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Dyslexia is a common learning disability. People with dyslexia find reading, writing and spelling difficult and will need support and special education to meet their needs. Treating dyslexia as early as possible in childhood will likely produce the best results.

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that makes it challenging for people to process language. About 1 in 10 people have dyslexia.

People with dyslexia find it difficult to ‘decode’ letters and words. They may have average or above-average intelligence, and won't have any difficulty with understanding or with their vision, speaking and listening. But they experience problems making sense of individual words.

The main challenge for people with dyslexia is thinking about — and remembering — the sounds in words, and being able to put them in the correct order. This makes learning to read and write difficult.

What causes dyslexia?

Dyslexia often runs in families, although we don't know which gene is responsible — a person is more likely to have dyslexia if a close family member has the condition or another learning difficulty.

A person is also more likely to have dyslexia if they were: born with a low birth weight; born prematurely; if their mother smoked or consumed alcohol or drugs during pregnancy; or if their mother had an infection during pregnancy.

Identifying dyslexia

Symptoms of dyslexia range from quite mild to severe. Children with dyslexia may have:

  • below-grade level reading skills (even if the child is doing very well in other areas)
  • difficulty understanding what they are reading
  • difficulty pronouncing words
  • poor spelling
  • difficulty writing in an organised way
  • problems with grammar and punctuation
  • difficulty remembering a list of instructions
  • poor handwriting
  • difficulty with maths
  • difficulty using the muscles of the face to speak (dyspraxia)

They may also be at increased risk of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

However, many people with dyslexia are very creative, or gifted in areas such as the arts, computing or sports.

One sign of dyslexia in young children might be that they talk late, frequently reverse sounds in words, and have difficulty remembering colours, numbers, letters and nursery rhymes.

If a child can't grasp the basics of reading by Year 1 or is having a lot of trouble at school with language tasks, the first step is to talk to your doctor.

The Australian Dyslexia Association has a checklist to help you decide whether your child might have dyslexia.

Diagnosis of dyslexia

Most cases of dyslexia are picked up in the early years of school. The sooner children are diagnosed, the better. If it's not treated, dyslexia can lead to low self-esteem, frustration, emotional issues and a loss of interest in school.

Your doctor will talk to your child about their problems and will first try to rule out any other issues with hearing or vision. They may refer them to a specialist such as a paediatrician or psychologist for a formal test for dyslexia, while occupational therapy or speech therapy might also help.

Treatment for dyslexia

Dyslexia is a lifelong condition that can't be cured. But there is a lot that can be done to help people with dyslexia to reach their potential.

Many schools offer support to children with dyslexia. The best way is for a team to work together, involving parents, teachers, a school counsellor, support teachers and other health professionals, such as an educational psychologist or speech pathologist. They will draw up a plan tailored to the child's needs. Children may also need tutoring outside of school.

Reading skills can be improved by using teaching techniques that employ hearing, sight or touch to learn — for example, by listening to instructions rather than reading them, or tracing the shape of letters with a finger.

Children who are treated early in their school life often go on to succeed through school. People with dyslexia may never find reading easy, but with support they will thrive.

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Last reviewed: March 2019

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