Dyslexia in Children AND Adults
It Affects Your Entire Life
If you've ever been called absent-minded, klutzy or spacey; if you feel stupid, you hate how you look, have a temper and feel frustrated most of the time; if you feel like you're living in a fog; if you have phobias like heights, elevators, escalators, planes, cars, etc., and of course, if reading is a major chore, there is an explanation for all of it.
It was very belatedly that I chose to try to find out just what the deal was with my son. I had depended on the school to know if something were wrong and what to do about it. But that proved to be misplaced trust- they considered him a behavior problem and chose to socially promote him to get him out of their way. It wasn't until after his "graduation" from high school that I finally made a trip to the library and found the answers in the first book I found. The author was Harold Levinson, MD, who had written a whole library of books on the subject and has really nailed the whole thing in my opinion.
He described scenarios I had experienced myself, and others that explained some of the things my son had been through. Just understanding what happens and why you think like you do is very freeing. I want to introduce you to his books and research and in so doing, hope to give you the tools to understanding yourself and probably others in your family. It is most certainly not just a childhood thing- it doesn't go away; according to Levinson, you just learn to compensate over time. So this applies to adults as well as children- adult dyslexia is very real, but perhaps not as obvious.
And it's not just a learning disability; it's a medical thing; it applies both to education and to the medical field. I hope this information will give you and your family understanding and hope.
Quotes are from Smart But Feeling Dumb, Harold Levinson, MD. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1994.
Brain diagram is free clipart from wpclipart.com.
Only the Tip of the Iceberg
When you hear the word "dyslexia", you automatically think reading problems. And that is often the first clue that a child may have a problem. But there is so very much more involved, because it's not just a learning disability. It's a physical condition that affects much more than just the ability to whiz through a book.
Dr. Levinsion was educated as a psychiatrist and as his first position, started work at the Bureau of Child Guidance in New York, working with children in the school systems that had learning, emotional and behavioral issues. He eventually evaluated over 1000 children from all over the city over a period of quite a few years. This experience is what led him to reject the prevailing theories that blame the disorder on either psychological issues, or on neurological problems in the cerebrum.
The common denominator he found in all his patients diagnosed with both dyslexia and ADD/ADHD turned out to be a dysfunction in the inner ear system that regulates guidance (eyes, hands, feet, etc.), sensory input from all the senses, voluntary and involuntary motor responses, the inner compass, and timing. Regulation is the name of the game, and when regulation is impaired, a whole host of symptoms will occur, though they vary from person to person.
As you will see below, every aspect of a person's life can be affected when there is an impairment in the inner ear system. This leaves people knowing full well they aren't functioning as they should, but don't know why, and most of the time have no idea that all these different things are related.
Iceberg image is free picture from Wikimedia Commons.
The Inner Ear
What Dr. Levinson found in by far the vast majority of those children he evaluated was that they also dealt with a multitude of other symptoms which he has systematically studied for years. The conclusion- all these symptoms can be traced back to a malfunction in the inner ear system, specifically the cerebellar-vestibular system. I had to look that up:
The vestibular system, which contributes to balance in most mammals and to the sense of spatial orientation, is the sensory system that provides the leading contribution about movement and sense of balance. (Wikipedia)
The cerebellum is the part of the brain that plays a part in motor control-
The cerebellum does not initiate movement, but it contributes to coordination, precision, and accurate timing. It receives input from sensory systems of the spinal cord and from other parts of the brain, and integrates these inputs to fine tune motor activity." (Wikipedia)The cerebellum is comprised of small lobes and receives information from the balance system of the inner ear, sensory nerves, and the auditory and visual systems. It is involved in the coordination of motor movements as well as basic facets of memory and learning. (About.com Psychology)
Levinson compares the functioning of these systems to an old analog tv with a drifting signal that sometimes is clear, but often isn't, and it's a matter of degree- sometimes the signal is just a little off, but other times it's completely messed up. This affects all your senses- what is heard and felt must be straightened out as well as what is seen. The processes it takes to decipher and straighten out all this twisted input is very tiring, leaving the dyslexic feeling stupid, frustrated, worn out and even crazy.
Looking at the following list of symptoms observed by Levinson, you'll see how a malfunction in the inner ear can easily be responsible. In his books, he explains the technicalities of how all this works, why each of the following symptoms are a result of an inner ear disorder. I won't go into all that here; suffice it to say that the range of symptoms is huge, considering the function of the inner ear and the cerebellum. Reading problems are, indeed, only the tip of the iceberg, affecting every part of a person's life.
