Autism: what have we learned from the dyslexia movement

A month or so ago I had the opportunity to give a presentation in a conference on Dyslexia and Talent hosted by Brock and Fernette Eide. The conference was attended by both dyslexia researchers and also by individuals with a reading disability. The mix of attendees helped provide a unique perspective on different aspects of the condition. I have previously described differences in anatomy and physiology for both conditions, including; brain size, how different compartments of white matter of the brain are allocated, and brain wave patterns. In essence, the brains of autistics emphasize short connections within the brain at the expense of longer ones. The brains of dyslexics, on the other hand, emphasize long connections at the expense of shorter ones. It is suggested that this basic difference in connectivity patterns underlies equally prominent differences in cognitive styles (see: http://corticalchauvinism.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/dyslexia-attention-deficity-hyperactivity-disorder-and-autism/ ).

Attending the conference made me realize that, despite anatomical and physiological brain differences, both dyslexics and autism spectrum disorder individuals face similar difficulties. I think that many of the concerns brought about by dyslexic individuals at the conference have been similarly expressed by those within the autism spectrum. Among many similarities, many dyslexic individuals see their condition as a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, they are making attempts at redefining the condition, and there has been a curious educational push to emphasize training the strengths of the condition rather than the weaknesses. The underlying supposition is that as you train your strengths, then your weaknesses will also improve. This new educational paradigm makes learning easier and more interesting.

Tom West the evergreen author who wrote “In the Mind’s Eye”, and a dyslexic himself, underlined how dyslexia made him a visual thinker. In a throwback to Temple Grandin’s “Thinking in Pictures”, Tom claims that new avenues in science are presently being pursued where creative work is being done through visual methods and technologies (subject of another one of his books: Thinking like Einstein).

Tom said, that dyslexics are visionaries who are “big picture” thinkers. Machines have taken over the insipidness of repetitive work leaving open the field for visual thinkers. In effect, he and others challenged some long-standing presumptions. Among these is a generalization that dooms dyslexics to be all around poor learners. The new paradigm in neuroscience is that of unique circuitry: that different types of learning (auditory or visual as examples) require different circuits. You can be good at one and not another type of learning. And even when you are a slow reader, there is ample room for improvement.

Blake Charlton’s one of the presenters at the congress recently published an article in the New York Times (available online:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/opinion/defining-my-own-dyslexia.html?_r=0 ). According to the article: “…Fortunately, humor and hard work proved a good strategy. Also helpful were my crafty parents. They often read out loud to me and, noticing my passion for fantasy novels, would stop at the most exciting point in a chapter — then leave the book in case I wanted to read by myself. It wasn’t long before I was sneaking paperbacks into study hall”. Blake is the author of the novels “Spellwright” and “Spellbound”. Starting this June he will be resident physician in internal medicine at the University of California in San Francisco.

Some autistic individuals (as well as some dyslexics) have deficits of attention. In autism, Murray and others have espoused the theory of monotropism (or “attention tunnel”) wherein affected individuals seemingly process everything through a single circuit or sensory modality at any given time. Autistics are poor at multi-tasking. Dyslexics seem to have developed their own preferential circuits for learning but in their case they excel at multi-tasking.

Autistics and dyslexics are not uni-dimensional individuals. During the last decades, the medical establishment has tried to pull individuals into preconceived boxes making dyslexics and autistics seemingly fit their definitions. This is most clearly seen in the recent debacle surrounding the DSM-V for the definition of autism. The problem with labels is that expectations cascade into negative outcomes. Lou Salza, one of the attendees at the conference, published a blog wherein he stated that there was a short hop from “learning disability” to “stupid” (https://dyslexia-talent.bloomfire.com/posts/608657-dyslexia-disability-or-difference-curse-or-gift-talent-or-adaptation). Lou also stated: “Is it a gift? This is a hard one, …a dyslexic child who gets a book for a gift, wants to find the exchange counter!… Given the complications of the very real, potentially debilitating conditions of a person’s social and economic status, the gift-disability riddle brings us face to face with the fundamental challenge facing all our nation’s schools.”

It is said that about 15 to 20% of the American population has or has had some type of reading disability. Prevalence figures for both ASD and dyslexia are thus astonishing. They are major problems problems within our society. Furthermore, both ASD and dyslexics have been victims of the educational system. Everybody agrees that early remediation is key to improve outcomes; however, neither dyslexics nor ASD individuals are getting the education they deserve or need.

Brock and Fernette Eide said, “One of the challenges in providing appropriate teaching has always been that very intensive face-to-face tutorial work is very expensive because it’s extremely labor intensive. Any solution that hopes to accomplish large-scale change at an affordable price is going to have to overcome this “manpower” issue–and almost inevitably that means technology. Technological tools that can cut down on some of the human time required to provide instruction in basic skills training are simply essential, whether students are in public schools, home schooled, or in non-LD-specialty independent schools. I would like to see us play a role in bringing together educators and the tech community to create tools that can be seen as a win-win for all involved.”

As a person who has done research in both autism and dyslexia I think there is a lot to learn from one another.

Alan Alda
DVD taping for a dyslexia fundraiser hosted by Alan Alda. The same was entitled “Talk with the Experts: Discussions on Dyslexia”. From right to left: Brock Eide, Fernette Eide, Alan Alda, Fumiko Hoeft, and Manuel Casanova. Brock and Fernette Eide are authors of the highly acclaimed (and highly recommended) “The Dyslexic Advantage”. This is a must read for anybody diagnosed with dyslexia.

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Jack Horner, the famous paleontologist of Jurassic Park fame. Although unable to complete his bachellor’s degree due to his reading disability, Jack is now world-famous and the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Award.

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Philip Schultz, one of America’s best known poets, narrated his trials and tribulations with dyslexia in his autobiography, “My Dyslexia”. Among countless accolades, Philip has been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, Fullbright Fellowship, Guggheinheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in poetry.

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Thomas West evergreen author of: In the Mind’s Eye” seated to the right. An evergreen author is one whose published work has always remained a best-seller. I am seated to the left.

4 responses to “Autism: what have we learned from the dyslexia movement

  1. As the parent of a child with autism and another with dyslexia I agree with many of your points. However, only HF autism is really similar to dyslexia. My dyslexic son would certainly choose to be able to read with more ease and fluidity but lives a totally normal life. Thanks to pioneering educational research and well trained teachers all dyslexics
    can learn to read with the right help. Conversely my autistic son suffers from chronic GI disease, autoimmune dysfunction and has yet to regain his speech after his catastrophic regression. I would cure him in an instant if I could but my dyslexic son is just perfect the way he is.

  2. I completely agree with you. I started by pinpointing some of the differences between both conditions and have written other blogs in this regard. I think the point of the present blog is what can we learn from the efforts of advocates from both communities. Best regards.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. My son has dyslexia and really struggled in the public school system. The teachers refused to test or diagnose him for this disorder, it wasn’t until we sacrificed for a year to send him to a private school that it was realized. When we couldn’t afford to send him any more the public school still would not add it to his IEP because it would cost too much money for them to accommodate. He now attends K12 public schools online and he is doing so well. It has boosted his self-confidence greatly and shows him that he can be successful. Your statement in the article about learning to use the technological advances for their education is a great point. We need to find a way to make this affordable for the brick and mortar public schools.

  4. The old battle cry that gave rise to the “no child left behind” government act is ridiculous. The government never provided enough money to make it work. Children are lumped together regardless of disabilities (e.g., Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy) in the same classrooms with little, if anything, regarding specialized education. It is a festering sore on our educational system and an emotional insult to parents that were expecting (and deserving) more help for their children.

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