Autism and Dyslexia

Many people wonder about the co-morbidity between autism and dyslexia.  Autism is an illness that causes social interaction issues and communication problems in the sufferers, while dyslexia causes children to have difficulty learning to read and write.  However, it seems these two afflictions have much in common and can potentially occur together.

Both autism and dyslexia can occur on a spectrum, that is, both of these conditions can be less or more severe depending on the child and diagnosis.  For example, severe cases of autism can prevent those who have it from communicating using words and they require special technology to communicate via symbols or pictures.  Additionally, dyslexia can be more or less severe and, in many cases, can go overlooked or undiagnosed.

Additionally, both diseases are known to be based in the brain and affect neural processes and chemical communication between neurons.  The exact cause of both of these illnesses is unknown but in both cases it affects processing.

It has been hypothesized that there are shared genetic causes of both autism and dyslexia.  Researchers in 2010 found that people affected with either disorders had “missing” segments of DNA on the same two chromosomes.  Instead of coding for the proteins necessary for the neural processing involved in reading or, for autistic subjects, interpersonal communication, the proteins were missing or, at best, inactive.  What’s interesting about this is that the same missing DNA was found in autistic subjects as in dyslexic subjects, but was not found at all in subjects pulled from the general population.  This suggests that there is possibly a genetic predisposition one can have toward having dyslexia or autism.  However, this doesn’t guarantee someone with this mutation will have one or either of these conditions, it just shows that this genetic marker may signal a higher probability of this problem.

Other environmental and physical issues, such as pollution or stomach problems, have been correlated with the conditions.  While autism can be a condition from birth when a baby fails to develop at the pace expected, it also can be “regressive.”  A child who has been developing normally can suddenly regress and lose verbal or physical skills he or she had previously demonstrated.  Generally, dyslexia is considered to be a disorder that begins at birth, but is only recognized when a child is in school learning to read.

The cause of autism and dyslexia, while well documented and often diagnosed, are still shrouded in mystery.  It is not certain how either condition is caused and it seems that there are many symptoms that can characterize both of them.  For instance, dyslexia is often described as a visual processing disorder where the person with the condition doesn’t “see” the word or sentence correctly.  Some studies suggest that dyslexia is caused by an inability of the brain to process moving images in the same way as the general population.  Many others describe the condition as a difficulty determining “phonemes” or sounds made by the letters in a word.  It’s possible that both these definitions are somewhat correct, which leads to a further obfuscation of the true cause behind the disorder.

Often, due to the varying spectrum of dyslexia “symptoms” teachers and parents confuse dyslexia with laziness, lack of motivation, or being only slightly behind.  Generally, children with dyslexia are of average or even above average intelligence and only struggle in the subjects that require extensive reading and writing.

Since autism occurs on a spectrum as well, it can often be misidentified as “awkwardness” and difficulty socializing at their age level.  Like dyslexia, children affected with mild symptoms of autism or Asperger’s (a less-invasive form of autism) can be seen as just a little behind their peers.  However, due to a boom in diagnosis in recent years, more and more children with the disorder are recognized and treated.

Unlike children with autism, who can’t help their symptoms from showing, especially if they have severe iteration of the condition, children with dyslexia can often hide their condition deftly.  It can be hard to diagnose a child with the disorder because they often adopt strategies that mask their difficulties.  This is one major difference between the disorders and could account for a difference in the rates of correct diagnoses.

Children with dyslexia don’t process written words (and some believe it may also have an auditory component), but other than this difficulty, affected children are of average or above average intelligence.  This differs slightly from autism.  Though many children with Asperger’s are of average or even above average intelligence, other forms of autism are often co-morbid with Intellectual Disability.  These children do not learn at the same speed as other children their age.  This is another major difference between autism and dyslexia.

Luckily both autism and dyslexia are treatable and symptoms can be mitigated, especially when diagnosed early.  While conventional teaching doesn’t work for students with dyslexia, when the disorder is recognized, children can become literate with special help and attention.  Autism, as well, may be treated successfully with intensive treatment.  Autistic children also need to learn many social skills that come to other children naturally.  It is important to note that the effectiveness of treatments depends upon both how early it begins, and the severity of the condition.