Inner ear diagram is free clipart from Wikimedia Commons.
The Racing Motor
Levinson found that 90% of his patients diagnosed with dyslexia were hyperactive, and vice versa, making a clear connection between the two. Dyslexics can be restless, fidgety, and overly energetic in general. Levinson refers to this as the "racing motor", a need to expend energy and sometimes an inability to slow down. The inner ear imbalance that causes hyperactivity can also cause the opposite- hypoactivity, the same malfunction that manifests as the other extreme.
As a dyslexic gets older, they may seem to slow down some physically, but the mind may still be racing most of the time. Along with this goes the frustration, the anger, the outbursts, the impulsive behaviors that get people into trouble. And this behavior often does not disappear with age:
Many hyperactive dyslexic children will act out their frustrations and develop into explosive, impulsive, drifting, anti-social, driven young and older adults. p. 158Motorcycle is free image from stockfreeimages.com.
Reading, Spelling, Math
Jumping Around the Page
One of the main characteristics that seems to plague dyslexics is eye-tracking difficulties. Because the eyes don't track smoothly, reading becomes a problem.
Printed words get jumbled, letters get reversed, print seems to move, the eye won't track across the page properly, and reading is thus a huge chore that becomes a major battle.
For example, I was in a Walmart years ago purchasing fabric. I had 3 pieces, and each piece had to be scanned twice. She scanned the first slip of paper for the first piece, and the cash register display read "brocade". I hadn't purchased any brocade, and almost said something, but the second scan for that fabric came up at the right price, so I said nothing. Same thing happened on the second piece. By the third piece, my mind had straightened out the letters and I saw that it actually read "barcode", not "brocade". I was certainly glad I kept my mouth shut! Now that was some serious letter scrambling.
"Saw" can become "was", "dog" can become "god", b's are d's, p's are q's, you get the idea. This was one of the first clues I had that there was something going on with my son- he confused "was" and "saw". Years later when he worked in a paint booth, he told me he had to check the orders for the correct paint number several times over to make sure he wasn't mixing the numbers up.
One of the main diagnosis tools Dr. Levinson uses is what he calls his 3-D Optical Scanner that checks how the eyes track. If they jump rather than track smoothly, dyslexia is probably the problem. Words may seem to be moving, sliding off the page, jumping around or blurring. People will resort to using a finger or another piece of paper to track the lines of print to keep their eyes on track.
One of the scenarios related in the book describes children that start school with no problems, but become belligerent when reading begins in the first grade. My son absolutely refused to go to school several weeks into first grade for no apparent reason after a glorious beginning through kindergarten and the first days of first grade. I had to put him kicking and screaming on the bus every morning for several days until one of the older neighbor kids took him under her wing and helped calm him down. Now, years later, I understand that he was experiencing extreme frustration with the whole reading process. As school years progress, books get bigger, print gets smaller and the challenge becomes that much greater.
Reading can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea. Spelling is a problem, aggravated by the memory problems and the inability to see words correctly. And it's pretty obvious how this will affect trying to deal with numbers.
Book picture is free image from freestockphotos.biz.
Ever been told you're absent-minded or spacey? Feel completely stupid for not being able to keep track of your keys or glasses? How about this one- a teacher tells a child, "Go to the table on the left at the back of the room, get the red book, go to page 24 and work the even numbered problems." How much of that would you remember? The dyslexic might remember the last 2 things, but probably no more. You have to be told several times over to remember even a short list of things; you read the same paragraph about 15 times to get it; you've driven this route several times before, but you just can't remember and need a map or someone telling you which way to turn. Connecting names with faces? Right. Even just recognizing people you've met before may not happen, let alone remember the name. And that leaves you looking either stuck-up or just stupid. Now, be honest. How many times did you have to read this for it to sink in?
Dyslexics are very easily distracted, finding it hard to focus for any length of time. Your brain just wants to jump around and perhaps is easily bored unless the subject matter is engrossing. Being in a room with lots of voices or other noise makes understanding the people talking to you difficult because it's hard to filter out all the extra noise- it's just too distracting.
