Dyslexia in children and adults is often addressed according to two models, each of which generally focus on linguistic or language-related skills. “These methods emphasize strategy and cognitive development and are not based on a brain processing relationship, which is dysfunctional in dyslexia. Consequently, these techniques have not produced consistent reading improvement.” (Goldstein, 2001) Goldstein’s assessments still ring true today. Even so, many dyslexia treatment options tout an emphasis on “teaching” those with dyslexia words in a clearer way as if other reading educational efforts have somehow failed. The problem is, of course, that dyslexia is not necessarily a letter recognition problem, it is instead a cognitive processing problem. This means that dyslexia treatments based on language skills alone often fail.
One of the most common misconceptions about reading skills and acquisition of reading ability is that reading involves only a simple recognition of letters and subsequent knowledge of how to phonologically string those letters together into words. According to this simplistic model of reading, someone with dyslexia is simply not “seeing” the letters correctly, thus there is a perceived deficit in vision or sight. Although visual cues often play a role in the formation of dyslexia treatments, sight alone is only the tip of a very large iceberg. After all, when we see a sequence of letters, it has no meaning as an object until our brain, working as an integrated network of sensory systems, assigns significance to the abstract grouping of letters. Visual processing disorders, which are NOT related to the ability to see clearly, involve difficulties understanding visual information such as movement, spatial relationships, form, or direction. Such visual processing challenges, together with Central Auditory Processing problems, are frequently found in combination and result in a formal dyslexia diagnosis or poor academic performance.
However, the process is far more complicated on a cognitive level--mere recognition of words and sounds is only the first part in a long series of events that occur quickly and unconsciously in those without dyslexia but this process is “sidetracked” as the two hemispheres of the brain react differently than they would in non-dyslexic readers. Therefore, one of the fundamental flaws of traditional dyslexia treatment is that there is a heavy focus on teaching the words themselves while overlooking the fact that the problem lies in brain’s processing of letters as opposed to some kind of simple lack of understanding of letters, words and phonology.
A great deal of contemporary research focuses on the issue of brain processing in dyslexia treatment with multiple studies examining the delay or miscommunication between the left and right hemisphere of the brain, or problems with specific areas of the brain, including “planum temporal symmetry or angular gyrus dysfunction, that result in reading impairments and do not suggest developmental hemispheric changes as a rationale for dyslexia” (Goldstein 2001). While the results of these imaging-based studies continue to change our view of the cognitive and brain processing end of dyslexia treatment, one thing is clear—simply focusing on “teaching” those with dyslexia the letters or word sounds in a more focused way is simply inadequate. If the basic brain processes that govern the abstract meaning behind words and letters are not improved, then all of the phonics and letter training in the world will likely not solve the challenges that dyslexic readers face.
Goldstein, B., & Obrzut, J. (2001). Neuropsychological Treatment of Dyslexia in the Classroom Setting. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 34(3), 276.
To those who have not spent time pouring over the wealth of academic studies discussing the relationship between balance and dyslexia (as well as a host of other reading and learning difficulties), it might seem strange to suggest that balance and dyslexia bear any relation. However, when we realize that balance is governed by the vestibular system—a vast network that spans across other neural and body systems—it begins to make sense that a lack of balance and calibration of the delicate but immense processes governing cognitive acts (like reading or writing) can be upset when the balance and sensory systems themselves are not performing properly.
Before getting into more details about the physiological relationship between balance and dyslexia, let’s put the issue into a simpler context via the “cake” analogy. Hypothetically, we are setting about to make a four-layer cake, which is not an easy task as it involves several elements that must be just right in order to make the whole thing come together and remain upright. The temperature of the over must be exact and even minor alterations in the amount of sugar, flour, or eggs can make the cake as hard as rock or too soft to be layered. Cognitive processes such as reading, which seem simple when you look on the surface and see the end result, require the fine-tuning of the process of making a cake. If there is one “misfiring” during the process, you’ll be left with something that is unusable; however if all elements are synched and balanced together accurately, the end result is smooth and flawless.
One of the reasons why learning disabilities like dyslexia are not uncommon is because the relationship between balance and sensory processing within the vestibular system is very complicated. The vestibular system, which is critical to balance (which in turn governs far more cognitive processes) relies on neural transmission and processes between many systems in the brain and the body. There are “interconnections with the inner-ear, superior temporal cortex, insula and the temporal-parietal junction within the cortex, and the postural and extraocular muscle systems, all of which contribute to balance and vestibular reflexes” (Solan, 2007). In other words, with so many neural “shots” being fired in such a vast array, there is great opportunity for problems to occur—for shot to go haywire.
One expert on the vestibular system has remarked that, “each element of learning occurs as a function of the individual’s total developmental framework….Learning in the absence of suitable developmental structures may preclude assimilation” (Solan, 2007). In other words, without proper functioning of the entire system of networks that govern neural and other processes, learning cannot occur in full. Our potential is not reached due to inefficient neural processing that results in barriers that can be targeted for improvement. At some point, the gaps in this framework will manifest and the information processing event will be stunted. This is absolutely the case with dyslexia and other reading difficulties. Without suitable interaction between the vestibular system (balance) and the brain, learning and applying reading or writing skills can be nearly impossible for some people. It is only when this imbalance has been negotiated, when calibration occurs, that the framework can be made effective once more.
The expression, “our bodies are remarkably resilient” extends beyond our physical capacity to heal and recover. This can also apply to our cognitive processes and body systems. Like other major systems in the body, the vestibular system is also resilient and can be adapted to enhance the quality of life. Scientific research has confirmed that practice reforming the balance system can have a positive impact on the underlying brain processes of those who with dyslexia and other learning disabilities.
Solan, H. A. (2007). Vestibular Function, Sensory Integration, and Balance Anomalies: A Brief Literature Review. Optometry & Vision Development, 38(1), 13-17.
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