By JAKE GROVE
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
yslexia has never just been about reading a few letters or a word backward and trying to understand it. This "learning disability" is actually something far more prevalent and misunderstood than most people might think. Dyslexia is a real issue affecting tens of millions of individuals and can be treated with the right blend of patience, practice and hard work.
Between 10 percent and 15 percent of American pupils have dyslexia and more than 85 percent of illiterates are dyslexic.
Unfortunately, only about 5 percent of those with dyslexia are ever properly diagnosed or receive treatment to help them deal with the disorder.
And that is what dyslexia is. Long thought to be a learning disability that could be fixed if the pupils wasn't too lazy or stupid, dyslexia is actually a neurological disorder where words, letters and discerning sounds of speech are difficult and next to impossible.
"Literally, dyslexia meant difficulty with reading," said Dr. Alice Peters, school psychologist at New Prospect Elementary School in Anderson, S.C. "Long ago it was more narrow for reversing the orientation of letters and the spoken word, but it has come to mean something much broader."
Peters said dyslexia typically manifests itself when a child is learning to read or around the kindergarten age level. One symptom is when children have difficulty decoding the sounds of words. Another is when they can sound out words fine but have a hard time remembering a word that they have read many times before. And, at its most basic, if a child has an unusual amount of trouble remembering his letters, he could possibly have dyslexia.
Though these symptoms and many like them don't necessarily mean a child is dyslexic, they're signs that something could be amiss. The biggest mistake parents and some teachers make when confronted with the possibility of dyslexia is denial.
"Unfortunately, some parent might think the child is dumb [or] lazy or that a teacher is no good," Peters said. "We have to try hard to tell them that the child is not dumb, but their reading level is just a little lower than normal."
Rob Langston dealt with some of those problems when he was a child. Langston is CEO of For the Children Foundation and author of the book "For the Children: Redefining Success in School and Success in Life." He is also severely dyslexic.
Langston found out early that he couldn't read without extreme difficulty. He and his family noticed the problem as early as second grade, but a diagnosis was not made until he was in eighth grade.
By the time someone told him what this learning disability was, he found out that his father and grandfather before him had some form of dyslexia and that it was nothing to be ashamed of.
"I like to call it a people problem," he said. "Dyslexia doesn't affect certain countries or certain races, it is worldwide. It's inherited, it's generational, and it's widespread."
Langston said that, according to a new study by Yale University, MRIs were conducted on people with and without dyslexia. Those studies showed that a normal person reads the word "cat" on a chalkboard and the impulses go from the eye to the reading part of the brain. In a dyslexic person, on the other hand, those impulses go from the eye to all parts of the brain and eventually find their way -- piece by piece -- to the reading part of the brain.
It is simply a neurological difference.
Advice for parents
Treatment is available. Peters said the first thing parents should do if they think something is amiss is to talk to the teacher. She said every school has some kind of referral process that eventually leads to the school psychologist where a diagnosis can be made. From there, the Dyslexia Research Institute suggests treatment be individualized.
Depending on whether the dyslexia is mild, moderate or severe, treatment can be administered and dyslexics can learn to deal with the language disability. It just needs to be diagnosed and dealt with early in life.
"You can't simplify reading," Peters said. "Dyslexia can cause problems in so many facets of life. like following directions, reading a map or reading to children that it's worth it to get it treated as soon as possible. Don't just think it will go away."