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Undiagnosed Dyslexia in Adults Exacerbated by Pandemic

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Key Takeaways

  • The shift to working from home may be harder for adults with dyslexia.
  • Many public misconceptions about dyslexia still exist, even among educators; it’s not seeing letters backwards.
  • Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common in adults with dyslexia who were not identified and appropriately educated as children.
  • Workplace accommodations for adults with a dyslexia diagnosis may include a variety of assistive technologies.

Adults with undiagnosed dyslexia may experience various difficulties with reading, writing, or spelling. While many have learned how to compensate over the years, the COVID-19 pandemic and sudden switch to remote-style working from home has some finally seeking help.

“During COVID, we got a lot of calls from adults who suddenly hit a wall,” Marci Peterson, MEd, BCET, a board-certified educational therapist and dyslexia specialist and author of the new book, The Dyslexia Guide for Adults, told Verywell. “The parameters of the careers they had chosen and were good at changed from face-to-face conversation to emails. The workload got overwhelming.” 

If you find yourself identifying with the above and want some answers, read on. You’ll learn what dyslexia looks like in adults and what treatments and tools are available to help you.

What Is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a common learning disorder that involves problems reading, writing, or spelling words. It is also known as a “reading disability,” because it affects the area of the brain essential for speech production, articulation, and connecting sounds to letters.

Estimates of how common dyslexia is vary widely, from about 5%–20%. That translates to tens of millions of people in the United States.

Peterson notes the definition of dyslexia applies to any age. “It starts out with trouble hearing and articulating sounds correctly and that transfers over to difficulty reading words and spelling them.” In adults, it’s typically written communication that needs the most help.

Public Misconceptions About Dyslexia

In 2017, a large U.S. study in Frontiers in Psychology surveyed laypeople and educators and found not only that many laypeople falsely believed a “common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards,” but that more than half of educators believed this.

During the pandemic, psychologists at Northeastern University in Boston dug deeper and found these public misconceptions about dyslexia do not arise only from “innocent ignorance about the science of reading,” but from “false assumptions about how the mind works.” Their research, now published in the journal PLoS One, details the three experiments they conducted with adults who had not previously taken any advanced courses in linguistics; the majority also reported having not previously taken any advanced courses in biology.  

Identifying present misconceptions around dyslexia is an important part of the conversation. To ensure today’s generation of children with dyslexia promptly receives appropriate interventions, the authors write, “it is critical that the general public—parents, educators, and legislators—are aware of dyslexia and its symptoms.”

What Dyslexia Is Not

  • Seeing letters backwards or jumping all over the page
  • Low intelligence
  • Troubles with vision
  • Lack of motivation or a desire to learn

Reading research has made it clear that people with dyslexia can learn successfully with appropriate teaching methods.

Symptoms of Dyslexia in Adults

Reading and spelling difficulties may be the key symptom of dyslexia in children, but it’s a bit more complicated with adults who’ve spent years finding ways to compensate for these deficits.

“As a child, I was diagnosed with a ‘learning difference’ and that diagnosis was ‘he’s slow,’” children’s book author and illustrator Trevor Romain told Verywell. “I figured out that visual learning was the only way I was going to get through school, so I drew pictures and used visuals to help me remember information.”

It wasn’t until his late 20s—after a visit to the eye doctor and a psychologist—that Romain was diagnosed with dyslexia.

“I thought I just wasn’t very smart before that,” he said. “The diagnosis gave me something to attach my frustration to and an understanding of what was really going on.”

Common Signs of Dyslexia in Adults Not Previously Diagnosed

  • Remembers struggling in school with reading and spelling
  • Avoids reading for pleasure or reading aloud due to extreme fatigue
  • Feels very insecure about reading to children or helping with homework
  • Difficulty taking meeting notes and managing time 
  • Has a spoken vocabulary smaller than a listening vocabulary 
  • Difficulty remembering names of people but remembers faces 
  • Misspeaks, misuses, or mispronounces words without realizing it
  • May have an excellent memory of events that were experienced or not remember at all
  • Difficulty remembering verbal instructions or multi-step directions
  • Successful in situations and professions that rely on verbal communication and relationship building
  • Poor self-confidence; may suffer from depression and anxiety

A study of adults with dyslexia in the Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy found anger and resentment towards their childhood teachers still registered with them as adults—along with memories of injustice at the hands of the education system. Much of this anger was at their lack of diagnosis, which meant they suffered for many years as having an undiagnosed learning disorder.

“For the first time, we are seeing people in their 30s who were recognized with dyslexia as young children, but so much still depends on where you live in the U.S.,” Peterson said. “We know that when someone is feeling that poor about themselves and their abilities, high anxiety and depression come out. And if dyslexia diagnosis and treatment were considered a wellness issue within the U.S. healthcare system, more people could get the help they need.”

Romain says it’s been helpful to talk about the situation with his wife, a psychotherapist.

