Yale Researchers Sally and Bennett Shaywitz Bust Dyslexia Myths

Upside to Reading Disorder Is Creative Thinking

Decoding Dyslexia: Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz reach out to diverse groups, including Jewish day schools, rabbis, and cantors to help them understand the challenges facing their students.
courtesy of sally shaywitz
Decoding Dyslexia: Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz reach out to diverse groups, including Jewish day schools, rabbis, and cantors to help them understand the challenges facing their students.

By Susan Fitzgerald

Published August 04, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
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Typically a person’s IQ level and reading ability track fairly closely, she said, but with dyslexia “you can have a high IQ and a low reading ability … thus the notion of an unexpected difficulty.”

Many people still cling to the old idea of dyslexia — that dyslexic kids read and write words and letters backwards. It was also long thought that dyslexia was a rare disorder that almost exclusively affected boys. By periodically testing and following the progress of more than 400 Connecticut schoolchildren from kindergarten into their early 30s, the Shaywitzes were able to dispel some myths.

“One of the things we’ve learned from the longitudinal study is that girls are almost as equally affected as boys, though little girls may be sitting quietly at their desks and not reading and not be identified by their teachers,” said Bennett Shaywitz, who is section chief of pediatric neurology and the Charles and Helen Schwab Professor in Dyslexia and Learning Development at Yale.

Sally Shaywitz is now the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development.

The Connecticut study also found that 1 in 5 children have dyslexia, though many go unrecognized. Dyslexia runs in families, suggesting a possible genetic component, though there is no single gene or even group of genes known to cause it. Shaywitzes said that “research shows that there are many, many genes that influence dyslexia,” as well as environmental factors.

“You can’t predict who will or won’t be dyslexic by examining their genes,” said Sally Shaywitz.

While the public face of dyslexia is often white American boys, the reading disorder exists around the globe, from Japan to Israel and its Arab neighbors, and it crosses racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. The couple’s new project, the Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative, is aimed at increasing awareness of dyslexia in African-American and Latino communities, where dyslexia, they say, often goes undiagnosed and untreated, leading sometimes to academic failure and school dropout.

One of the worst things dyslexia does is rob a child of self-esteem,” Sally Shaywitz said. But she and her husband are also quick to point out the positives — that kids with dyslexia are often blessed with “a sea of strengths.” While they have trouble decoding the phonologic components of words, that weakness is often surrounded by strengths in reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, concept formation, critical thinking, general knowledge and vocabulary.

The Shaywitzes said they sometimes receive calls from Jewish day school parents with concerns that the dual language learning of Hebrew and English is daunting for their dyslexic children. Jewish day schools, they said, are taking an increasing interest in dyslexia, and the couple was recently invited to speak on dyslexia at a special conference of the Board of Jewish Education in New York City.

“More and more rabbis and cantors are becoming knowledgeable not only about dyslexia, but how best to support and prepare a child who is dyslexic for his bar mitzvah,” said Shaywitz, who added that she’s attended the bar mitzvahs of many of her patients and “they have all been remarkably successful, with the child and family coming away with pride.”

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