Dyslexia and Autism: Differing Ends of Brain Connector Spectrum

Evidence about some key differences in the brain structures of people with dyslexia and those on the Autism Spectrum (ASD) has been highlighted by Dr. Manuel Casanova, a neuroscientist in the University of Louisville, in the Department of Psychiatry. He’s been focusing on certain types of cortical cell connectors, called mini-columns, which are strands of brain fibers important in connecting brain cells to other brain cells. Apparently and to me not surprisingly, people with dyslexia show an opposite pattern of connectivity than people with Autism Spectrum. Pardon the expression, but “dyslexic brains” favor longer connections at the expense of shorter ones.

People on the autism spectrum have brains that favor shorter connectors. The longer ones seen in the brains of people with dyslexia indicate an easier time with big picture thinking and abstraction. The short connectors, conversely, makes short and more localized connections. Other studies also indicate that brains of people with ASD are inefficient with making the larger generalized connections between more distant areas of the brain. This helps explain that while people with this short connector type of brain structure may see small details easily, might not quickly put together the social meaning.

People with dyslexia also have longer fibers in parts of the brain involved in language processing. The researchers believe this leads to differences in the way their brains develop early in life and that their brains don’t adapt as efficiently to the process of learning to read. These adaptations have been shown in studies of early brain development in children without any learning disabilities.

In short, no pun intended, dyslexic brains are structured so that they are more likely to develop a less efficient reading circuit Casanova said. This explains why children with dyslexia have difficulty sounding out words despite normal or superior cognitive skills.

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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17 Responses to Dyslexia and Autism: Differing Ends of Brain Connector Spectrum

  1. Pingback: LD Resources » Blog Archive » Dyslexia and Autism: Differing Ends of Brain Connector Spectrum | The Reading, Learning, and Attention Clinic, LLC

  2. Dyslexic says:

    Many people get confused between these days, after reading this post its clear now that how these are different.

    • Sanford says:

      Dyslexic: Are you saying that many people get confused between dyslexia and autism? I wouldn’t have thought so, but glad the article helped clear up any confusion.

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  4. O.Frank Turner says:

    I think there is something more going on. I am 71 and have be clearly dyslexia all my life, but knew I had a host of other neurological difficulties. Recently my mother told me that she believes I was ASD as a child, based on children she saw on TV, and looking at it I still today have many of the clear patterns of ASD. I took a on line test that said I did have clear ASD treats. Thus I would have to be a acceptation to what the brain research is showing.

    • Sanford says:

      O. Frank. Agreed. There’s always more going on with people, as they can show more variety in how they process, than studies that are dependent on clear lines of diagnosis and description. That said, online screenings only offer a hint at clarity and I’d be careful of those too.

    • Christina says:

      There is an overlap between symptoms of ASD and those of Sensory Processing Disorder. Have you looked at SPD? My son is both dyslexic and has SPD.

      • Sanford says:

        Yes, thanks Christina. Sensory issues is often an overlooked part of understanding and treatment. Sometimes they’re “stand-alone” co-occurring issues and sometimes they are an inherent part of the overlapping condition such as with ASD.

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    • Sanford says:

      Good point. I would imagine some folks get to big picture thinking in different ways. For some, the may be their initial starting point from which to ponder the details and for others, perhaps the reverse.

  7. Chelsea Duff says:

    Can you have dyslexia and autism at the same time?

    • Sanford says:

      Chesea, thanks for your question; it’s a good one.

      The short answer is yes. In different ways, autism snd dyslexia are both brain-based differences related to the language system. To drill down further however, Dyslexia is more about inefficiencies with the mechanics of processing speech sounds, aka spoken language in thee alphabetic system. This results in struggles decoding when reading and encoding spell (putting sounds tougher to write). Because of those struggles, issues of reading comprehension will necessarily follow.

      On the other hand, autism is based on social language struggles, and includes non-verbal as well as verbal language components of communication.

      Both of these conditions can occur together in the same person but it’s really important to get a good thorough and differential diagnosis to tease them apart if indeed they’re coexisting.

      Let me know if that makes sense and if you have any follow up questions.
      Sanford

  8. Katherine Steele-Dantin says:

    My son, 7.6 years old, has both Autism and Dyslexia (DD). I’ve been working on getting a “thorough and differential diagnosis to tease them out” but even in an area like Boston that is difficult to do as the professionals to handle it are limited. He also has an incredibly high IQ. Do you have any suggestions?

  9. Sanford says:

    Hi Katherine. I would contact Caryl Frankenberger at www.frankenbergerassociates.com
    She’s a fantastic LD evaluator and also is one of the more knowledgeable professionals in the northeast including knowing “who’s who” as relates to your question.

    Best of luck. Keep us informed as you continue this process.
    Sanford

  10. Bernadette Littlewood says:

    I am curious if there is a connection with autism spectrum disorder and dyslexia. I have
    Two children we are currently having assessed for ASD and my third is very different but we suspect he may have dyslexia or a similar specific learning difficulty. Do you find it is common for families with ASD to also have other children with dyslexia?

    • Sanford says:

      Hi Bernadette. From my experience, what’s not common is for the two conditions/profiles to co-exist int he same person. In terms of the type of high functioning autism previously called Asperger’s syndrome, people with that profile have strong auditory, phonological, decoding and spelling skills. More classic autism involves social language deficits but also more generalized language delays and struggles. So I can see the overlap in how that autism profile could be mistakenly seen as dyslexia.

      All that said, what you ask is about the commonality of the two different types of developmental and learning profiles to exist in the same family. From what I’ve tracked int the literature, neurological and developmental gene pools, including ADHD, ASD and Dyslexia seem to congregate within family trees.

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