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Feb 102014

brain-194932_640You have just been told your child has dyslexia.  Some may be thankful for a diagnosis that explains years of academic struggle, while others face the reality with discouragement.  Every parent wants their child to walk a path that is struggle free; however, that kind of life is not a reality. New research may offer encouragement, though, to parents of a struggling child to see their child’s unique strengths. New scientific findings support the theory that people diagnosed with dyslexia may possess unique cognitive strengths.

First, let me clarify.  A person whose brain functions like that of a dyslexic is different, not defective.  There is nothing wrong with their brain.  In fact, recent research is shedding light on the possibility that the dyslexic’s brain actually processes visuospatial domains more efficiently than those who do not struggle with dyslexia.

Haskins researchers have recently examined the cognitive functions and neural basis of visuospatial processing for those with dyslexia compared to those without.  The testing was done using both cognitive tasks as well as the use of an fMRI. These were the basic results:

  • Individuals with dyslexia showed a visuospatial processing advantage with greater accuracy
  • Dyslexia students could process figures with greater accuracy, while typical peers had a print-processing advantage.

Dr. Ken Pugh was interviewed to help us understand what these findings really mean.  Although they look particularly promising, he does offer some cautions.  These findings come from a control group, and they are not a given for every dyslexic child.  This caution is much like the way we cannot assume that if you have blond hair, you automatically have blue eyes.  There are factors to consider.  The findings however, do give hope to those whose child processes language in a way that makes the typical academic setting difficult.  The findings in his research were recently shared at the 2013 International Dyslexia Association Conference.  Below is a brief summary of the interview that took place during that conference.

Q: Do people with dyslexia have a visuospatial talents, and if so why?

A: There is a good deal of research done that shows people with dyslexia have strong talents in the visuospatial domains such as: art, architecture, and various other three dimensional thinking areas.  The reason is thought to come from the cerebrodiversity hypothesis, which states, where one area of the brain is weak, other areas are stronger.  

Q: What did the MRI studies show?

A: When processing figures, those with dyslexia showed more control, speed, and  accuracy than those who do not have dyslexia.  The opposite was true for tasks that required the processing of print.  Typically we are left brain dominant.  However, the MRI showed that those with dyslexia tended to be more right brain dominant.

Q: What does this mean, and is it important?

A: Those with dyslexia process information differently.  Although they struggle to process print, they show strength in cognitive functions in other domains.  The dyslexic brain is not associated with the disadvantages across all the perceptual domains.

Q: Do you have cautions for parents, educators, and people with dyslexia as they apply this knowledge to everyday life?

A: These findings relate to a small increase in speed in these cognitive areas.  The findings need to be examined more closely to give a more definitive answer to the “why” the brain works in this situation. 

Q: What is next on the horizon for research in this area?

A: The scientists that are equipped to study this further are going to do so.  They will be looking at children with dyslexia before they learn to read to see if this strength is developed because of their struggle with print, or if it exists before they have difficulty.

Although this Haskins Research sheds positive light on dyslexia, not everyone is excited about what some are calling a “Polyanna-ish” notion.  Many scientists, researchers, and educators do not want to raise a false sense of hope.  Some take issue with the idea that those with dyslexia may have special talents.  We need to remember that Dr. Pugh explained that the results that were seen, although present, were indeed minimal.  Further research is needed to better understand this complex issue.

How can we, as parents, use this information? It is critical to remember that we are all talented in different ways.  If we were all talented in the same way, life would be monotonous.  No one would excel in specific areas because we would all be equal.  We need to celebrate the gifts and talents of our children, regardless of any diagnosis.  Every child strives to realize their unique talents and find success.  Being a parent of a struggling learner means celebrating the successes and helping with the difficulties.  Though much research is left to be done, these new realizations of unique strengths in the brains of those who struggle with dyslexia should offer encouragement and hope in the face of academic adversity.



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