By Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo from Wikipedia
WHAT do Tom Cruise, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Regine Velasquez, Albie Casiño, Agatha Christie, Gustave Flaubert, Bruce Jenner, Auguste Rodin, Walt Disney, and Leonardo da Vinci have one thing in common?
This pretty impressive group are some of the world’s most famous dyslexics, that’s what.
In the past, dyslexic children were dismissed as mentally retarded. But in the last 30 years or so, thanks to medical science, progress has been made in unveiling this misunderstood condition.
Dyslexia comes from a Greek word, which means “difficulty with words.” It was first reported in 1896 when Dr. Pringle Moran published an article in the British Medical Journal on “A Case of Congenital Word Blindness.” Then, in the mid-1920s, American neuropathologist Dr. Samuel Orton identified the characteristic features of dyslexia.
According to medical science, dyslexia is a severe difficulty in learning to read and write correctly that, along with other learning disabilities, affects about ten percent of the population. For about one in 25, the problem is severe enough to require special teaching. It is more common in boys than in girls.
“Dyslexia is the most common learning disability and occurs in all areas of the world,” Wikipedia reports. “Up to 20% of the general population may have some degree of symptoms.”
Experts argue that dyslexia is not a sign of mental handicap. In fact, dyslexics possess above-average intelligence. Take note that some of history’s greatest brains are dyslexics: Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Faraday, and Winston Churchill. Albert Einstein, the person who formulated the theories of relativity, could not read till he was nine and, as a young man, lost three teaching jobs because of his dyslexia.
The causes of dyslexia are still being researched since the condition was first identified in the late 1800s. “What is known is that it is something you are born with and cannot be ‘cured’ of,” says Dr. Sharon Duncan, an official of the Dyslexia in Scotland, a registered charity based in Stirling.
Some research suggests that dyslexia may be the result of an imbalance of function between the right and left halves of the brain of a person. Others believe it may be due to a variety of health disorders like otitis media or inflammation of the middle ear.
Dr. Harold Levinson, a renowned American figure in psychiatry and neurology, believes that symptoms often associated with dyslexia are due to signal-scrambling disturbance in the inner ear. Since the inner ear serves to fine-tune all motor signals from the brain and related signals entering it for balance, coordination, and rhythm, fully normal functional brains will have problems processing the distorted signals.
Some experts suggest that dyslexia may be inherited. Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, his mother, and his three sisters are dyslexic. Oscar-winning singer Cher and her daughter, Chastity, are both dyslexic.
“There is a strong hereditary component in dyslexia,” points out Dr. Ian Smythe, coordinator of the World Dyslexia Network Foundation (WDNF) based in the United Kingdom, “and many fathers only realize the underlying cause of their difficulties while growing up when their child is diagnosed.”
Whatever the cause is, the signs and symptoms are the same. Most dyslexics have difficulties with rhymes and alliteration, separating sounds in words, and blending sounds to make words. Others have poor fine motor skills and coordination compared to other children of the same.
In some instances, they have difficulty learning the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, colors, shapes, how to spell and write their names. They have a hard time recalling the right words to use when talking. Also, they make persistent reading and spelling errors such as letter reversals (d for b; p for q, s for z, etc.), word reversals (top for pot, was for saw), inversion (m and w, u and n), and transpositions (felt and left).
Spelling and reading difficulties in an otherwise intelligent child are usually the first clue. Dyslexic children often have problems in telling left from right, tying shoelaces, or arranging things in sequence. A person with dyslexia told to go upstairs, comb his hair and bring down his schoolbooks is likely to remember only two of the three tasks.
“If your child has such difficulties, or if he seems reluctant to go to school or puzzled about why everybody is learning except him, he may need to be evaluated,” advises Dr. Dina Ocampo, a dyslexia expert based in Manila.
“Dyslexia often saps a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem,” explains Dr. Ian Smythe, a British dyslexia consultant who has worked with several foreign governments all over the world, including the Hong Kong Education Department. “It can add stress to family relationships and even lead to antisocial behavior and juvenile delinquency.”
“Vigilance, early identification, talking to the teachers and school officials, and understanding the problems and associated difficulties of being dyslexic are some of the things parents should do to help their child cope with dyslexia,” says Dr. Smythe.
According to the Mayo Clinic, signs that a young child may be at risk of dyslexia include late talking, learning new words slowly, problems forming words correctly (such as reversing sounds in words or confusing words that sound alike), problems remembering or naming letters, numbers, and colors, and difficulty learning nursery rhymes or playing rhyming games.
To know whether your child has dyslexia or not, parents are advised to consult an expert. The child may be screened either by a teacher or trained person or assessed fully by an educational psychologist. Once the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, bring him to a special school.
Parents are advised to find a teacher who has mastery of many different techniques. “No one remedial reading method works for all reading disabled students,” Dr. Ocampo reminds.
No matter where your child goes for treatment, he will probably be taught using a multi-sensory structured language approach. With multi-sensory teaching, links are consistently made between the visual (what he sees), auditory (what he hear), and kinesthetic-tactile (what he feels) pathways in learning to read and spell.
There is no magic or gimmickry involved in teaching dyslexic children; instruction is just more intensive and laborious. “Because the dyslexic has no clear mental picture of words, he has difficulty connecting sounds and letters,” says Dr. Jareeluk Jiraviboon, a Thai learning disability expert who works with the Creative Brain Institute at Smitivej Hospital in Bangkok. “That’s why he has to work so much harder to understand the difference between letters like b and d or p and q.”
Not everything about dyslexia is bad news. Many people with dyslexia, as if to compensate for their literacy difficulties, are strong on spatial sense with an outstanding grasp of shapes and patterns. Some of the world’s famous entertainers have dyslexia. Aside from those mentioned earlier, other dyslexics who made their mark in showbusiness include Fred Astaire, Harry Belafonte, George Burns, Harrison Ford, Danny Glover, River Phoenix, Edward James Olmos, Oliver Reed, Robin Williams, Henry Winkler, and Loretta Young.
These stars, however, have to work twice as much compared to those who are considered normal people. Take the case of Cruise: “I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learned how to create mental images in order to comprehend what I read.”
People with dyslexia may not be good spellers, but these did not deter some of them from becoming literary figures. Spelling errors abound in Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, such as The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling. His publishers fixed these errors, though.
Other dyslexics who became famous for their writings include W.B. Yeats, Jeanne Betancourt (author of My Name is Brain Brian), Fannie Flagg (of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe distinction), and Elizabeth Daniels (author of mystery novels).
Dyslexics also excel in sports. Consider this list: boxing phenomenon Muhammad Ali, Olympic swimmer Duncan Goodhew, basketball champion Magic Johnson, golfer Bob May, wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, and race car driver Jackie Stewart. Classmates teased Greg Louganis about his reading disability, so he spent his leisure time working out at a gym and a dance studio. There, he learned some of the techniques that helped his development as an Olympic diver.
Ronald Davis, the author of The Gift of Dyslexia, writes: “The genius in these individuals (referring to those famous dyslexics) occurred not in spite of it (dyslexia) but because of it!” How? Given the proper intervention and support, people with dyslexia can utilize the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions. They become highly aware of the environment, as they would need to experience things more concretely rather than symbolically.
Here are more reasons: people with dyslexia are more curious than average persons, think mainly in pictures than in words, are highly intuitive and insightful, think and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all senses), and have vivid imaginations.
“Never give up on your child,” urges Claudette Gudbranson of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. “The most important thing you can do as a parent is give your child encouragement and unconditional love.”