Still Curing Dyslexia

Still Curing Dyslexia

I’ve just been reading some material online on ‘dyslexia treatments’ that include such diverse “therapies” as inner-ear improvement exercises and electric shock treatment that increases reading speed (http://www.newsweek.com/electric-shocks-help-dyslexic-children-read-faster-442693/) If you do any kind of search on the terms “dyslexia cure” you will find neuroscientific brain training, full-on integrated “systems” that combine everything from diet to brain training, hemispheric stimulation, wobble-boards, music therapy, fish oils, and, I’m sure, plenty more. As anyone familiar with my hobby-horses will know, I am prone to rant about anything that claims that  to “cure dyslexia”, even the coloured overlays that we sell shedloads of, so here we go…

Catch-All
We see the words “suffering”, “treatment”, “therapy”, “cure”, and of course “disability”, all associated with dyslexia.  Meanwhile Professor Joe Elliott famously states (“The Dyslexia Debate, 2014) that the term dyslexia is “unscientific and should be abandoned”, while at the same time thousands of parents look to that very diagnosis in the hope that it will help provide the support that will somehow shoehorn their child into educational success.

I can see Professor Elliott’s point. Dyslexia has become too much of a catch-all phrase. And if dyslexia can be “cured” by so many diverse treatments, as most often demonstrated by increased reading speed and improved spelling and/or comprehension, is it even the same “condition” that is being treated every time?  There is evidence  (eg https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/12/161221125517.htm , or https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090624193502.htm)  of differences between the brain of a dyslexic person and a neurotypical individual. As the second of those two research articles says, “It is increasingly accepted that dyslexia is not a unique entity, but might reflect different neuro-cognitive pathologies”. One, perhaps, that responds to fish-oils, another one that responds to hemispheric stimulation (whatever that actually is)?

Dyslexic Heroes
I see it like this. Some people’s brains are wired differently from most others, resulting in a combination of strengths and weaknesses that puts them on the edge of any bell-curve distribution that could be labelled “neurotypical”. Those weaker areas will need support if a person is going to succeed in a system that demands strength where they are weak. It seems that there are all sorts of ways of providing that support, some of which I’m sure are more helpful than others. But whatever the different dyslexic phenotypes are, their difficulties in one area are often balanced by great strengths in others, as we know from the Einsteins, Churchills and  many other “dyslexic heroes” who have a place in history. The UK disability consultant to Microsoft struggles to read and write, but he finds ways round the problems and provides a lot of support for a lot of people by sharing the solutions he has discovered for himself. If these people had been “cured” of their dyslexia , the world would be a poorer place.

Dyslexia Cure $$
Bottling Fog
There are all sorts of interventions that can help strengthen some of the weaker areas that are often side-effects of the wiring typical of the “dyslexic” brain, and that’s all good. Let’s help where we can, and use whatever works. But at the same time, let’s make sure we look out for and encourage any unusual positives in the person that we are helping, because they could well be supporting us in something where we are weak – because as Shelley Johnston wrote in her excellent blog on this site, “they’re supposed to be like that!” Meanwhile to talk of curing dyslexia is like trying to bottle fog and give it a label, and unfortunately where you see the word “cure”, that bottle usually has a price on it as well,  and is reached for in desperation by someone who has been told that there is something wrong with their child.

Thinking and Reading Comfort

Thinking and Reading Comfort

 

Two thought systems

I am in the process of reading “Thinking fast and slow”, by Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahnemann. The whole book is a fascinating insight into the workings of the human mind, and how we operate on two distinct levels: system one, which is our instinctive, “autopilot” mode; and system two, which you could call our rational over-ride; the processes of analytical thought which, when we allow it the energy that it needs to function effectively, monitors and controls the instinctive “gut-thinking” promptings of system one. System two needs mental effort; system one operates at an automatic level, feeding our mental circuits instantly with much of the information we need for daily life – “I recognise that face”, “I know that word”, “I understand that sign” etc. There is a lot more to the book, (if you’re interested you can check out the you tube video on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjVQJdIrDJ0 ), but what interests me here is how Kahnemann demonstrates a clear connection between reading comfort and thinking levels.

The  cockpit

cockpit

System one is like a cockpit, which maintains and updates current answers to key questions, such as: Is anything new going on? Is there a threat? Are things going well? Should my attention be redirected? Is more effort needed for this task? etc. In assessing this constant stream of inputs, system one is continually deciding whether or not more effort is required from system two. One of the “dials” monitored in this figurative cockpit measures cognitive ease, and its range is between “Easy” and “Strained:’ Easy is a sign that things are going well – no threats, no major news, no need to redirect attention or mobilize effort. Cognitive strain indicates that a problem exists, which will require increased mobilisation of System two.

Many inputs (including the mood you’re in, the familiarity of the task etc) affect this neurological “dial”, but an important one that relates to reading is the clarity of the font. The process of reading familiar words that are clear on the page is a system one activity operating in the “cognitive ease” range, which leaves system two free to work on what the text is about. However if the presentation of the text causes the dial to register cognitive strain, system two is activated to help decipher the font, which suggests that the cognitive resources available for understanding what the words mean are diminished  – especially for someone with dyslexia who has multi-tasking  difficulties.

Font size

This has important implications in at least two areas. One is the question of font size and font type in children’s text books and examination papers. Research by Wilkins et al shows that typefaces for children become too small too quickly: “Sentences presented in a font of a size larger than is typical for use in material for 5-year olds were comprehended by 7–8-year-olds more rapidly than those of a more conventional size. The difference in size approximated 19% and it resulted in an increase in reading speed of 9%. (Typography for children may be inappropriately designed, Journal of Research in Reading Vol 32 2009, UKLA). This increase in reading speed was statistically highly significant.

