Sally Shaywitz was home with three children under the age of five when she was asked to take a position at Yale School of Medicine that would focus on learning difficulties.
The question of why some kids struggle in school was not exactly a hotbed of medical research in the 1970s, but Shaywitz, a developmental pediatrician, said yes to the offer.
“Two things struck me from the start,” said Shaywitz, whose husband, a child neurologist, was already at Yale. “One was how little science was available at the time, and two, how there was not much information on what happened to kids whose struggles have not come to anyone’s attention.”
So began Shaywitz’s quest to better understand dyslexia, an all-too-common learning disorder that can cause severe reading difficulties in even the brightest of kids. Sally Shaywitz and her husband, Bennett Shaywitz, joined forces that eventually led to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, a name that reflects the pair’s belief that there’s also an upside to dyslexia: People with dyslexia tend to be creative and out-of-the-box thinkers, the very characteristics that can mask the fact that a child is having a tough time reading.
Stuart Yudofsky, chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, who takes both a professional and personal interest in the Shaywitzes’ work because he has dyslexia, calls them “pioneers not only in advancing the understanding of dyslexia, but also in helping the world understand people who have dyslexia and helping people with dyslexia understand themselves.”
As a youngster Yudofsky was told he was an underachiever and careless, when in fact he could barely read the words in his schoolbooks or on the blackboard. He taught himself to read not by phonetically sounding out words, but by learning to recognize words as a whole. It wasn’t until he graduated from medical school and was doing his residency that he first heard the word “dyslexia.”
Yudofsky said the Shaywitzes are unusual as scientists because “they’ve taken a broad view encompassing neurobiology, psychology, education and public policy.”
They also make a point to share their research with a diverse audience — from Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to Jewish day schools. “They talk with parents, they talk with people with dyslexia, they talk with Congress and legislators, they talk with educators and advocacy groups,” Yudofsky said.
The Shaywitzes broadly define dyslexia as “an unexpected difficulty in learning to read.”
“We know that people are born to speak, but they are not born to read,” said Sally Shaywitz, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and descends from a line of scholars going back to the Chofetz Chaim of 19th-century Poland. “Reading must be taught.”