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A Portrait of Dyslexia MAG
If life gives you melons, you might have dyslexia.
For the first few years of our lives, before my older brother Max was diagnosed with dyslexia, he and I were equally matched physically and mentally. We proved this through our favorite game: racing. As we wandered through our orchard, barefoot with holes in the knees of our jeans, he would look at me with that cockeyed, daring grin and ask, “Ya wanna race?” No response needed. I’d be off down the orchard row with him on my heels, and we would finish neck and neck. Whether we were racing to the tops of the poplar trees or through our addition and subtraction flashcards, Max and I always tied. Until we learned to read.
The two of us started reading when Max was five and I was three. I learned the alphabet in a matter of days and picked up reading quickly, plowing through readers and on to chapter books with ease. Max struggled. Even after numerous times working through the same readers, he still stumbled over words, forgot which letters made which sounds, and struggled to identify sight words like “the” and “said.” For the first time in my life, I was leaving my big brother in the dust. Why did I suddenly have an advantage?
At the age of seven, Max was diagnosed with dyslexia. Dyslexia is a brain abnormality that causes difficulty in reading despite normal intelligence. In other words, if reading was a foot race, dyslexics would be just as physically fit as typical readers but would encounter more obstacles along the race track. The paragraph below is a simulation of normal text seen through the eyes of a dyslexic reader:
“Moud a text-ouly sight bee ideale for soweoue mith a reabing bisorber? Harblee. Iwages are uot dab for accessabilledea. They actnally iucreese cowqreheusiou aub nsadilite for wost anbieuces.” (WebAIM)
This misinterpretation of words and letters is due to the unusual characteristics of a dyslexic brain. In a typical non-dyslexic brain, the left hemisphere processes language, analytical thought, and reasoning. The left hemisphere is generally used more often and is therefore larger, making the brain asymmetrical. However, the majority of dyslexic brains don’t follow this pattern; they’re symmetric.
Here’s how the typical left brain works: Let’s say you’re trying to read the label “This product is not intended for human consumption” (a good sentence to be able to read). First, a part of your brain called the inferior frontal gyrus breaks each word down into phonemes (individual letters or sets of letters that form sounds), turning the phrase into: “Th-i-s p-r-o-d-u-c-t i-s n-o-t i-n-t-e-n-d-ed f-or h-u-m-a-n c-o-n-s-u-m-p-tion.” Next, the words travel to the temporoparietal circuit, which analyzes words by connecting the phonemes. Here, the phrase is converted to: “Th-is pro-duct is not in-tend-ed for hu-man con-sump-tion.” However, once you learn to read fluently, another part of your brain called the occipitotemporal circuit takes over. The occipitotemporal circuit instantly recognizes previously learned words, helping you whiz through written language without having to break each word into pieces before you put the meaning back together.
A person with dyslexia has trouble accessing the temporoparietal and occipitotemporal circuits, so they rely on the inferior frontal gyrus. When Max came across the sentence I mentioned on a bottle of fishing bait a few years ago, he read it aloud as “This product not of human constipation.” Here’s what happened in his brain: He had to break “product” down into phonemes and hesitated mid-word, his temporoparietal circuit struggling to piece them together. After this he flat-out skipped over “intended,” trying to save himself the same work. When trying to recognize “for,” his occipitotemporal circuit mistook it for “of.” His mind failed to recognize “consumption,” so he guessed based on the first and last sound of the word. This resulted in him saying “constipation,” eliciting much laughter from everyone listening.
In the 1960s, when scientists discovered that typical dyslexic brains are symmetrical, they assumed that the left hemisphere was smaller than that of an average reader due to lack of use. Later, it was discovered that the left hemisphere of a dyslexic brain is actually the same size as that of a non-dyslexic brain; the symmetry comes from the right hemisphere being larger.
Dyslexics do just as much work, if not more, with the one reading-oriented part of their left brain that they can easily access, but they also rely on certain parts of the right brain that typical readers do not. The right hemisphere of the brain is used to visualize images and stimulate creativity and intuition. When reading, dyslexics use this part of their brain to guess what a word might be based on reading content and visuals like storybook pictures. They also guess based on the beginning and end sounds of words, like Max did with “consumption.”
In the so-called race of life, is Max burdened with a disadvantage? Hardly. When Max and I race these days, there’s always an obvious winner, but if you tallied up our wins and losses, you’d find that we’re still equally matched. Max’s active brain gives him extra creativity and intuition that he uses to his advantage every day. If we’re solving jigsaw puzzles, rushing through the Sunday newspaper, or deciphering a road map, I’ll win every time, but if we’re solving math problems, fixing a broken wristwatch, or reassembling a shotgun, Max will easily finish first. Our strengths and weaknesses are opposites, but they balance well.
In a few weeks, cherry season will start and Max and I will begin the long, hard job of bringing in the harvest. In the orchard, I’ll correct his spelling mistakes on bucket labels and help him fill out time cards. He’ll help me finish pruning in time and come up with ingenious ways to prop up fruit-burdened branches using nothing but twigs and black electrical tape. At the end of the day, we’ll get the same size paycheck. And with both of these paychecks safely pocketed in jeans with holes in the knees, we’ll jump on our four-wheelers and race home.