Dyslexia: the plastic brain and beyond

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Developments in the thinking behind dyslexia provision, and the positive effects of being dyslexic

When I was a boy, whenever I couldn’t do “stuff”, my Grandmother used to say the same thing: “don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it”. With regard to dyslexia, she could also have added “time is a great healer”. Gran wasn’t entirely wrong because, given time and the right support, dyslexia needn’t be a problem and a vast number of dyslexics settle down to live happily ever after, often due to reaping the benefits of their condition.

The questions really revolve around how much time we’re given and what sort of support we receive. The first issue is largely to do with how early in life we are identified. The second is about how individual dyslexics can learn to ameliorate their symptoms. Unlike a broken leg, dyslexia is for life. If you’re dyslexic you never “get better”. Rather, like a person with one leg longer than the other, you learn to cope. Indeed, over time and with practice you may well be able to fool people that you’re almost normal.

Of course, with dyslexia, it’s not about legs, it’s all about the brain. At a recent lecture delivered by Professor John Stein (brother of the more famous Rick), around 200 SEN professionals heard Stein say: “the great thing about the brain is that it is plastic”. In effect, the brain can work its way around problems; if it can’t perform a task or solve a problem one way, it will find another way of doing it.

Neuroscientist Stein was reporting on how his team at Magdelen College, Oxford, are researching into how magnocellular impairment impacts in dyslexia. In the eyes, magno cells are responsible for keeping shapes still so we can see them. If development of these cells is impaired in utero, words can literally jump about in front of the eyes.

Certainly, some dyslexics have great difficulty visually focusing on words, and Stein’s experiments show that wearing coloured glasses can have an almost immediate remedial effect. Certain dyslexics respond to yellow glasses, others to blue ones, but the amazing thing is that often within a period of a few months the glasses are no longer required; the brain seems to have bent its way around the problem and rewired itself until it now literally sees things in a completely different way.

Of course, coloured glasses only help those dyslexics with that specific problem. Many don’t respond, but the principal of the plastic brain is essentially the same. Whether or not brains of higher IQ are more plastic than others is unknown. The fact is, dyslexics tend to be of above average IQ and may therefore have the engine power to bend the brain more effectively.

On this basis, dyslexia may be a little mind-boggling, but it’s not a train smash. In fact, the main challenge in terms of education becomes the time factor and, if we didn’t live in a society that had such exacting expectations of age-based exam driven benchmarking, dyslexia may even be a minor issue.

As such, the educational reality for dyslexics and those who support them in the established system is working out how to bend the brain around coping strategies to allow it to “rewire” within the years allotted.  Bizarrely, the real world reality is diametrically opposed; in the grown up world, outside the confines of a national curriculum, the timing when we take or pass exams is not an issue at all. Seen with a dyslexic’s objectivity, the current education system is, in many ways, a contrivance of benchmarking the young population that itself moves the goalposts every time a Government raises the school leaving age for political expediency.

However, enough of the dyslexic rhetoric. If we can’t change the system, we need to work out strategies and tactics to accommodate the individual problems. The first of these must be to identify dyslexics as early as possible in order to allow as much time as possible for remediation; you can’t rewire a brain overnight.

News here is most positive. After years of arguing the toss over whether or not dyslexia exists, Sir Jim Rose has cut to the chase and moved the agenda forward in leaps and bounds. Following the Rose Report, we no longer have to speculate over dyslexia, we have to work out how to accommodate it.

Furthermore, the Government has been persuaded to allocate £10 million specifically for the purpose of training up to 4,000 teachers as dyslexia specialists (although the term seems open to debate). Once trained, this specialist cohort will not only be able to deliver practical help in the classroom, they will hopefully be able to develop a more dyslexia-friendly culture in schools, help identify those most at need, and fast track them into screening and assessment programmes.

The concern here is whether the current dyslexia training infrastructure will be sufficient to deliver the numbers required within the time frame of budget availability, which currently runs until March 2011. However, even the longest journey begins with a small step.

Early assessment will allow for better planning. Dyslexics tend to be singular people who need one-to-one attention. However, once the dyslexic brain starts to build coping strategies, the sooner the “penny drops”. Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and whilst the dyslexic brain might not be that quick out of the blocks, it has enormous staying powers.

My own son is a classic “late developer”. Seriously illiterate at the age of nine, and also summer born, which is an important factor in age-based benchmarking, he has toughed out his challenges. Predicted Bs and Cs when he first went into secondary education, he ended up with a combination of ten GCSEs at A and A*. To all intents and purposes he has “grown out of it” – his great granny would have been pleased.

My daughter had similar problems and is now on a full scholarship to a top 20 university in America. Suddenly, people’s perceptions change. Having learned to bend their brains round their dyslexic conditions they are now bending them around more erudite academic and real world problems, and the new feedback comes in words like “insightful”, “original” and “creative”. The future looks exciting, with the horizon still some way distant.

They are not alone. Since publishing my book, I have heard from an amazing number of “ordinary” dyslexics. They may not have the high profile of a Sugar, a Branson or an Einstein, but they are at or near the top of their professions. Viewed from the bottom, it may look like a long hard hill to climb, but the view from the high ground is really rather wonderful, the population of dyslexics is many and varied, and the company is excellent.

Further information

Al Campbell is the author of A Dyslexic Writes: an essay on dyslexia – a conundrum of conundrums,  published by Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre and available online at:
www.adyslexicwrites.com

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 45: March/April 2010.

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