“As an adult, a lot of this comes back to self-esteem,” he said. “You can actually get quite depressed if you think you can’t compete in a profession you love.”

How Is Dyslexia Diagnosed in Adults? 

There is no single test that diagnoses dyslexia. A true diagnosis is only valid when performed one-on-one by a qualified and trained professional such as a licensed psychologist or neurologist.  

Dyslexia Screening Tests

Dyslexia screening tests are a good starting place and will provide your estimated risk of having dyslexia and/or your risk for developing dyslexia based on your family history.

The Adult Reading History Questionnaire (ARHQ), for example, is a self-report screening tool designed to measure risk of reading disability in adults. The ARHQ asks adults about their own reading history and current reading habits to estimate the risk that they may have a reading disability.

Depending on the results, the screening may recommend a full face-to-face (or virtual) assessment with a trained professional.

Adult Dyslexia Assessments 

“Assessments for adults might include checks of visual and auditory perception, discrimination, and memory,” Peterson said, adding that while an intelligence test is not necessary, "it can be a strong validation for bright adults who have trouble reading.”

However, finding a provider with experience assessing adults for dyslexia may be a challenge. A small study in the journal Dyslexia shows some psychologists are not confident in their ability to assess adults due to a “lack of an empirical base and training and appropriately normed tools”—exposing the lack of international guidelines to support psychologists in identifying adults with dyslexia.

Peterson agrees the process for adults is not well defined but recommends looking for someone with in-depth knowledge of dyslexia and a broad understanding of language development and other disabilities.

“This professional does not need to administer the tests, but they must be qualified to interpret test results,” she said. “In evaluating adults, I look at how they process visual and auditory information because they can usually read.”

The International Dyslexia Association and the Center for Effective Reading Instruction each provide state-based directories of professionals who provide services and treatment to people with learning differences.

Treatment for Adult Dyslexia

There is no “cure” for dyslexia. And by now you might be wondering how you treat dyslexia in someone who actually knows how to read. What strategies are there for an adult who has already learned ways to compensate?

It’s never too late to be helped. Reading skills can continue to grow and develop into adolescence and adulthood, according to research in the journal Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. And further studies have consistently shown that dyslexic students learn best with methods of instruction specifically designed to fit their way of thinking and learning, including multi-sensory and project-based approaches.

When an adult comes to her for treatment, Peterson first starts by asking them what they are trying to gain and tailors treatment from there. “If they are in law school, I say, ‘Let’s get you accommodations.’ If they need help with writing for business, I say, ‘Let’s get you a writing instructor who understands aspects of dyslexia.’”

Assistive Technology 

Assistive technology is anything that can help a person with a disability work around their challenges so they can learn, improve, and function better in their environment. While most might associate it with a school environment, much of the tech out there has applicability in a workplace and at home. 

  • Audiobooks: Human or computerized voice narrations without text are widely available through companies like Audible. You can also check with your local library.
  • E-text and Text-to-Speech (TTS): These software, applications, or devices let you see and hear digital or electronic text at the same time. A student with dyslexia qualifies for a free membership to Bookshare. You might also want to invest in a flatbed scanner like Fujitsu SnapScan s100i for digitizing all types of text into speech to read aloud by a computer.
  • Graphic organizers: Graphic organizers often include templates to provide structure and prompts for those who have difficulty knowing what to write or how to get started. These tools help you brainstorm and organize your thoughts visually in a web format to prepare for writing.
  • Smart pens: A smart pen combines a camera and an audio recorder so you can record notes with minimal writing—focusing instead on listening and processing information in the moment. Livescribe’s smart pens, for example, sync notes and audio to an Evernote account where you can replay, organize, search, and share your notes. These pens can hold many hours of audio and are compatible with both PCs and Macs, as well as a variety of smartphones.
  • Speech-to-Text: Voice recognition tools that convert speech dictation into text to make writing easier.

“Finding tools that work for you can make a difference in managing dyslexia as an adult,” Romain said. “My spelling is atrocious, but a word processor helps me. I’ve also been lucky to have wonderful editors throughout my career.”

Workplace Accommodations 

In her book, Peterson devotes an entire section to the American with Disabilities Act and how to talk with your employer. “There are pros and cons to that, but right now, many [employers] are really seeing the value of cognitive diversity in the workplace,” she said.

Most employers (and schools) are willing to work with someone requesting accommodations within reason. These may include some of the aforementioned assistive technologies such as voice-to-text or text-to-voice program access.

Many, like Romain, have embraced dyslexia as part of their identity in adulthood. It’s never too late to find help and support.

What This Means For You

Living with an undiagnosed learning disorder can mean you’ve experienced years of related mental health consequences—some of them triggered by the pandemic. If you find yourself struggling with reading, writing, or spelling as an adult and wonder if you are dyslexic, answers and treatment are available. Finding assistive technologies that work for you can make a big difference.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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