Because processing everything that bombards the brain every day takes such a toll, the dyslexic will check out mentally regularly out of self-defense. Your brain just simply needs a break. So concentration can become a problem, though some compensate by going into "super concentration" mode, blocking out everything else. That may depend on the person and how they're built. But either way, life is taxing, and something has to give. Fatigue is common.
Don't Forget is free image from stockfreeimages.com.
Because the inner ear is where balance function is located, many dyslexics have trouble in this area. It's typical for them to feel klutzy and uncoordinated. Tripping, running into things and general clumsiness plague dyslexics.
P.E. can be a nightmare. I specifically remember when our high school class was doing gymnastics using the uneven parallel bars. I refused to do one of the moves that required swinging around in a somersault-type move around one of the bars, knowing full well it would disorient me and get me panicky. Took a 0, and I didn't frankly care!
This is where a phobia of heights can play in. Levinson has found how inner ear disturbances can cause quite a few phobias; to me, the fear of heights seems the most obvious, but perhaps because it's one I've dealt with all my life- to me, it's a balance thing. I refuse to climb up on the roof, but I have managed to get our single-story house painted more than once, making myself climb that ladder. The more I did it, the easier it was, but now I'd have to get used to it all over again. On the other hand, my son seems to have no trouble in this area. He climbs up on top of grain bins all the time without a second thought, but has obvious dyslexic problems in other areas.
Coordination problems will also result in very cramped, messy handwriting, with some people that even mirror write. Written lines can drift up or down across the page, which reminds me of my difficulty in making entries in my checkbook register. Every other line is gray, but that just doesn't seem to help- I still have trouble getting the amount on the same line as the payee.
Girl on balance beam is free image from freestockphotos.com.
The inner ear regulates your inner compass, keeping you on track. With an impairment in that system, it becomes easy to get disoriented in unfamiliar territory. I remember going out early one morning for a walk around the residential area where my mother lived. It only took me two corners to get disoriented enough that I had to stop and listen for traffic on the main drag to get my bearings again. As long as you are in areas you know, everything is fine, but in unfamiliar areas, it's easy to get panicky. I have come to rely heavily on the compass in the car.
Distinguishing between right and left, north from south, east from west can be a challenge too. I have to stop and think which way the sun either comes up or sets. Children may use a watch or ring to remind them which hand is right and which is left. Dyslexics use all kinds of little tricks to keep things straight.
Time sense can be an issue as well, though that has never been a problem for me. Dyslexics can be chronically late, not realizing how much time has passed, or chronically early trying to compensate. Children may have difficulty learning to tell time.
Compass image is free clipart from openclipart.com.
Slip of the Tongue?
Dyslexia can be blamed for stuttering and stammering (though there may be other causes I don't know about). And then there's the so-called Freudian slip which could well be another aspect of the speech thing- your brain jumping from one thing to another. Words get jumbled and/or reversed- this has been a source of embarrassment for years. I find that my mind runs faster than my mouth, often leaving me at a loss for words. Some also have what Levinson calls articulation errors- mispronunciations, like saying an "f" rather than a soft "th", or a "v" rather than a hard "th".
The memory issues play into this as well:
Memory disturbances for word and thought recall may so complicate the spontaneous speech flow that many dyslexics develop "loose", rambling and disjointed speaking styles, and are naturally viewed as scatterbrained. p. 156Many avoid public speaking for fear of embarrassment, some to the point of a phobia, and at least one of the personal stories related in the book describe someone who wouldn't talk on the phone at all.
Mouth is free image from freestockphotos.com.
Smart but Feeling Dumb
Generally, dyslexics have a very poor self-image, seeing themselves as ugly, stupid and generally inferior. They often will spend their lives trying to prove to themselves and the rest of the world that they are not as stupid as they feel.
As stated earlier, because frustration runs so high, anger may manifest in outbursts of temper, depending on the personality type. A lifetime of this leaves adults in a condition that may not ever get better:
. . . they have one relatively simple problem that radiates in a thousand directions, often causing them to feel they have a thousand different disorders and therefore must be crazy and hopeless. p. 16Seemingly psychosomatic symptoms include headaches, anxiety, depression, dizziness, fatigue, stomachaches, motion sickness etc., that appear to be there for only psychological reasons. No wonder many dyslexics think they're crazy! One thing that struck me as I was learning about all this is that dyslexics work at processing anything new, but familiar places, people, routines are much easier and predictable for them to deal with. Take a dyslexic out of a familiar situation and put him/her into a strange place or situation and they will need time to process. They may get anxious, even panicky with the inevitable sense of disorientation with anything new. If you suspect a smaller child may be dyslexic, make sure you stay with them in new situations until they have time to acclimate themselves. You are the anchor, the familiar. Take them around a new office or classroom and let them see and touch whatever they can to get used to the new surroundings.