On the same issue, I spoke to a lady on the phone just yesterday, who was concerned about her 14 year old daughter’s progress at school. She mentioned in the course of the conversation that her school had reduced their test papers from A4 to A5 page format, with a consequent reduction in font size. Wilkins’s research cited above goes on to recommend 14 pt  (this is 14pt) as the optimum size for school texts. Shrinking A4 pages to A5, for the sake of saving paper, will obviously reduce the font size significantly. The implications for cognitive ease are clear. If school testing results are to be a clear reflection of a child’s ability to think, it is critical that font size and clarity are addressed.

Visual Stress

The second issue brings me on to my pet topic, which is visual stress – the experience of discomfort and text distortions that many people experience when reading black text against a white background. Huang et al (2003) suggest that a strong sensorial stimulation – such as a dense written text – might lead to a “reduction in the efficiency of the inhibitory mechanisms in the visual cortex, resulting in an excessive excitation of the cortical neurons, and thus causing illusions and distortions.”*  Wilkins and Evans later proposed (2010) that coloured overlays are effective because “they distribute this excessive excitation and thus mitigate the symptoms of visual stress, thus improving written text processing and reading.” In other words, as is now widely accepted and the many thousands of people who use tinted lenses and coloured overlay products would testify, reading against a coloured background tinted to suit an individual’s preference can move the cognitive ease dial from “strained” to “easy”.

And so the two areas of research come together, like an overlay on a page, even, with an inescapable conclusion:  if text clarity and font size are indicators of cognitive ease or cognitive strain, what is the effect of visual stress on our ability to think about what we are reading? How often do we read something, and it just doesn’t “sink in”? If this is a result of cognitive strain, we may be experiencing it because we are tired, or preoccupied, or because the ideas are unfamiliar, or because the text is faint or too small – or it may just be that we need to be reading against a different coloured background.

*This principal is known as “cortical hyperexcitability” and is the science behind the  coloured overlays, reading rulers and screen tinting software that we supply.

Bob Hext   Jan 2018

They Are Supposed To Be Like That!

Why there is no need to “fix” kids with “special needs”.
Guest blog by Shelley Johnston: Dyslexic, doctor, home-schooling mother.

If I am going to have a rant, I will say that I don’t see anyone classifying children as “SEN” because they lack the extraordinary physical energy and courage of my next-door neighbour’s son. In comparison to him, many other children are frankly pathetic. I will say that I don’t see any children being “statemented” because they lack the ability to handle animals the way my childminder’s son can pick up anything from a preying mantis to a chicken and it appears to become tame. Nobody sighs and says “Never mind, dear, we can work on it,” because they can’t write backwards perfectly, as though in a mirror, like my daughter.

But do you know what? When I am old and sick, if I have a heart attack at 3.00 am, I really hope I find someone in A&E who was like my neighbour’s son as a child, because they have the energy to still be firing on all cylinders at three o’clock in the morning.

One day I WILL finally persuade my husband that a large portion of our household income needs to be spent on horses, and if one of those horses gets colic, I’m going to desperately want someone like my childminder’s son to show up and be able to soothe the thrashing hooves and snapping teeth as the poor thing tries to kick and bite its own tummy.

If I need an engineer, I hope they can flip shapes about in their head as easily as my little girl can.

The biggest trouble our children with “special needs” face is our own short-sightedness; our desperation that they go along with the pack, fit the mould and jump through all the hoops – the hoops laid out by the National Curriculum and Ofsted and other well-meaning bodies of people, who don’t seem to understand that Normal Distribution is a bell-curve; that it is NORMAL for people to be abnormal, that whole populations work by having a balance between lots of people who are good at one thing and a few who are good at others.

If we spend all our time trying to narrow the bell-curve and cut off its untidy tails we will find ourselves up the creek without a paddle. We not only do our “special needs” children a grave disservice by teaching them that what they are good at and enjoy is secondary in importance to the things that they are bad at and hate doing,  giving them the impression, albeit unintentionally, that they have to pretend to be something else before they are allowed to be themselves. We deprive the rest of the world of their brilliant talents. We bury our mathematicians, our architects, our philosophers, our Chelsea Flower Show gardeners, our Einsteins, our Chopins under a wave of “Yes, dear; that’s nice: you can do it when you have practised your spellings/when you have learned to sit still in class/when you can remember to put your hand up before speaking/ got your marks in your SATS (ooh , don’t get me started!).

Perhaps they aren’t meant to sit still. They can learn to read standing up, lying down, walking around, or sitting up a tree. Perhaps being “good” at school, sticking to all the rules and interacting with 30 children at a time is just exhausting for the child who is so sensitive that they read the signals of a frightened baby animal. And that’s OK: they are meant to be wriggly, or sensitive, or able to write in both directions. It’s our job to give them space to bloom – whether it’s in a mainstream classroom, a smaller group, a quiet place to hide, or not even at school.

But it doesn’t matter what they need: that’s not what this article is about. It’s about how we look at our children, because that is how they look at themselves. Do we feel sorry for monkeys because they can’t swim, or do we let them climb trees?

PS Of course we have to buy a life-boat as well, because we are 21st century parents with a pathological aversion to risk, and even though the monkey lives in a dry jungle we have to cover all our bases, but more on that some other time…