Gifted Dyslexics: More Common Than Most People Think
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Whoopi Goldberg, Erin Brokovich, and explorer Ann Bancroft – what do they have in common? They're all famous and they're all dyslexic.
Despite a lot of well-known sufferers, the learning disability is greatly misunderstood. Dyslexia is the elephant in the schoolroom. It affects as many as one in 10 kids, but it's routinely missed, or misdiagnosed.
Part of that has to do with the fact that the symptoms vary greatly. This variability is the rule, rather than the exception, and stems from the fact that as many as 10 different genes, in addition to environment, play a role in dyslexia.
When most people hear the D word, they think reading. "But reading difficulties are just one part of this condition," according to Fernette Eide, M.D., a leading learning specialist and physician who, with her husband, Brock Eide, M.D. M.A., runs the Eide Neurolearning Clinic in Edmonds, Washington. The clinic specializes in the evaluation and care of children with school and learning challenges. As they write in their book The Mislabeled Child (Hyperion), "Children with dyslexia often struggle not only with reading but also with handwriting, spelling, oral language, math, motor planning and coordination, organization, sequencing, orientation to time, focus and attention, right-left orientation, auditory and visual processing and memory."
In short, dyslexia has a boatload of possible symptoms that makes it difficult to spot. And one of the biggest symptoms is one that educators rarely correlate: giftedness. Underneath all of the spelling mistakes and the trouble focusing, the backwards handwriting and the processing problems, dyslexic children have a high tendency to be extremely smart. In fact, studies have shown that the average IQ of a child with dyslexia is routinely higher than that of the regular population.
"They stretch the boundaries," Brock Eide says. "When they read, they can't just automatically match sounds and letters, so they use contextual cues and problem solving and no one may realize there's a problem." Dyslexic kids grow so good at problem solving, at finding alternative ways to compensate for the fact that they can't read, that they become expert brainstormers. "Dyslexic children often become some of society's greatest thinkers," Brock Eide says.
And it's just these smarts that get them into trouble. They ace tests. They outpace their peers. "The kids present in ways in which no one would suspect a learning disability," Brock Eide says. "They're often early readers who read at, or above, grade level." Giftedness is the red herring in the dyslexia diagnosis game. Children routinely get misdiagnosed and accused of laziness or not trying hard enough.
Either that, or dyslexia is diagnosed, but giftedness is missed. "In the medical community," Fernette Eide says, "we're looking for what's wrong and what the problems are. We look at the struggles and advise on a plan of next steps. But children are a complex mix of things. Medical practices aren't set up to look for what's going well. And yet, our feeling is that a lot of how the brain works is that it corrects itself. It compensates. And so it's often true that striking gifts sit next to disability."
As a parent, it's important to take any label with a grain of salt. Don't be so enamored with the idea of a child who's "gifted" that you fail to notice learning struggles. And don't be so heartbroken by a diagnosis like "learning disability" that you fail to see a gift. Kids are complicated creatures, Fernette Eide says, and often, it's just a matter of perspective. "You don't often have too look far to see the positives next to the negatives."
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