Dyslexia and Specific Learning Difficulties in Adults
Dyslexia is a hidden disability thought to affect around 10% of the population, 4% severely. It is the most common of the Specific Learning Difficulties, a family of related conditions with considerable overlap or co-occurrence. Together these are believed to affect around 15% of people to a lesser or greater extent.
Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) affect the way information is learned and processed. They are neurological (rather than psychological), usually hereditary and occur independently of intelligence. They include:
- Dyspraxia or Development Co-ordination Disorder
- Attention Deficit Disorder
Contrary to popular misconception, Dyslexia is not only about literacy, although weaknesses in literacy are often the most visible sign. Dyslexia affects the way information is processed, stored and retrieved, with problems of memory, speed of processing, time perception, organisation and sequencing.
Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), also known as Dyspraxia in the UK, is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults. This condition is formally recognised by international organisations including the World Health Organisation. DCD is distinct from other motor disorders such as cerebral palsy and stroke. The range of intellectual ability is in line with the general population. Individuals may vary in how their difficulties present; these may change over time depending on environmental demands and life experience, and will persist into adulthood.
An individual’s coordination difficulties may affect participation and functioning of everyday life skills in education, work and employment. Children may present with difficulties with self-care, writing, typing, riding a bike, play as well as other educational and recreational activities. In adulthood many of these difficulties will continue, as well as learning new skills at home, in education and work, such as driving a car and DIY. There may be a range of co-occurring difficulties which can also have serious negative impacts on daily life. These include social emotional difficulties as well as problems with time management, planning and organisation and these may impact an adult’s education or employment experiences.
Dyscalculia is characterised by an inability to understand simple number concepts and to master basic numeracy skills. There are likely to be difficulties dealing with numbers at very elementary levels; this includes learning number facts and procedures, telling the time, time keeping, understanding quantity, prices and money. Difficulties with numeracy and maths are also common with dyslexia.
Signs of Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder include inattention, restlessness, impulsive, erratic, unpredictable and inappropriate behaviour, blurting out inappropriate comments or interrupting excessively. Some people come across unintentionally as aggressive. Most fail to make effective use of feedback.
If no hyperactivity is present, the term Attention Deficit Disorder should be used: these individuals have particular problems remaining focused so may appear ‘dreamy’ and not to be paying attention. People with this condition are very easily distracted, lose track of what they are doing and have poor listening skills. By failing to pay attention to details, they may miss key points.
Autistic characteristics can co-exist with the conditions described above. Those affected often demonstrate unusual behaviours due to inflexible thinking, over-reliance on routines, a lack of social and communication skills. People with Asperger Syndrome may have learned to largely conceal their problems but still find any social interaction very challenging and panic easily when they cannot cope.
Since Specific Learning Difficulties are still not adequately understood in all schools many children and young people slip through education unidentified and unsupported.
Be aware that similar terminology can lead to confusion. For example, the term ‘Learning Difficulties’ is generally applied to people with generalised (as opposed to specific) difficulties who are of low intelligence and often lack mental capacity.
Many people with Specific Learning Difficulties tend to refer to themselves as having a Specific Learning Difference (both generally abbreviated to SpLDs), while others regard a label containing the word ‘Learning’ as inappropriate when they are no longer in education.
Areas of typical difficulty for all Specific Learning Difficulties.
Difficulties with taking in information efficiently (this could be written or auditory).
Slow speed of information processing, such as a ‘penny dropping’ delay between hearing something and understanding and responding to it.
Poor short term memory for facts, events, times, dates.
Poor working memory; i.e. difficulty holding on to several pieces of information while undertaking a task e.g. taking notes as you listen, coping with compound questions.
Mistakes with routine information e.g. giving your age or the ages of your children.
Inability to hold on to information without referring to notes.
Lack of verbal fluency and lack of precision in speech.
Inability to work out what to say quickly enough.
Misunderstandings or misinterpretations during oral exchanges.
Over-loud speech (which may come across as aggressive) or murmuring that cannot be clearly heard.
Sometimes mispronunciations or a speech impediment may be evident.
Lateness or difficulty in acquiring reading and writing skills. Some dyslexic adults have severe literacy problems and may be functionally illiterate.
Where literacy has been mastered, residual problems generally remain such as erratic spelling, difficulty extracting the sense from written material, difficulty with unfamiliar words, an inability to scan or skim text.
Particular difficulty with unfamiliar types of language such as technical terminology, acronyms.
Sequencing, Organisation and Time Management.
Difficulty presenting a sequence of events in a logical, structured way.
Incorrect sequencing of number and letter strings.
Tendency to misplace items; chronic disorganisation.
Poor time management: particular difficulties in estimating the passage of time.
Direction and Navigation.
Difficulty with finding the way to places or navigating the way round an unfamiliar building.
Weak listening skills, a limited attention span, problems maintaining focus.
A tendency to be easily distracted, inability to remain focused.
A heightened sensitivity to noise and visual stimuli.
Impaired ability to screen out background noise or movement.
Sensations of mental overload / switching off.
Lack of awareness.
Failure to realise the consequences of their speech or actions.
Failure to take account of body language.
Missing the implications of what they are told or interpreting it over-literally.
Some people with dyslexic difficulties may experience visual stress when reading. Text can appear distorted and words or letters appear to move or become blurred. White paper or backgrounds can appear too dazzling and make print hard to decipher.
Example of Visual Stress:
It must be emphasised that individuals vary greatly in their Specific Learning Difficulties profile. Key variables are the severity of the difficulties and the ability of the individual to identify and understand their difficulties and successfully develop and implement coping strategies.
By adulthood, many people with Specific Learning Difficulties are able to compensate through technology, reliance on others and an array of self-help mechanisms – the operation of which require sustained effort and energy. Unfortunately, these strategies are prone to break down under stressful conditions which impinge on areas of weakness.
Effects of stress
Research and self-reporting both concur that people with Specific Learning Difficulties are particularly susceptible to stress, compared with the ordinary population, with the result that their impairments become even more pronounced. As a result of their difficulties, many people with Specific Learning Difficulties have little confidence and low self-esteem.
Areas of Strength
On the positive side, Specific Learning Difficulties are also linked to a range of skills. These include ‘big picture’ thinking, problem-solving and lateral thinking abilities, an instinctive understanding of how things work, originality, creativity and exceptional visual-spatial skills.
Famous individuals with Specific Learning Difficulties include Einstein, Churchill, JFK, Agatha Christie, Richard Branson, James Dyson, Sir Jackie Stewart, leading artists, architects, engineers, entrepreneurs, sportsmen and many stars of stage and screen.
Not all people with dyslexia and related difficulties will have outstanding talents, but all will have comparative strengths and often demonstrate great perseverance and determination.