Slattery has dyslexia, a reading disorder that persists despite good schooling and normal or even above-average intelligence. It's a handicap that affects up to 1 in 5 schoolchildren in the U.S., and which is also common among Asians. Though the statistics for Asia are often sketchy, researchers in Japan estimate that as many as 5% of Japanese schoolchildren have dyslexia. Yet the exact nature of the disorder has eluded doctors, teachers, parents and dyslexics themselves since it was first described more than a century ago. Indeed, it is so hard for skilled readers to imagine what it's like not to be able to absorb the printed word effortlessly that they often suspect the real problem is laziness or obstinacy or a proud parent's inability to recognize that his or her child isn't that smart after all.
But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests there is a glitch in the neurological wiring of dyslexics that makes reading extremely difficult for them. Fortunately, the science also points to new strategies for overcoming the glitch. The most successful programs focus on strengthening the brain's aptitude for linking letters to the sounds they represent. (More later on why that matters.) Some studies suggest that the right kinds of instruction provided early enough could rewire the brain so thoroughly that the neurological glitch disappears entirely.
The new science may even be starting to change public policy. When the U.S. government launched an education initiative in 2001 called No Child Left Behind, its administrators made clear that their funding would go only to reading programs that are based on solid evidence of the sort that has been uncovered in dyslexia research. "In education, the whole idea that there is evidence that some programs are more effective than others is new," says Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a Yale University neuroscientist who has written a fascinating new book, Overcoming Dyslexia, that details the latest brain-scan researchmuch of it done in her lab. "The good news is we really understand the steps of how you become a reader and how you become a skilled reader," she says.
Along the way, a number of myths about dyslexia have been exploded. You may have heard, for example, that it's all about flipping letterswriting them backward, Toys "R" Us-style. Wrong. Practically all children make mirror copies of letters as they learn to write, although dyslexics do it more. You might believe that more boys than girls are dyslexic. Wrong again. Boys are just more likely to get noticed because they often vent their frustration by acting out. You might think that dyslexia can be outgrown. This is perhaps the most damaging myth, because it leads parents to delay seeking the extra instruction needed to keep their children from falling further behind. "The majority of students who get identified with learning disorders get identified between the ages of 11 and 17," says Robert Pasternack, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education. "And that's too late." They can still learn to read, but it will always be a struggle.
This is not to say dyslexics can't succeed despite their disability. In fact, dyslexics are overrepresented in the top ranks of artists, scientists and business executives. Perhaps because their brains are wired differently, dyslexics are often skilled problem solvers, coming to solutions from novel or surprising angles and making conceptual leaps that leave tunnel-visioned, step-by-step sequential thinkers in the dust. They talk about being able to see things in 3-D Technicolor or as a multidimensional chess game. It may also be that their early struggle with reading better prepares them for dealing with adversity in a volatile, fast-changing world.
But that struggle can cut both ways. Dyslexics are also more likely than nondyslexics to end up in prison. According to Frank Wood, a professor of neurology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, new research shows that children with dyslexia are also more likely to drop out of school, withdraw from friends and family or attempt suicide.