Nan Austin

Crossed wires? No, dyslexic brains different, may be more agile

Oh, brain science! First you tell us a can-do attitude can make difficult math doable. Now you say those who struggle to read have learning advantages. It boggles the mind.

But it also gives hope to folks like Curtis Haney, a pilot who has struggled to read at regular speed all his life.

“I was so embarrassed to ask the questions – I thought I should know the answers,” Haney said after hearing a panel discussion on dyslexia. Over the years he tried everything, tracing words with his finger, studying longer, audio tapes.

“It is frustrating for me,” he said, but added, “It gets easier over time.”

Haney came to hear a presentation on dyslexia, he said, because he needed to know: “Was I just lazy?”

How many people over his 30 years had told him that? It is the default understanding of why kids can not read. They must not be paying attention. They wriggled out of required home reading. They just are not trying. But many of those kids will go on to excel in life, as did brokerage founder Charles Schwab and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Many people – by some estimates 1 in 5 students – struggle to read, and most of them (as high as 80 percent) are dyslexic, according to the Dyslexia Center of Utah. Increasingly, research is pointing to their learning difference styles as a benefit for creative approaches and tenacity.

The statistics moved the California legislature to require children with reading troubles be tested for dyslexia, and for the California Department of Education to provide resources to help teachers and parents more effectively teach them beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

For those of us who found decoding text easy, it seems unthinkable that someone could not make those simple squiggle-to-sound connections. My older sister taught me to read at 4. I have no memory of a time when I did not read. For me, probably like most who choose to teach, schoolwork was a breeze.

When my smart-as-a-whip little girl read me a chapter of her favorite children’s book at 3, I knew she was well on her way toward a childhood like mine, spent with nose buried between pages. But no. It turned out her talent was memorizing, a coping skill that hid her struggles and kept her grades high.

By high school she had her flashcard system down, color-coding on her calendar. She checked in with teachers constantly to keep ahead of what for her was a very steep curve. She was formidable at the Jumble – letters in random order were how she read everything. A teaching credential and a master’s degree in education later, don’t ask her to read on the spot or expect her to spell – dyslexia does not go away, even for those who learn to work around it.

Dyslexic brains, it turns out, are built differently, said Jeffrey Gilger of the University of California at Merced.

“It’s not just about the left hemisphere, language issues. It’s other stuff,” Gilger told attendees at the first of a series of talks around dyslexia, put on by LearningQuest, SLD Foundation, Great Valley Charter Academy, and the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

“What seems to happen is before you’re even born, cells are supposed to migrate up to the (cerebral) cortex as that baby is growing inside. They’re supposed to stop at a certain layer of cortex. In dyslexic brains we see that a lot of those cells didn’t stop where they’re supposed to stop early on in development,” he said.

“So when you’re born, you’ve got a kind of a brain that’s set up to not deal with text very well,” Gilger explained. But you may have a brain that becomes more adept at other things, like complex spacial reasoning, or memorizing. Other correlations are with attention deficit disorders and delayed speech.

“What’s normal and what’s not? We don’t approach dyslexia as a disease anymore,” he said. “Most people are starting to figure out that what dyslexics are is just a normal variation in the population. They just struggle with reading.”

Humans are not hard-wired to read. It is a learned process, said panelist Eldon Rosenow, an optometrist. Sheer perseverance works for some, but not all. “It’s finding what works for you. You know dyslexics have to read every word. Myself, being dyslexic, I found reading research is easy for me. I read every word. I don’t read novels,” Rosenow said.

Scientists believe they have identified a handful of genes that are associated with dyslexia, meaning this atypical brain development is likely in part genetic and tends to run in families. In my family, my husband is the genetic link. Before word processing programs, the teenage Les Austin struggled for hours on end to copy a final draft of essays in pen, ripping up and tossing page after page after spotting his latest misspelling.

He has the keenest wit around, but as a newlywed I gave up trying to answer the messages he took down. Phone numbers written in the wrong order make for interesting conversations. Not all dyslexics see reversed letters like a mirror. Some mix up letters that look alike, such as d and b. Others mismatch letter sounds, for example guessing the spelling of cat as B-A-T.

In our family the dyslexics became a team, cracking up at their inside jokes of flipped letters that flipped meanings. Humor took the sting out of what during the school day can mean huge stress and humiliation.

In grammar school, my husband dreaded read-aloud time. He would count the desks and then the paragraphs until his turn, silently reading his section over and over so he would not mess up. Other people use rulers under each line to keep their eyes from jumping between lines. Some highlight passages, or rewrite notes again and again.

Every dyslexic has to carve his or her own path, but the creative, practical strategies they devise could also benefit their classmates, Gilger said, “A lot of research shows what works for people with a reading disorder, helps them get better, works for people without a reading disorder.”

So take heart, anti-readers, the next generation will get more help than you did. You are not lazy, or crazy, and you are certainly not alone.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin