategies for the child, compensating for her weaknesses so she can close the educational gap with peers. Though there are no pharmacological therapies for dyslexia, medication is used to treat conditions that are often diagnosed alongside dyslexia, and can improve the effectiveness of treatment.


Educational: Treatment can involve specially structured learning strategies, with help from teachers, parents, specially trained psychologists, and learning or reading specialists. Many approaches involve multisensory instruction—since your child has trouble comprehending writing with her eyes and ears alone, other senses like touch, even taste and smell can play a role. Treatment will first address the symptoms of the disorder, teaching your child how to read—not intuitively, as most do, but as a rule-based system. Then, your child and her therapist will develop compensatory skills for learning in general. Individualized attention and instruction is critical, and schools often allow extra time on tests and other accommodations for students diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, but children with dyslexia can learn to read, and can, with the right help, accomplish as much as other children.

Other disorders to look out for

Dyslexia, untreated, can be so frustrating that it demoralizes children and leads to acting out, behaviors that could be mistaken for depression or ADHD. But kids with dyslexia are also at higher risk than average for legitimate diagnosis of those disorders, and anxiety disorders as well.

Frequently asked questions

Can kids with dyslexia learn to read?
Yes, though they may never read as efficiently and effectively as people without the disorder.
Are there tests for dyslexia?
A trained professional knowledgeable in the field of reading disorders can employ a variety of tools when making an assessment, including tests of vocabulary, naming, sound sequencing, and reading fluency, among a host of others. But like many childhood psychiatric disorders, there is no blood test for dyslexia, and a brain scan will not reveal the presence of the disorder.
Is there medication for dyslexia?
Can my child with dyslexia go to college?
Definitely. No one should pretend that reading is ever easy for a child with dyslexia, but the strategies your child learns in therapy will allow her to study whatever she wants, at whatever level she pleases.
Does dyslexia only affect kids when they’re in school?
No. Kids with dyslexia don’t just have trouble reading books—the disorder can also interfere with reading music or learning a foreign language. As one of our clinicians puts it, “English is their foreign language.”
Will my child outgrow dyslexia?
No. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition. But that doesn’t mean your child will never read, or can’t accomplish as much as other children.
Will my child need special education?
Maybe. Depending on the nature and extent of your child’s case, a specialized school environment with more intensive support could be extremely beneficial. On the other hand, if her dyslexia can be managed well enough through therapy, there is no reason she should need additional specialized support in school.

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