Dyslexia: does it really exist?

Dyslexia is an umbrella term given to those with difficulties in reading most commonly. The NHS estimates that around 4-8 per cent of children have some form of dyslexia.

However, as this is an umbrella term, academics from Yale and Durham Universities are now suggesting that millions of children are being wrongly diagnosed as dyslexic as they found that the condition itself might not actually exist at all.

The same academics are now calling for the term ‘dyslexia’ to be abandoned because it is unscientific and lacks any meaning. They claim resources are being wasted by putting youngsters through diagnostic tests and say the umbrella term is used too readily for children who often display vastly different reading problems.

In the book The Dyslexia Debate, Professor Julian Elliott, a former teacher of children with learning difficulties, said more focus should be put on helping children to read, rather than finding a label for their difficulty. The author, a professor of education at Durham University, said: “Parents are being woefully misled about the value of a dyslexia diagnosis. In every country, and in every language, a significant proportion of children struggle to master the skill of reading and some will continue to find it difficult throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result.
“Research in this field clearly demonstrates that this is a grave misunderstanding.”

The authors found that symptoms in one person leading to a diagnosis of dyslexia are often absent in another person similarly diagnosed. Therefore a typical education invention for one pupil may not help another who has also been diagnosed with dyslexia.

While the researchers do not question the existence of the real, sometimes complex, problems some people have with reading, they are critical of the term “dyslexia” because it is too imprecise. They suggest the key task for professionals is to spot reading difficulties early in any child and intervene as quickly as possible rather than search for a questionable diagnosis.

Children are diagnosed with dyslexia for a range of reasons including those whose difficulty in reading is unexpected, those who show a discrepancy between reading and listening comprehension or pupils who do not make meaningful progress in reading even when provided with high-quality support.

Dr Gay Keegan, District Senior Educational Psychologist for Hampshire County Council, said: “As an applied educational psychologist I do not find the term ‘dyslexia’ helpful since there appears to be no unifying identifying characteristics, prognosis or response to interventions which all people with ‘dyslexia’ share. So, rather than considering a single entity, I find it helpful to consider different reasons for reading difficulties, using a functional analysis rather than looking for a label. My approach involves assessing what the child can do and what they find difficult, assessing and enhancing their learning opportunities and measuring their response to well-delivered, evidenced-based interventions over time.”

However charities have challenged their assessment claiming that the term is important and should not be dropped.
Dr John Rack, head of research, development and policy, for Dyslexia Action insisted the term retained a scientific and educational value. He said: “We don’t buy the argument that it is wasteful to try to understand the different reasons why different people struggle. And for very many, those reasons fall into a consistent and recognisable pattern that it is helpful to call dyslexia. Helpful for individuals because it makes sense out of past struggles and helpful for teachers who can plan the way they teach to overcome or find ways around the particular blocks that are there.”

This almost reminds me of the ASD versus Attachment Disorder scenario, although the difference in that case is in fact the symptoms for ASD and Attachment Disorder are considered rather similar. I can see where the academics are coming from in this case, because Dyslexia as a term in itself doesn’t really describe anything, because there are so many different forms. Where I disagree though is dropping the name. Instead of dropping it, why can you not have subforms of dyslexia and give those separate names and have Dyslexia as the overall term, in a way not too dissimilar to ASD, as that in itself has many different forms for different areas of the spectrum? That way all of this confusion could be managed a little bit easier.

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