ADHD is linked to many learning disorders (as high as 50-60%). ADHD and Dyslexia (a learning disorder) have a high comorbidity rate, they co-occur significantly. Whilst one does not cause the other, figures show that people who have one often have both. So, what is Dyslexia?
What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a learning disorder. It makes processing the written and spoken language ridiculously hard. How it presents is very individual, just like ADHD! Some people have trouble pronouncing written words, even when they are their everyday words; some people have trouble decoding a word (phonemic awareness), splitting it in the wrong way for example armchair could be armc-hair. Others have trouble with the retrieval of even simple words. Another challenge could be the rapid naming of letters, colours, pictures, and objects. However, someone could have extremely high verbal comprehension and amazing vocab yet struggle with their reading. Just as we see with ADHD it is very individual and therefore can be difficult to recognise.
ADHD and Dyslexia – Common Traits
Brain Features – both ADHD brains and Dyslexic brains are physically and chemically different from Neuro Typical brains. (Please read ADHD brains to see all these differences). With Dyslexia there is evidence to suggest the left side of the brain is less active. The more dominant, left side of the brain controls language and speech. Imaging has shown that people with Dyslexia have less efficient processing here, especially during speech and letter-sound tasks.
Heredity – ADHD and Dyslexia appear to run in families, with 50% of people with ADHD having a relative who has it and 30% of people with Dyslexia.
Risk Factors – The top two are low birth weight and exposure to cigarettes and alcohol during pregnancy.
Differences and Similarities between ADHD and Dyslexia
These two disorders can present differently in everyone, so no two people will show the same signs and symptoms.
- Reading – Both can have difficulty with reading, but it is the ‘why’ they have difficulty that is different. ADHD can have difficulty due to their slower reading speed, skipping of punctuation and/or losing their place but, the words will be read accurately. With Dyslexia words take time to sound out and are often misread. It really does not come naturally.
- Writing – This can be difficult for both diagnoses. Dyslexics may find spelling and grammar difficult. Children with ADHD may have difficulty organising their thoughts more and spotting errors, they are less likely to read over their work and proof-read it, making careless mistakes.
- Attention – For a Dyslexic child reading is really hard work. Their frontal lobe is going into overdrive trying to decode words that for others are a breeze. Obviously, this is going to frustrate and tire them out, which in turn leads to concentration issues. I imagine it like me trying to read something in German (I do not speak German), I would really struggle to read a sentence let alone a paragraph and would get bored very easily. With ADHD the attention difficulty is more to do with the Attention Deficit side, rather than not being able to. Although processing difficulties are also noted with the ADHD brain.
So, as you can see, it is often hard to tell ADHD and Dyslexia apart through reading and writing; both cause distraction, frustration, and boredom after all. ADHD is more likely to get picked up earlier at school, depending on the school of course, especially if it involves the Hyperactive side. Dyslexia is usually detected later. Many children take longer to read and write than others and that is normal. Like all childhood milestones, we should not compare too harshly but it is when they are falling behind everyone that it becomes a concern.
My ADHD and Dyslexia experience
As I have written in previous blogs, my daughter spent most of her mainstream primary school days under tables, in ‘shared areas’, or in a separate space playing with fidget toys or baking biscuits. I was told her phonics were weak due to the missed time in the classroom and the essential ‘Read, Write, Ink’ lessons.
She always hated reading. Really struggled. At first, she and her twin brother would sit with me individually and read the Chip and Biff books (never a fan of those). As you would expect with reading, finally the penny would drop, as with DS, and instead of having to sound out every letter, they can join them to make words. Words that they can remember. Gradually DS became a confident, fluent little reader. Instead of asking how many more pages he HAD to read, he would want to read to the end of a chapter, so he would know what happened.
With my daughter, however, this never occurred. I had to make it a game. Read every other word, read the big sentences to her small sentence. Anything to get her to read something. It became such a battle that I gave up. It literally was not worth the distress every night, for her and me. She did love the Gruffalo books. I asked her to be a brilliant big sister and read to her baby brother at night. It worked. She loved the responsibility. Even if she had memorised every word of the Gruffalo, I did not care! I thought it might just help her grow a love of books and reading. Alas, whilst this did last for a while (only with books she had generally memorised) it came to an end when her baby brother overtook her on the reading front and corrected her…
Believing her phonics were poor due to missing out on all the ‘Read, Write, Ink’ lessons, I never thought about her being Dyslexic. I honestly thought it was more the inattentiveness that comes with ADHD that made her disinterested in reading. However, readers with just ADHD do not usually misread words like those with Dyslexia which is a key point. My DD would misread words, but I put that down to her fidgeting, not concentrating or even trying and just guessing stuff. It never occurred to me it was Dyslexia.
