Health: Unravelling the twisted wires

Dyslexia is still not fully understood, but sufferers can be helped.
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EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD YANIV Peer is studying for his A-levels, and plans to train as an architect. He has also had some of his art accepted for a Royal Academy exhibition, and is good with computers. Yaniv is a special-needs pupil at a residential school because, like his two sisters, he has dyslexia.

He was diagnosed when he was six and, since then, has received concentrated special education to help him make the most of his abilities.

But many dyslexics still do not get diagnosed, and new research shows that there are high rates of undiagnosed dyslexia among offenders. One study found that reoffending rates dropped dramatically when dyslexia was treated.

Now the British Dyslexia Association is launching a campaign to raise awareness in schools, and to get more trained teachers to deal with a problem that affects as many as one in 10 people, with an estimated 4 per cent of schoolchildren so severely handicapped by their dyslexia that they need special help.

It is a neurological condition that arises when the wiring of the brain is developing. One theory is that this developmental hiccup occurs in the foetus at about five months.

The disorder has very high hereditary rates - the risk of the child of a dyslexic father inheriting it are about 45 per cent for a boy and only slightly less for a girl. It is almost certain that more than one gene is involved, and research with brain scanning suggests that there are differences in the language areas of the brains of children who have dyslexia and those who do not.

Professor Margaret Snowling, a York University psychologist and a specialist in dyslexia, says: "The left side is usually slightly larger than the right, but in the brains of dyslexics there is more equality of size, and there is asymmetry in the temporal region of the brain."

The effects can be severe, and made all that more frustrating because intelligence is unimpaired. Many sufferers have high intelligence - Einstein was dyslexic.

Dyslexics find it difficult to make an auditory connection between the sound of a letter and what it looks like. Because the alphabet is based on sounds, reading requires the child to make links between letters and groups of letters, and the speech sounds of words.

When non-dyslexic children are taught to read basics such as "cat" and "pin", they are soon able to shift letters around and create other words, such as "pan", "pat", and "can". But this building-block approach to reading is an ability denied to the dyslexic.

Children with dyslexia will often learn "cat" and "pan" by linking them to visual images of a cat and a pan. But the visual memory is of restricted size and, eventually, the space runs out for new words.

Professor Snowling says: "Because they can read some words and then not others, no one understands what is going on."

The full effects of dyslexia are still not understood, but speech and language are not the only areas involved. Numeracy, notational skills, motor function and organisational ability may also be affected.

Although dyslexia cannot be cured, sufferers can learn coping strategies through specialised teaching, including computers, visual and musical aids and colour cues. But failure to diagnose it can result in frustration, low self-esteem and lifelong underachievement.

It is only in the last two decades that dyslexia has been widely recognised. Professor Snowling says: "In the middle-aged generations now you will find people who were sent to special schools because they were considered to be stupid. But intelligence is not affected, and if they set their heart on achieving something, they do it."

Recent research by probation officers found that of 50 offenders treated for dyslexia, more than half kept up their studies, many of them on full- time courses. Some obtained jobs, and after 18 months only one in 10 had reoffended.

Although many specialists are uneasy with any suggested link between dyslexia and offending behaviour, it is the kind of evidence that has driven the British Dyslexic Association to campaign for help at the time when it is most needed - at school or even at pre-school age.

The association wants every infant teacher to be alert to signs of dyslexia, and each school to have a teacher with a dyslexia qualification.

Thanks to special teaching, Yaniv Peer, now studying for A-levels in physics, maths, and art, is optimistic about his condition. He says: "All the skills and talents that I have... if I didn't have dyslexia, I might not have them."

BDA helpline: 0118 966 8271