Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
I want to weigh in on the on-going and often heated debate on effective treatments for dyslexia and related learning differences. There is a kind of intellectual territorialism within the field of experts who diagnose and treat, as well as parents and others with a vested interest.
This territorialism that I refer to sometimes borders on a kind of black and white and rigid thinking that is usually associated wth certain developmental disabilities (Asperger’s Syndrome) or Congress, and the political blogosphere.
All one has to do is to search the internet for spirited discussions and articles addressing the possibility that visually-based therapies , such as developmental optometry or “Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome” for example, (and the use of Irlen Lenses), and you will start to drift deeper and deeper into a black hole of anecdotes, studies cited, and an intensity of name-calling.
Now, to be clear, I have from time to time drifted there myself. People care passionately about their work with children, professionally and personally. I’ve been in the field of learning disabilities and behavioral health for more than twenty-five years. As a parent who raised a child with LD, an Orton-Gillingham trained educator, an LD school director and more, I’ve been lucky enough to see and be part of advances in clinical practice, research, and brain-imaging techniques that have deepened our understanding of the intricacies of reading and spelling disabilities. I know on a very deep level the importance of attending to the phonological and linguistic aspect of print disabilities. For many people who struggle with printed words and dense language, an Orton-based approach for instruction, for example, can be a life-saver and a huge piece of the puzzle and key to unlocking the world of reading and writing.
I also know the critical nature of mindset and developing a work ethic/resilience in the face of repeated frustration.
I must say I have also witnessed many many people who describe a visual aspect to their struggle with reading.
So, here’s the thing, or the point that I’m getting to (hang in there): Even though the preponderance of the scientific evidence points to the primacy of phonological weaknesses as a root cause of dyslexia and reading disabilities, there is a need for a crack to open in our collective expert phonological minds. Just open enough in order to allow that there may just be very important visual processing aspects to success in reading for some folks.
The problem that leads us to a steadfast denial of the above’s validity, is the amount of overselling from “the other side.” There has been an irresponsible overstating of how conditions can be “cured” with all sorts of gimmicks and lenses, etc. What gets lost in all the hyperbole, is an open-mindedness to consider the degree to which our brains and sensory systems are indeed impacted, negatively and positively, by light, color, shape and size.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of professional time and energy defending the primacy of language-based and phonological issues in literacy development, and caution people all the time about needlessly investing time and money in unproven methods. However, in the interests of kids and research, I believe we need to think more holistically at times. As much as I pin my profession on evidence-based approaches, double-blind studies, although rightfully the perceived pinnacle of evidence standards, are not the be all and end all. Absence of evidence is not proof that something doesn’t exist.
To all of the Orton-based and similarly founded experts, myself included: We sometimes need to get off our high horses long enough to dig around in the weeds. Sometimes those weeds include asking kids themselves what they are experiencing. Sometimes we might learn something from people we disagree with, because even though they may overstate and over-promise and over generalize, we might at times throw out the baby for the bathwater. I find no compelling evidence for example, that the Open Dyslexia font, which among other attributes, “weights” the bottoms of certain confusable letters (i.e. “b”s), works for lots of people. However I’ve had a few kids tell me they feel that it’s helpful to them. Hmm.
Let’s not use Congress, and the trolls in online comment sections, as our role models for educational and psychological solutions.