Most dyslexic people are diagnosed in childhood, but the disorder can be overlooked and remain untreated into adulthood, which can lead to a different set of symptoms and struggles. There’s more to dyslexia than the common assumption that it simply makes people mirror or flip letters in their brains. Numerous other symptoms impact memory, attention, speech, and organization—and make it harder to diagnose as a result, since adults with these symptoms may never realize they could have dyslexia at all.
The longer the disorder goes undiagnosed—and untreated—the longer adults with dyslexia have to struggle with symptoms for no reason. Here are a few signs you might have dyslexia and what you can do about it.
What is dyslexia?
Most people are probably a little familiar with the basics of what dyslexia is thanks to television and film, where the disorder crops up among characters from Beverly Hills 90210 to Grey’s Anatomy. Like anything, there is some truth to the depiction of dyslexia in entertainment and media, but there’s more to the disorder, too.
“By definition, dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in learning to read and spell words. It’s unexpected because other areas of learning and even other areas of reading (e.g., making inferences, understanding metaphors) may be fine or even advanced,” said Dr. Rebecca Wisehart, associate professor and assistant chair in communication sciences and disorders at St. John’s University. “It’s referred to as a neurodevelopmental disorder because people with dyslexia are born with cortical differences that make learning to read and spell particularly difficult.”
How are adult dyslexia diagnoses different from diagnoses in kids?
Estimates of the dyslexic population vary broadly, from 5%-20%. Part of this discrepancy comes from how unclear psychologists’ diagnoses of dyslexia in adults really are. The main model for a dyslexia diagnosis is designed for and based on children, which can cause problems and confusion for adults who may be struggling unknowingly. While reading and spelling difficulties could be a more obvious symptom in dyslexic children, it is more complicated to diagnose adults who have found ways to compensate for their deficits over the years.
Those who suspect they might have dyslexia, per Wisehart, “may have to look back at their school history to pick up on some early classic signs of dyslexia, such as slow or laborious reading or unexpectedly poor spelling. Co-occurring problems with math (especially memorizing multiplication tables) or handwriting are also common
She added that other signs dyslexia was present all along include problems learning a second language, persistent typos, or a lack of interest in reading for pleasure. Moreover, according to Wisehart, dyslexia is genetic—which means many adults only realize they have the disorder when their kids are diagnosed.
What dyslexia symptoms should adults look out for?
While dyslexia is well known to affect reading abilities, the most common symptom is actually related to speech. Phonological decoding refers to the ability to decode words and apply that to speech. Simply speaking, phonological decoding is about correctly pronouncing words. This process, while unconscious and automatic, is disrupted by dyslexia. Research shows that those with dyslexia have reduced activity in certain parts of the brain, the two most notable being the parietal lobe—which is involved in description and comprehension—as well as the occipital lobe, which is related more to the ability of seeing and reading fluently. However, these are not the only areas of the brain that can be affected—or, in turn, produce telltale symptoms. Further research suggests that those with dyslexia do not have a distorted idea of speech sound formation, but rather may have problems within their neural connections, which help us assemble and produce sounds.
All of this is to say that dyslexia can impact a person in a variety of ways. If you’re an adult and think you might have the disorder, these are the notable symptoms you should look for and consider asking a licensed professional about:
- You confuse visually similar words (think tag and lag)
- You read something “correctly” silently, but mispronounce it out loud
- You find it difficult to concentrate
- You have difficulty skimming words
- You have difficulty organizing thoughts onto paper
- You need to re-read paragraphs often to understand them
- You make erratic spelling errors
- You confuse left and right or struggle with spatial reasoning (like reading a map)
- You have trouble recalling and retrieving the words needed to express yourself
What happens after an adult dyslexia diagnosis?
If you get diagnosed with dyslexia, there can be some relief, as with any diagnosis. You finally have an answer to why you’ve been experiencing symptoms, and that’s great. The mystery is solved. Unfortunately, that relief also comes with a new kind of worry: What do you do now?
Here is some good news. Dyslexia, while not curable, is manageable. Dr. Tiffany Hogan, professor at MGH Institute of Health Professionals, told Lifehacker, “Adults with dyslexia often need to give themselves extra time to read. Remember that listening to books on tape is still reading and may be more enjoyable for some adults with dyslexia. They will also want to check their spelling because your brain may not ‘see’ spelling errors. Adults with dyslexia may feel worried about their reading difficulties.”
Many adults who suffer from dyslexia will find other ways of coping, such as drawing pictures or using charts and diagrams to help remember information.
In a professional or learning environment, plan for extra time and stay organized as best as you can. When you are already struggling with a learning disability, stress can be especially detrimental and overwhelming. Identify your unique symptoms, then develop specialized and effective coping strategies around them.
There are also a few different services for adults to receive support and develop effective skills. According to Hogan, many of these services are also covered by health insurance. Additionally, employers, by law, have to provide accommodations for employees who have dyslexia. A formal diagnosis may be necessary for them to comply, so if you think you might be dyslexic, and want accommodations, see a professional sooner rather than later. It might be difficult to find a licensed professional who can offer treatment for dyslexia, but there are a number of directories that filter by state, so start with the International Dyslexia Association and the Center for Effective Reading Instruction.
Finally, don’t be afraid to seek out a diagnosis. In addition to the fact that your employer or institution will have to accommodate your disorder, you deserve the peace of knowing what is causing your symptoms and the opportunity to address your issues. It can be frustrating to struggle with no known reason, so a diagnosis will ease the burden of not understanding your own behavior or inabilities. Just remember you aren’t alone in this—and check out some online communities for others who’ve been diagnosed.