With the inner ear controlling so much, it becomes easy to see how so very many things can go wrong with a problem in that area. Treatment by a psychologist will probably just treat the symptom, not the cause, though I'm sure some people benefit from treatment at least to a degree.
Angry girl is free image from freestockphotos.com.
Causes and Treatment
As for treatment, Levinson has successfully used such medications as antihistamines, anti-motion sickness medications, stimulants and others that affect inner ear function in individualized dosages. Nutritional supplements (B complex vitamins in particular) can also help. He says that most of his patients remain on medication for one to four years, after which the majority of his patients are able to function as well off the medications as on them. His books are loaded with story after story of patients who tell of their experiences before and after treatment. These stories present a wide, extensive perspective on the condition so that the reader can see just how all-encompassing dyslexia can be.
All of these stories are from people who went to his treatment center in New York and were diagnosed and treated by him directly. Because the mainstream medical and educational communities have not accepted his findings as legitimate, it becomes a challenge to find someone outside his center that will treat dyslexia as a physical, inner ear problem. For this reason, I welcome input from anyone that may know of doctors who treat dyslexia as an inner ear malfunction.
Let me add here that I am no fan of prescription medications. I'm all for anything that can be done to avoid those at all cost. The side effects of strong prescription meds is just not worth taking a chance. The medications Levinson uses are, from what I understand, over-the-counter stuff for the most part, along with vitamins. The meds he uses do have side effects as well, which is why this should be done with medical supervision, and the fact that his patients are on them for a limited time is encouraging. Knowing how many of his patients have been successfully treated this way prompts me to promote his methods here. There are plenty of sites that can recommend diet changes and supplements that may help some as well.
Levinson's website, Levinson Medical Center for Learning Disabilities, has an enormous number of links to organizations offering support and help. There's no need for me to duplicate any of that. And there is a sort of self test available here.
Because Levinson's work has not been generally received, it's up to people like you and me to find the help we need ourselves. I checked out a whole bunch of books back in the '90's dealing with learning disabilities, some of them good, some of them pretty bad. If you can, find a copy of Levinson's book A Watergate Dyslexia to get a picture of the brick walls he's hit in the established medical and educational communities. As it turned out, he had butted heads with someone who had written one of the books I had checked out. You can find out some about whose work is apt to be more reliable. The problem seems to go back to the age-old issue of control- if people are successfully treated for dyslexia, they are no longer dependent on those in the system. Prevailing attitudes that disparage his work seem to stem from this mindset- many people just simply want to be in control over others.
One of the books I had read years ago (can't remember the name of it anymore) said that there's no such thing as dyslexia, only "dis-teachia", teachers unwilling to take the time to find out what it takes to get through to those with learning disabilities. I suppose there is a certain amount of truth to that statement, because dyslexics do process information differently. I remember reading about the Montessori method, something that seems to get through to some children. There was also information about teaching methods that incorporate the sense of touch to help children learn the alphabet- they use big blocks in the shape of the letters that they feel as well as look at. It's been so long, and I so wish I'd kept a list of those books, but I didn't. Of course, most information is geared toward helping younger children, not adults who have already learned to compensate for much of their disability.
One book that did impress me is Reading by the Colors by Helen Irlen, a woman who has developed a method to help dyslexics read by using colored lenses. This helps the printed word "stand still" on the page, while black on white is just too much contrast, making the words appear to move.
There is information about loads of dyslexia support groups available online as well. Help is out there; we just have to find it. And as I said, I welcome any information about doctors who treat this condition medically as an inner ear problem, but without resorting to strong prescription medications.
Medical symbol is free clipart from openclipart.com.
The See and Say Disaster
I had checked out Why Johnny Can't Read and the sequel, Why Johnny Still Can't Read, books that go into the resistance in the educational community toward phonics. I was one of the few my age that was actually taught to read using phonics, and I believe that has saved me at least some grief in the reading department.
