Dyslexia in adults is often characterized by struggles with reading, writing, and spelling that have persisted from childhood.
Dyslexia is a neurological disorder involving the parts of the brain that process language. Dyslexia is often inherited and will remain with an individual during their lifetime. Recently, researchers have been able to provide scientific support for interventions that can be effective in helping struggling readers.
Unfortunately, for adults with dyslexia, this help often comes too late. Although dyslexia may impact as many as 20% of the population, most adults with this disorder have never been diagnosed and a large percentage did not receive the instruction that would have allowed them to meet their full potential.
Adults with dyslexia have often lived with a lifetime of pain and frustration that impact every area of their life—academic, vocational, and social/emotional. For some, this began as early as they can remember: struggling to learn letters, difficulty with reading even beginner books, and writing that was torturous. For others, the problems began as they got older and couldn’t keep up with classmates.
The Statistics on Dyslexia in Adults
A 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy concluded that currently 32 million American adults (14%) are unable to read—the same percentage cited by research studies done a decade ago. How do so many adults remain functionally illiterate in a country with free public education? As many as 85% of these struggling readers are suspected to have some level of dyslexia and did not receive appropriate reading instruction as children.
The study by the U.S. Department of Education provides another sobering statistic. In 2016, 19% of high school graduates were unable to read beyond a basic level. Children with dyslexia become adults with dyslexia. Educational settings, for the most part, are just now beginning to recognize the symptoms of dyslexia and use the term when evaluating for reading difficulties.
The inability to read has wide ranging consequences including a greater likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system. Illiteracy and crime are closely related. Over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. The Department of Justice states, "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure."
...we could prevent so many people from landing in prison if we would first examine the education they receive (or don't receive) early on...
In a study done on the prevalence of dyslexia in the prison population in Texas, the researchers determined that “while the prevalence of dyslexia in the general population is about 20%, the prevalence of dyslexia in prisoners is more than twice that, or 48%.” The lead researcher concluded that “we could prevent so many people from landing in prison if we would first examine the education they receive (or don’t receive) early on...We need to re-design the early education of those who do not respond to routine reading instruction because of an inborn condition called dyslexia.”
Characteristics of Dyslexia in Adults
Adults with dyslexia display essentially the same characteristics as those in children found here, but these may have gone unnoticed and unremediated for a number of reasons.
Teachers were not trained to identify the signs of dyslexia and students were often labeled late bloomers, slow learners, or lazy.
Learning disabilities account for the greatest number of students in special education programs in the U.S. and approximately 85% of students with a learning disability are believed to have dyslexia. For many years, however, children who were classified with a learning disability based on reading and served in special education programs were diagnosed with a “specific learning disability”, not dyslexia. These children were generally educated along with all other students in special education and did not receive the specialized reading intervention that was necessary. More recently, children with learning disabilities receive instruction in mainstream classrooms as part of inclusion and may not receive targeted reading intervention.
Studies of adults who were diagnosed with learning disabilities as children show that the majority enter vocational fields that do not require extensive reading and writing. These adults are frequently more concentrated in foodservice and hospitality, construction, transportation, personal care, and sales occupations than non-learning disabled peers. Adults with dyslexia were found to have much lower levels of employment in careers such as education and training, engineering, science, and healthcare, where reading demands are far greater.
Adults often hide their reading difficulties from others and even family members may not realize the extent of their struggles. Additionally, many adults find a way to compensate for their reading problems by using electronics or other resources. In fact, there are a significant number of adults with dyslexia who become managers or entrepreneurs. In this role, they have access to secretaries and assistants who are responsible for paperwork.
A true diagnosis of dyslexia is only valid when performed by a qualified and trained professional. This process is often expensive and most adults do not request such an evaluation.
Click on each of the examples to learn more
When struggling readers compare themselves to other students, receive failing grades, and are classified “disabled”, they may mistakenly assume that they are less intelligent than their peers.
Dyslexia in adults may be best understood by identifying its impact on the most important aspects of adult functioning. The amount of impact depends on several factors including the severity of the dyslexia and the level of support available. It is important to note that one of the key factors for improved outcomes may actually be the individual’s awareness that dyslexia is the cause of their difficulties. When struggling readers compare themselves to other students, receive failing grades, and are classified “disabled”, they may mistakenly assume that they are less intelligent than their peers.
Research shows that adults with dyslexia generally have average or above average intelligence, but often aren’t aware of this fact. Adults with undiagnosed dyslexia may make statements such as “I was never good at learning” or “I’m not very smart.” This belief can have a decidedly negative impact on self-esteem and future performance, and many adults with dyslexia are reluctant to start educational, vocational, or training programs and are more likely to drop out before completion.
It is therefore important to identify some of the signs of dyslexia in adults that may be less obvious and to support struggling adult readers wherever possible. There is tremendous variation between individuals with dyslexia and characteristics may or may not apply to a specific person. A more complete list of the characteristics listed below is available here.
Remembers struggling in school.
Frequently have dyslexic children and experience guilt when seeing their own child(ren) struggle. May feel very insecure about reading to their children or helping with homework.
Misspeaks, misuses, or mispronounces words without realizing it.
May have excellent recall of events that were experienced or not remember at all.
Difficulty remembering names of people but remembers faces.
Difficulty remembering verbal instructions or directions.
May be highly intuitive and successful in situations that rely on building relationships, verbal communication, or “street smarts.”
May pass up promotions or advancement opportunities that would require more administrative work or may prefer to continue doing a job they know; fear of new tasks or situations out of comfort zone
Difficulty with passing training modules or tests can be a barrier to career advancement.
Difficulty with filling out forms.
May excel at out-of-the-box thinking or hands-on projects.
Learns and retains information best through hands-on experience, demonstrations, experimentation, observation, and visual aids.
Reading, Writing, and Spelling Characteristics
Difficulty reading certain fonts, cursive, or messy writing.
Avoids reading out loud, may dislike public speaking.
Will commonly perceive that they “read better silently.”
Has adopted compensatory tricks to remember spelling or uses technology (spellcheck, speech to text), or misuses homonyms and has poor or inconsistent/phonetic spelling.
Frequently has to re-read sentences in order to comprehend.
Fatigues or becomes bored quickly while reading.
Reliance on others (assistants, spouses, significant others) for written correspondence.
Writes with all capital letters, or mixes capital letters within words. Abbreviates words frequently.
As with any learning disability, the more information that can be provided early, the better. Dyslexia is a common condition affecting millions of children and adults, but it does not define an individual worth or potential. When dyslexia in adults is appropriately identified and explained, and adults with this condition are able to receive the support they need, dyslexia does not need to be a barrier to a productive and successful life.
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