Monday, September 5, 2016

Dyslexia: Blessing in Disguise

In any professional, religious, scientific, or educational field, no matter how devoted its members become to the given cause, and no matter how much solidarity develops between them for their shared goal, disagreements do sometimes develop. Indeed, the very passion that such professionals bring to the high calling of their field can add fervor and tension to those debates. But given the devotion to the cause of dyslexia that you see throughout the field in which Kildonan is honored to be a thought-leader, and given the warm collegiality often on display within the small world the field constitutes so far, contentious and emotionally charged debates occur less often than an outsider would expect. When they do occur, though, (and perhaps because they arise so infrequently), they arrive with great force and a sense of upheaval. But such disruption can be healthy and invigorating for any field, and the field of dyslexia education seems ripe for new thinking and even re-thinking. The IDA has identified and addressed “The Dyslexia Debate” as a discussion over what dyslexia is and how it should be defined. But a narrower, more focused, but related debate currently simmers, close to the boiling point, over whether dyslexia confers strengths or talents not as reliably present in its absence.

Scientific research supporting the presence of dyslexia’s benefits has been published for many years, but those findings began reaching a mass lay audience with the release of The Dyslexic Advantage, a 2011 book by Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide that Dr. Gordon Sherman (former IDA President) called “a must read” and that Dr. Manuel Casanova, another prominent neuroscientist with a specialty in the dyslexic brain, calls “probably the most helpful material ever written on dyslexia.” The Eides and their book have launched a movement that includes a website and a bi-annual conference on the topic.

You can tell a good movement by the high level of the backlash against it, and it’s hard to get higher than Louisa Moats, writing earlier this year in the IDA’s newsletter The Examiner that dyslexia is “not a gift” but rather a “condition” with which students are “afflicted.” She cited the accomplishments of successful dyslexics as the basis for what she calls the false belief that dyslexia brings with it any advantages. Although the Eides and other specialists who have embraced the prevalence of dyslexia’s benefits do often celebrate those benefits with tributes to successful public figures with dyslexia, Moats didn’t mention the substantial body of scientific findings that justify that embrace. I’ll mention just one here and will return to this blog to offer more in the coming months. For now, I’d like to add to the debate the work of Professor Catya von Károlyi and her team at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, who in 2003 encountered a visual-spatial advantage that dyslexic subjects in their study possessed in stark contrast to the non-dyslexic subjects. The link I share here requires a large payment to see the full study, but von Károlyi’s summary of the study appears below the payment link for free, and it tells you all you need to know for purposes of understanding the scientific conclusion her study yielded:

Skeptics understandably will say that correlation is not causation, and that the visual-spatial talent identified by von Károlyi at Wisconsin could have developed through the dyslexic subjects’ early-childhood preference for visual-spatial stimuli, in part to avoid reading. By this reasoning, the study’s non-dyslexic subjects would have thus been disadvantaged on this section of the testing by virtue of their many childhood hours claimed by engagement with text and not with images. That explanation deserves consideration and respect, but for now it’s a theory untested by the kind of scientific inquiry in which the von Károlyi team engaged. I understand why neuroscientists would want to study whether dyslexics’ visual-spatial talent comes to them genetically or through lived experience in early childhood, and as a layman fascinated by such scientific questions, I very much look forward to seeing the answer. But in the meantime, we should all agree that the advantage exists. And as educators of dyslexics, my colleagues at Kildonan and I see that all that really matters in the meantime is that our students come to us with this advantage when they start school, and that we should make the most of it.