What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a common learning disability 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 are the symptoms of dyslexia?
Symptoms of dyslexia range from the quite mild to the 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 is that they learn to talk later than other children, frequently reverse sounds in words, or 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 steps are to talk to your school and have your child's hearing and vision checked.
The Australian Dyslexia Association has a checklist to help you decide whether your child might have dyslexia.
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.
How is dyslexia diagnosed?
The first steps in obtaining a diagnosis of dyslexia are to talk to your school and have your child's hearing and vision checked. Eliminating problems with vision and hearing is an important step before considering further assessments.
Only an educational psychologist should carry out a formal assessment for dyslexia. However, you can still talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a specialist, such as a paediatrician, might also help or whether your child would benefit from occupational therapy or speech therapy.
The sooner a child is diagnosed with dyslexia the better. If dyslexia is not identified, it can lead to the child experiencing low self-esteem, frustration, emotional issues and a loss of interest in school.
However, dyslexia can be hard to diagnose unless the problem is severe. Often cases of dyslexia are not picked up in the early years of school despite the importance of early identification and intervention.
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Help for people with dyslexia
Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, not a disease, so it doesn't require a cure. However, there are many ways to support people with dyslexia so they can reach their full potential in life.
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 can draw up a plan tailored to the child's needs. Children may also need tutoring outside of school.
Children can also improve their reading skills through teaching techniques that employ hearing, sight or touch to learn — for example, by listening to instructions rather than reading them, or by tracing the shape of letters with a finger.
Children who receive treatment early in their school life often go on to succeed at school. People with dyslexia may never find reading easy, but with support they will thrive.
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Last reviewed: July 2020