In its simplest definition, dyslexia is a developmental learning disorder that makes it difficult to read and write. Though it’s typically diagnosed in childhood, symptoms can go unrecognized until later in life and extend well beyond letter mixups. Read on to learn the signs of dyslexia in adults, its causes and what treatments are available.
What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a common neurocognitive learning disorder that makes it difficult for a person to interpret sound—or phonological—elements of language. Children and adults with dyslexia often find it challenging to read, spell, learn a second language and more. The disorder affects an estimated 20% of the populationDyslexia FAQ. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. Accessed 2/13/2022. .
“At any age, dyslexia is a genetically-based learning disorder which makes working with words in some format difficult,” says Rebecca Mannis, Ph.D., a private practice learning specialist and founder of Ivy Prep Learning Center. “Since language is the currency of communication in school and beyond, tasks like reading, organizing ideas for discussion or writing can be difficult for people with dyslexia.”
Dyslexia makes it difficult to match letters in a word to the sounds those letters make (a skill called decoding). But while people with dyslexia typically read slowly, they often exhibit strong reasoning ability and creativity. “Individuals with dyslexia can have good or even excellent conceptual and problem-solving skills but have difficulty breaking the code of phonics and reading words properly,” says Mannis.
Beyond making reading and spelling challenging, dyslexia can make it difficult for a person to absorb ideas from what they read efficiently and effectively, says Mannis.
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Is Dyslexia Different in Adults?
The signs of dyslexia in adults often mimic the signs of dyslexia in children. However, adults typically have a more robust toolbox of tactics to cope with those challenges.
“Because adults have experienced dyslexia for a longer period—and may have developed compensatory strategies—they may rely on slightly different brain mechanisms for reading processes than children with dyslexia,” says Young-Suk Kim, professor and senior associate dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Education.
By the time a person with dyslexia enters adulthood, they often don’t enjoy reading for fun. And reading and writing related tasks may cause more anxiety and stress compared to other job responsibilities. “These experiences are strongly impacted by early struggles with reading, as well as by the growing complexity of what they’re asked to comprehend and synthesize from what they’ve read,” says Andrew Kahn, Psy.D., a psychology and learning subject matter expert at Understood.
How Does Dyslexia Affect Adults?
Whether it’s writing a shopping list, reading through that list at the store, helping kids with homework or responding to work emails, dyslexia affects adults every day.
“Given that reading and writing are an essential part of our daily lives and most workplaces, dyslexia impacts nearly all aspects of life,” says Kim
While adults with dyslexia frequently face reminders of the painful challenges they experienced as children, they often have a greater ability to see the bigger picture, says Mannis. “Adults are able to bring perspective and the ability to regulate strong feelings in ways that kids often can’t,” she says, “so they can handle the demands of facing challenges with the recognition that they possess other skills that can help them face these new demands with success.”
Symptoms of Dyslexia in Adults
Dyslexia is fairly common, though Dr. Kahn says it affects people (no matter their age) in different ways. Early signs of dyslexia can vary from person to person. Dyslexia symptoms in adults are often a result of challenges with grammar and spelling, reading comprehension, reading fluency, sentence structure and in-depth writing, he says.
Adults with dyslexia may exhibit the following traits or symptoms, according to experts:
- A family history of learning problems, including dyslexia
- An early history of delayed speaking, reading or writing
- Slow reading speed and/or trouble including small words and parts of longer words when reading out loud
- A hard time remembering abbreviations
- Difficulty comprehending or retaining information they read
- A tendency to avoid reading, both out loud and to themselves
- Frustration when reading to themselves or out loud
- Low self-esteem toward reading and writing
- A preference to answer questions if content is read aloud to them, rather than if they have to read the text themselves
- Difficulty performing everyday activities—including social interaction, memory and stress management—due to frustration and anxiety caused by dyslexia
- Difficulty with handwriting or using a keyboard (dysgraphia) or difficulty with math (dyscalculia)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Feelings of guilt associated with avoiding reading in front of or to their children
What Causes Dyslexia?
Dyslexia’s specific causes are not yet known, though researchers believe it can be genetic. “Typically, dyslexia is thought of as a condition that someone is born with and that is lifelong,” says Dr. Kahn. “Approximately 40% of siblings of people with dyslexia also struggle with reading, and nearly half of parents of children with dyslexia also have the condition.”
