dyslexia head pic


It’s difficult to understand dyslexia because it’s something you can’t see even if you look at it under a microscope. It’s something that happens inside your head that means your brain works a bit differently from most other people.

Because you can’t see what it looks like it’s hard to describe it in words. That said, we’re now going to attempt to describe something in writing. That might not be the best thing for people who don’t like to read. But it sort of makes the point.

Anyway all we can really do is ‘sort of’ describe what dyslexia is ‘mostly probably’ about from observing individual dyslexic’s behaviour. Even the smart guys don’t agree about what causes it and how to treat it in every case. So whilst this piece covers most of the most up-to-date thinking we do apologise that it’s all a bit ‘definitely maybe’.

Dyslexia is one of those awkward things that’s hard to define. It’s not like having an illness like tonsillitis which is the same in just about everybody and treated the same way. It’s not like having a condition like a broken bone which in most people will heal in 6-8 weeks. The fact is that:

  • Dyslexia is never quite the same in any two people
  • If you are dyslexic you can never get rid of it – it’s not something you can cure – you simply have to learn to live with it

As such dyslexia is counted as a ‘disability’. Although, if you look at the list of famous dyslexics, it doesn’t need to hold you back. Indeed many dyslexic people think it can be a positive asset.  

Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that being dyslexic doesn’t mean you’re ‘thick’ or ‘stupid’. In fact many dyslexics are extremely bright – for example Einstein was dyslexic, and you don’t get much more brainy than that.

+   Who gets it?

Dyslexia affects both guys and girls. The experts used to think it affected boys more than girls. In reality it’s probably more like 50:50. Recent research into University students who are claiming the DSA (Disabled Student’s Allowance) for dyslexia, after being assessed as undergrads, suggests there are more dyslexic girls at Uni than there are guys.

The confusion may have been caused by the fact that you tend to be able to spot it younger in guys. Girls tend to naturally be more focussed and generally better behaved at school and hide it better, whereas boys tend to be more disruptive. 

Statistically the most quoted figure is that dyslexia affects 1 in every 10 people – so 10% of the population. The research into people claiming the DSA at University shows the proportion is lower – about 2.5%. That number may well hide some people who have never been assessed, and some more that have learned to cope. The true statistic is probably somewhere between the two.

+   What is it?

There is no one simple way to get your head around dyslexia so we’ll give you a range of statements that might help explain it:

  • Educationally dyslexia is considered a Specific Learning Difficulty – dyslexics don’t learn ‘stuff’ in the same way ‘normal’ people learn
  • Another way of looking at that is that dyslexics don’t learn from being taught in a traditional way – most schools are set up to teach the 9 out of 10 people who are not dyslexic, which makes sense really
  • Dyslexia occurs in the brain – many people describe it by saying the dyslexic brain is ‘wired up’ differently
  • The word dyslexia comes from the Greek and a street wise modern literal translation might be ‘can’t get your head around words’
  • A dictionary definition is any of various reading disorders associated with the impairment of the ability to interpret spatial relationships or to integrate auditory and visual information
  • Dyslexia used to be called ‘word blindness’ because dyslexics have trouble learning to read
  • Actually dyslexia is about a lot more than just words – it’s to do with learning style and to a large extent memory problems

Interesting fact about the dyslexic brain

Dyslexics do actually have different looking brains. Every brain has two halves (called hemispheres) and in most people’s head the ‘normal’ brain the left hemisphere will be larger than the right one. In a dyslexic brain both hemispheres are more or less equal size.

Normally nature loves symmetry. So perhaps dyslexic brains are more beautiful!

Why do you get it?

Most indications suggest that dyslexia is one of those genetic things. Generally if you’re dyslexic it means somebody in your family before you is dyslexic. However genetics is a funny old thing and it’s quite possible to be the dyslexic one of three or four children where your brothers and sisters are not affected.

+   How to know if you are dyslexic?

Up until the time you’re around 7 – the age where you’re expected to learn to read and write and spell – it’s difficult to tell if you’re dyslexic or not. The earliest and most obvious symptoms tend to be that you’re not learning those skills as quickly as the other guys in your class.

As you get older it tends to become more apparent and easier to spot – but you need someone like a teacher to realise it might be worth digging a bit deeper. Or one of your parents might notice something isn’t quite right. Even today it might be a bit of a fight to get people around you to see you need help.

Some people, especially the bright ones, manage to cope right through their schooling and only discover at A Level or even at Uni that they have a problem. Luckily education is getting more dyslexia friendly and it’s possible to get allowances to type exam answers on a computer, get somebody to read the questions to you out loud, and even get somebody you can dictate your answers to so they can write them down (a scribe).

One area of education that is not so dyslexia friendly is exam questions. If you’re not great at reading the harder the exams get the harder it may be to read and work out the actual question. Multiple choice questions can be worse still – a question that might be tricky followed by 4 answers that sound a bit similar is not something dyslexics get on with.

+   Legalities and politics of dyslexia

If you are proven to be dyslexic then you legally become a disabled person and fall under what is called The Equality Act. This used to be called the Disability Discrimination Act. What is says it that the world around a disabled person has to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure they have equal chances – really they are there to make sure you have a level playing field.

The most common adjustment at school level is extra time (normally up to a maximum of 25%) which is really there so you get more time to read the questions and plan your answers. Those with greater challenges may qualify for the allowances listed above.

At University the chances are that as well as extra time you may well qualify for technology such as a laptop and printer and dyslexia software. It’s a rapidly changing provision. You may also get an allowance for books, and also an allowance for one-to-one tuition to support literacy and numeracy weaknesses outside of your subject area.

+   The only way to really find out is to be assessed

To be formally recognised as ‘dyslexic’, and to open the way to get the adjustments, you need to be assessed. Traditionally assessments have been done by Educational Psychologists but now many places also accept a report from a Specialist Assessor. You have to pay privately for the assessment and it isn’t cheap – it can be up to £500.

If you want to apply for the Disabled Student’s Allowance at Uni then you need to have an assessment done after your 16th birthday. If you have this before you go to Uni you pay for this.

You can wait until you get to Uni and then talk to the Special Needs people in Student Services. They will probably organise a ‘screening’ internally to see whether they think you are dyslexic and then, if they do, they can book a full assessment with an Educational Psychologist. If you are exempt from paying Tuition Fees this should be free of charge. Otherwise you will again have to pay for it yourself although the charges may not be so high.

+   Conclusions

If you’ve managed to get this far you will realise that being dyslexic is nowhere near as straightforward as catching mumps or spraining your ankle. There’s a lot more to it than outlined here even. Being dyslexic is a way of life and you have to adjust to it.

It can be a real pain when you’re younger but you can learn to compensate and dyslexics, with their different view of the world, can be very successful. Often they are extremely creative – actors, poets, singers, entrepreneurs.

They also crop up a lot in the media and in particular new media and social media. At Doctor Wellgood a number of the people who launched the website are dyslexic. We saw that something needed doing in a different way and so we did it. Dyslexics don’t get put off by problems – they solve them.

+   Useful links

For more information you could try the following links:

Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre - www.arkellcentre.org.uk

The British Dyslexia Association - www.bdadyslexia.org.uk

The Professional Association of Teachers of Students with Specific Learning Difficulties (PATOSS) - http://www.patoss-dyslexia.org/

A good book on the subject is A Dyslexic Writes – which is actually written by Doctor Wellgood’s Editor in Chief, Al Campbell  – www.adyslexicwrites.com

Linked stories

See also in the Clinic