A report by The Dyslexia Foundation (TDF), summarizing a November 2015 brief symposium of the same title.
The hallmark of dyslexia is a reading problem. Decades of research have focused on the expression and etiology of reading problems and the development of reading-related skills in the dyslexic individual. However, research, case studies, and anecdotal reports suggest that we should consider the broader range of abilities in these individuals, which might also be reflected in differences in “the dyslexic brain”. These other abilities include sporadic reports of giftedness or talents in the nonverbal/spatial domains; elevated rates of dyslexics in careers such as art, theater, physics, and engineering; visual-spatial processing differences on some neurocognitive tests; diffuse differences in brain structure; and differences in brain function for tasks not related to reading.
In short, the dyslexic difference could encompass more than a reading problem, such as differences in auditory and visual perception and processing, as well as conceptualization ability, or the manner in which information is integrated. Unfortunately, there is little research investigating this, and even that has received scant attention, either because it was poorly done or because it did not fit into either a linguistic or disability-focused model.
In an April 2003 meeting convened by TDF on the topic of Talents and Dyslexia, after much discussion, several questions in need of research were proffered regarding adults with dyslexia: (1) Problem solving: How do high-achieving, successful dyslexics approach and solve novel tasks or problems (compared to non-dyslexics) – specifically in auditory and visual discrimination and conceptualization. (2) Possible subgroup: Do these individuals constitute a subgroup within dyslexics? If so what social, psychological, and neurocognitive factors distinguish them, within dyslexics and compared to non-dyslexics? Do the differentiating abilities share a common etiology with the reading deficit or are they attributable to social support, self-selected practice and/or some inherent drive; and might experiences (self-selected or not) be multipliers of some inborn or latent abilities that may or may not develop without these experiences? (3) Genetic or neurological differences: If they exist, are dyslexics with these unusual or unexpected abilities genetically or neurologically distinct from more “typical” dyslexics? (4) Definition and assessment: Finally, how might we define and assess these special skills, especially when they appear to involve non-verbal or non-verbalizable abilities, for some of which tests do not currently exist? Do we need to create innovative behavioral and neurological approaches to study these abilities?
Despite the fact that these questions for future research were developed and shared in 2003, the issues remain understudied. Therefore, on November 13-15, 2015, TDF hosted a second meeting, to revisit the general question and to consider what currently available research and technology could tell us about the neurocognitive differences in dyslexics beyond reading-related skills. It is important also to take a developmental perspective about a possible broader behavioral phenotype, considering the full spectrum of abilities in children with or at risk for dyslexia, and how studying these issues could contribute to overall knowledge about dyslexia and the brain. Conference participants included the following cognitive and neuroscientists, educators, and practitioners.
Amelia Baker, The Dyslexia Foundation
William Baker, Jr., The Dyslexia Foundation
Don Compton, Florida State University
Laurie Cutting, Vanderbilt University
Jeff Gilger, University of California – Merced
Peggy McCardle, Haskins Laboratories & PMc Consulting
Michael O’Boyle, Texas Tech University
Ben Powers, Eagle Hill Southport School
Kenneth Pugh, Haskins Laboratories
Joe Viscomi, Greplytix
Julie Washington, Georgia State University
Ellen Winter, Boston College