Research shows that a person with dyslexia may have different brain structure and chemistry compared to a person without dyslexia. “There are clear indications that brain anatomy and brain activity levels are different in people with dyslexia,” says Dr. Kahn. “But the great news is that specific methods of teaching reading skills have been associated with changes in brain activity.”
Although experts believe the majority of people have developmental dyslexia–which means that it is due to an inheritance of genes and/or present from birth–studies show adults who did not experience symptoms of dyslexia as children may develop dyslexia later in life. That may be due to a brain injury, such as a stroke, seizure or accident that caused a traumatic brain injury or major concussion necessitating medical evaluation and treatment.
When to See a Doctor
Adults who suspect they may have dyslexia should reach out to a professional as soon as possible.
“Research strongly indicates that the earlier dyslexia is identified and treated, the better the outcome,” says Dr. Kahn. “Often, adults will seek an evaluation when they’ve noticed that their challenges with reading impact their work, reading for pleasure or academic progress.”
While primary care practitioners don’t evaluate for dyslexia, you may need to visit one to get a referral to a licensed psychologist or speech-language pathologist for evaluation, says Dr. Kahn.
How Is Dyslexia in Adults Diagnosed?
To find out if you have dyslexia, you’ll need a formal evaluation from a clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, educational psychologist or other learning disorder specialist. Evaluations typically consist of tasks to test reading fluency, reading accuracy, reading comprehension and listening comprehension. According to Kahn, these tasks may include:
- Reading passages for comprehension
- Finding rhyming words
- Reading passages out loud
“Assessments also include inquiry on family history of dyslexia,” says Kim.
There’s no known cure for dyslexia, but there are ways to help manage it. “While dyslexia may look different at various stages of life, it doesn’t just go away over time,” says Dr. Kahn, “but there are ways to help people with dyslexia improve their skills and be more successful in reading tasks.”
A proper diagnosis and instructional guidance from specialists, along with support from friends, family and co-workers, can help adults with dyslexia achieve success at and outside of work. Treatment steps for adults with dyslexia may include:
Getting an Evaluation
“An evaluation is a critical first step, as it gives a full picture of learning strengths, differences and strategies that can help,” says Dr. Kahn.
Using Compensation Strategies
Many adults develop compensation strategies—alternative strategies or brain mechanisms—to manage their dyslexia, says Kim. Examples of these strategies include using contextual information to read words, as well as subvocalization (pronouncing words in your head as you read them).
“These strategies are also used by individuals without dyslexia, but they are used temporarily in the beginning phase of reading development,” says Kim. “In contrast, individuals with dyslexia use these strategies for an extended period.”
People with dyslexia may also use text-to-speech and speech-to-text tools to facilitate reading and writing.
Adults with dyslexia are not required to disclose their diagnosis with an employer or school—and privacy laws prevent this information from being shared without consent. That said, many adults benefit from sharing their diagnosis with school administrators, teachers or colleagues. Doing so can open the door to certain accommodations and support, which may help people with dyslexia be more successful at school or on the job, says Dr. Kahn.
Asking for Help
If you choose to share your diagnosis, you may be able to better navigate certain work challenges by asking for help. “Once someone has a better understanding of their dyslexia, they can better advocate for themselves and the things they need to feel supported, confident and productive at work and in life,” says Dr. Kahn. Helpful accommodations for people with dyslexia may include providing additional aids, granting extra time for reading and writing tasks or providing additional training.
Teaming up With Other Specialists
Working with a literacy specialist or reading tutor who is trained to teach adults with dyslexia can help people continue to improve their reading and writing—and their confidence. “While finding the time to work on reading skills can feel daunting, consistency and practice at home are the most important factors for progress,” says Dr. Kahn.
Risks of Dyslexia
“Adults who struggle to read may have experienced many negative academic, work and life outcomes as a result of their differences,” says Dr. Kahn. “Adults diagnosed with dyslexia may worry that they’ll be stigmatized or seen as less capable than their co-workers or peers.”
With the right support and strategies, however, adults with dyslexia can turn obstacles into strengths. “Some individuals with dyslexia may develop visual memory as a compensatory strategy, which may lead them to creative occupations,” says Kim. Additionally, many adults who have spent their entire lifetime coping with the challenges of dyslexia develop resilience and grit because of it—and that grit and resilience can help them thrive in other areas of life, she says.