Because the "see and say" method of reading (memorizing what a specific word looks like) took over in most schools decades ago, this has left many people completely unable to sound out words. Logically, who could ever memorize thousands of words by sight? The illiteracy rate in this country is appalling, and many blame this "whole word" or "sight reading" method for the decline.
Apparently there have been plenty of children labeled learning disabled or dyslexic simply because they were never taught to sound out words using phonics principles. According to Rudolph Flesch, author of Why Johnny Still Can't Read, learning to read with the "whole word", "see and say" or "sight reading" method leaves children with symptoms that mimic dyslexia. Much damage has been done over the decades to untold children that have been mistakenly labeled as "minimally brain damaged", learning disabled or otherwise deficient.
If you have a child that has been "diagnosed" with learning disabilities but otherwise seems perfectly fine, the first place to look is to the classroom to find out how these children are or were being taught to read. Intensive phonics teaching would certainly be the answer in this case. (A word of caution- a token amount of phonics instruction has been included in many sight reading books to calm concerned parents. You have to look at the books themselves to find out.)
From what I have read, phonics is definitely one approach that has helped some children who are legitimately dyslexic. But according to some of those books I'd read years ago, phonics just makes matters worse for some dyslexic children, but it might be a first step to at least find out. If some children are labeled as learning disabled strictly because they were taught sight reading rather than phonics, then the cure is pretty obvious and not that difficult.
The problem here is that the public school systems in general aren't going to teach phonics, so it's up to us to take control and see to it that we and/or our children learn to read by sounding words out, not by sight. An interesting site about one woman's fight to get phonics into her local school system is What to Do When You're Told: We Do Teach Phonics (National Right to Read Foundation).
abc blocks are free clip art from openclipart.com.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Dr. Levinson has gone into great detail explaining the mechanisms behind all these symptoms. For a full understanding as to how all this works, I highly recommend reading Smart but Feeling Dumb, the one book that shed so very much light on all this for me and my family. (Links to all his books are below.) Just knowing that there is a physical reason for all this is very liberating and a huge step toward dealing with it. I have only presented the high points; the book has so very much more information that pulls all this together. Total Concentration is one of his books that is geared more for helping adults with dyslexia, while most learning disability and dyslexia books deal with children.
Check out the links at Levinson Medical Center for Learning Disabilities and see what's available in your state. There is hope, but you have to go looking for it.
Tunnel picture is free image from Wikimedia Commons.
Books by Harold N. Levinson, MD
Smart But Feeling Dumb
This one book gave me an enormous amount of understanding. It is full of personal experiences that demonstrate the diversity of symptoms and the dramatic differences these people experienced once treatment began. He thoroughly explains how all the symptoms relate back to the inner ear, making all the aggravating aspects of dyslexia make sense.
A Solution to the Riddle Dyslexia
This first book Levinson wrote is rather technical and more for those with a medical background.
Total Concentration: How to Understand Attention Deficit Disorders
This book is written with adult ADD as the focus.
The connection between phobias and the inner ear is demonstrated in this book.
Upside Down Kids
Written for children and their parents.
A Scientific Watergate Dyslexia
This book recounts the resistance Levinson has met in both the medical and educational communities.
Driven to Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell MD
Another great book that approaches the subject from an adult standpoint.
Reading by the Colors by Helen Irlen
The Irlen Method is an interesting approach that uses transparent colored overlays that help the words on the page "stand still". The overlays are also available through amazon.
The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald D. Davis
This author explains an approach that has helped many people to read. Take a look at the reviews at amazon to get an idea.
Other Sites with Help
As I find useful sites, I'll post links to them here.
Health Boards: Dyslexia
This site has message boards for all kinds of health issues; this is the one specifically for dyslexia, and they have another for ADD.
Learning Disabilities: Beyond the Classroom
A fabulous lens at squidoo.com about the emotional and social fallout from learning disabilities.
Learning Disabilities Association of America
Since 1963, LDA has provided support to people with learning disabilities, their parents, teachers and other professionals. At the national, state and local levels, LDA provides cutting edge information on learning disabilities, practical solutions, and a comprehensive network of resources.
Why Not Teach Intensive Phonics?
An article at the A Beka Book site that goes into the differences between sight reading and phonics, and why they promote intensive phonics.
Phonics, Whole Language and Illiteracy: What Is Your Child Being Taught?
My post on the reading wars and why teaching phonics may be all your child needs to overcome reading difficulties.