As children learn to read and write, it can be common for them to struggle. All children learn at different paces. However, if your child continues to have challenges with reading or spelling, you may begin to wonder if your child has dyslexia, a common learning disorder.
Alice Ann Holland, Ph.D., ABPP, Research Director of the Neuropsychology Service at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, cautions parents against jumping to conclusions.
"One of the misconceptions we hear is that dyslexia means a child is reversing letters or numbers," she says. "Dyslexia is much more complex than that. The good news is, if your child does have dyslexia, early intervention and support can help set your child up for success in school and later in life."
Dr. Holland shares her insight about dyslexia in children and advice for parents on what signs to watch for.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a learning disorder that can cause difficulties with reading, writing, math or other areas of learning. Dyslexia is one of the most common learning disorders in children, affecting 20% of the population and representing 80-90% of people with learning disabilities.
Children with dyslexia often have trouble matching letters with the sounds those letters make. This difficulty has no connection to a child's overall intelligence.
"When most people see a word, they can identify it almost automatically. But for children with dyslexia, that recognition isn't immediate. It takes much more effort for them to decode words, read fluently and comprehend what was read," explains Dr. Holland.
Dyslexia is related to differences in the part of the brain that processes language. Diagnosing dyslexia and providing support for the disorder can help give children the tools they need to be successful students and adults.
What are the types of dyslexia?
From a diagnostic standpoint, there are no official types of dyslexia. However, there can be differences in which underlying cognitive functions are affected in children with dyslexia. Two cognitive processes that are commonly affected in dyslexia include phonological awareness and rapid automatic naming (RAN).
- Phonological awareness involves a child's ability to understand that letters make a particular sound. This is the most common cognitive process affected in dyslexia.
- Rapid automatic naming (RAN) involves the ability to quickly identify and name a symbol or letter a child sees. Deficits in RAN can impact reading speed and fluency.
What causes dyslexia?
It's not clear what causes dyslexia, but research shows there is a genetic component, meaning dyslexia can be hereditary. There are higher rates of dyslexia in children with a family history of the condition.
What are signs of dyslexia in children?
Symptoms of dyslexia in children can vary based on what underlying cognitive processes are affected. The most common signs of dyslexia in children include:
- Difficulty learning the sounds that letters and letter combinations make
- Difficulty with basic word decoding (i.e., sounding out unfamiliar words)
- Slow, labor-intensive reading
- Difficulty spelling
- Difficulty recognizing familiar words in new contexts
- Avoiding activities that involve reading
"Children and adolescents with dyslexia often get frustrated with school and become disengaged," adds Dr. Holland. "They may avoid reading and test below their peers. These are red flags to keep an eye on. But just because a child doesn't like to read doesn't necessarily mean they have dyslexia."
How is dyslexia diagnosed?
A complete psychological or neuropsychological evaluation is the best way to diagnose dyslexia in children. If you are concerned about symptoms of dyslexia in your child, seek help from a psychologist or neuropsychologist who can provide a comprehensive evaluation that will include testing for other possible explanations for the difficulties your child may be having.
For example, a neuropsychological evaluation looks not only at reading skill level, but also at working memory, processing speed, visual processing and visual-spatial reasoning. It's important to understand how these cognitive processes may be involved in your child's reading difficulties.
"It's easy to get a false positive from an incomplete evaluation," says Dr. Holland. "A comprehensive evaluation should give parents confidence and peace of mind by ruling out other possible issues that can look like dyslexia, such as an attention disorder or a language disorder. Correctly identifying the underlying issue should help identify the right tools and resources to support your child's specific needs."
How can you help a child with dyslexia?
The appropriate support and intervention can help your child succeed in school and life. That intervention may look different for every child but generally includes resources and support.
Children who struggle with phonological awareness may require additional coaching to learn the associations between letters and their sounds. Children with RAN deficits may need programs that offer quick feedback and encourage a lot of practice. Your child's school and diagnosing clinician can help you identify appropriate programs and resources for your child.
One important thing that parents can do to help children with dyslexia at home is to spend time reading aloud with your child. In fact, this is beneficial for every child who is learning how to read.
"Develop a bedtime routine where you read a short book together, and focus on engaging your child in the story. Point to each word as you read it, talk about how the illustrations support the story, and use fun voices to convey excitement," encourages Dr. Holland. "The goal is to show children that reading can be a fun experience. The more practice they have with reading, the more fun and easy it can become for children with dyslexia, too."
The Children's Health Pediatric Psychology and Neuropsychology program offers comprehensive specialty services to children and teens. Our team offers a wide range of programs to effectively diagnose, treat and manage conditions that can affect behavior and learning in children.
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