I cannot thank her teacher enough at her new SEMH school. I received a phone call within weeks of her starting, asking if I would mind if they tested her for Dyslexia. Would I mind?! I was overjoyed that someone was so observant and wanted to help! It transpired that her new teacher was severely Dyslexic herself. Only diagnosed at 16 and only after she had passed her 11+! Her teachers had always called her ‘lazy’ and ‘could do better’. Because of her experience, she was super vigilant in spotting it in others.
So, DD took the Dyslexic test, and lo and behold, she’s very much Dyslexic, hence her hatred of reading. When she came home with a blue Perspex, the colour she needs to read, she exclaimed, ‘Mummy, the letters don’t bubble anymore!’. I could not believe they ever had! She did not realise they were not supposed to! My heart crumbled. Now, I am not going to lie, she is still not a lover of reading, but she can, and her current age level has leapt up to nearer where it should be, she is on the right track.
However, I will say also that due to these years of refusal to read, which are quite understandable now, she has missed out on other areas of language development. She recently had an Educational Psychologist in to review her progress. She does so well in some areas, but her vocabulary range is limited for her age group. To be honest, I do not notice this. She does make grammatical errors that younger children often make, for instance, I brung it or I losted it today. I do correct these, and she thankfully lets me. Hopefully, this will eventually sink in for her.
Her spelling is beyond gorgeous. And by that, I mean, you can always read what she is trying to say. It makes perfect sense. In fact, many a time I question why certain things are not spelt the way she has written them. I may have to contact Oxford Dictionaries.. Again, I do correct her, but not constantly. In a sentence, I will pick the words that she uses most often and just say things like Oh you missed an e, make light of it. She has enough knocks on her self-esteem without me correcting everything the poor little thing does on paper! Plus, in the age of spell check, things are looking up for her!
Just briefly, my DD has now been diagnosed with Dyscalculia too. This is a specific difficulty in understanding numbers and hence a difficulty with maths, which can really impact their schooling. Not all dyslexics have dyscalculia though, it is not a given. Often a child will have difficulty counting backwards, be slower to perform calculations, forget mathematical processes especially when they become more complex, have weak mental arithmetic, often use finger counting to compensate for their lack of recall and have difficulty remembering basic facts, like times tables despite hours of rote learning. I will never forget the CD I had in the car teaching by song the time’s tables. It would help DD but only for a limited time, it had to be played consistently, it got painful…
Diagnosis and Treatment
If any of the above resonates with you, I would speak to your child’s teacher first. Then a trip to the GP or raise your concerns at a CAMHs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health) visit. Vision or even hearing problems need to be ruled out. Funnily enough, my DD was given glasses after an eye test initially to see if that helped. We have discovered it was due to Dyslexia that she couldn’t read the letters, tah dah she has 20/20 vision and no need for glasses.
Your school SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator) can put in place certain interventions to help but if you are still concerned, ask them to refer you for an assessment by an Educational Psychologist or another specialist in Dyslexia. You can approach these independently, but I would imagine they would be quite pricey, though sometimes with waiting lists as they are I would understand if you had to do this.
The assessment can involve observing your child in a classroom environment and talking to all adults involved with them at school. Your child will then be asked to carry out a series of tests, it is quite a lengthy process that does not bode well with the ADHD side! They will normally examine their reading and writing abilities, logical reasoning, memory, visual and auditory processing speed, organisational skills and language development and vocabulary. There is a lot of information on The British Dyslexia Association (BDA) website so please have a read.
The outcomes of these tests will indicate what areas your child needs support with. Often certain strategies can help with certain aspects of Dyslexia. As I said, my daughter uses a blue Perspex.
Whilst neither ADHD nor Dyslexia can be cured, ways can be found to adapt and target areas that need help. As always, early intervention is the best. Dyslexia, like ADHD, can cause detrimental self-esteem issues as you would imagine. Not being able to ‘keep up’ with the other children in their class can cause avoidance tactics and being disruptive to escape the situation. Imagine during Guided Reading when the whole of the class must read a passage out loud. Imagine how the stress levels would rise. Make sure their teacher is aware of this.
On a plus note, Walt Disney was dyslexic and look how successful he was! Studies show that Dyslexics are more likely to excel in oral communication and problem-solving and according to another study 35% of all entrepreneurs are dyslexic so let us make sure we focus on these positives too!
As an aside, I would just like to say the word Dyslexia is really hard to spell and I have had to re-write it several times and use auto-correct. You would think they could have used a nicer word for people who already have difficulty with spelling!
I have started a private support group on Facebook for parents and carers who need support with their child with ADHD. It’s a friendly place to chat with others. Please do click this link ADHDinchildren to join. And for anyone on Instagram, I’m there too ADHD Mum.