In 1992 the Davis Dyslexia Association of America produced a chart offering “37 Common Characteristics of Dyslexia.” The idea was that if an individual possessed ten or more of these characteristics then the chances were that the person was dyslexic.
And then it was added that these symptoms could vary from day to day or even minute to minute, making assessment nigh on impossible, since most young people do tend to go through a whole range of different phases as they proceed through early life and the teenage years.
For example one of the areas covered in the list was, ‘Labelled lazy, dumb, careless, immature, “not trying hard enough,” or “behaviour problem’.” Unfortunately this could apply to around a third of the average school population at some time or other during their school years, and since dyslexia is thought to apply to only around 5% of the population, this might be thought to be rather a vague finding.
Perhaps a more helpful indicator from the list was “Appears bright, highly intelligent, and articulate but unable to read, write, or spell at grade level.” Certainly dyslexic people all have this issue in common – their ability to work with the written language is far less than you might expect if you talk to them.
Beyond this came areas such as “Feels dumb; has poor self-esteem; hides or covers up weaknesses with ingenious compensatory strategies; easily frustrated and emotional about school reading or testing.”
Such behaviour can indeed be found in dyslexics who are not diagnosed as dyslexic – they can often appreciate fully that they are bright but at the same time they really don’t understand why their written work is so bad, particularly if their poor written work is blamed on them being careless.
What’s more, given that so much of our education system teaches via the written language and gives marks to pupils or students for written work rather than for the ability to express themselves verbally, the dyslexic pupil or student can be penalised throughout.
So it is not surprising to find that the Davis list noted also that dyslexics tend to be “Talented in art, drama, music, sports, mechanics, story-telling, sales, business, designing, building, or engineering.”
Of course not all dyslexics are talented in such areas, but on the other hand some can find themselves talented in maybe five of those fields.
But that talent does not come out of their dyslexia. It can easily come because working in those fields reduces their need to focus on the written language, and thus such work can be a blessed relief. They enjoy the work, do better at it, and get praised for it while getting recriminations for the poverty of their written work. But these other factors are not indicators of dyslexia at all.
And so the list goes on and on, and has what seem to me to be one or two rather curious inclusions such as “Has extended hearing; hears things not said or apparent to others; easily distracted by sounds,” and also has “Difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks in halting phrases; leaves sentences incomplete; stutters under stress; mispronounces long words, or transposes phrases, words, and syllables when speaking.”
And yes this again can be true, but none of this really helps us define dyslexia. Indeed some of the attributes in the list can be reversed. For example the Davis list includes “excellent long-term memory for experiences, locations, and faces” whereas some dyslexics have a very poor memory for faces. This can be due to prosopagnosia – which is also known as face blindness, through which the ability to recognise familiar faces, including even one's own face, is impaired, although other aspects of visual processing are not impaired.
In essence what we have to remember is that there are numerous issues that can affect the way we see the world and the way we learn and it is quite possible for some of these to occur in some people alongside dyslexia.
Therefore when one is thinking about dyslexia, and whether it is present in an individual, although one may notice other difficulties that the individual has, it is important to focus primarily on the key element of dyslexia: the ability to learn how to spell, and how to write English, to a level that you would expect for the individual’s age and intelligence.
Other issues may be present, but if we are interested in dyslexia, it is that core process that we should be looking for. Where we see that, then we might test for dyslexia. If other issues are noticed, then these can be taken into account later, but when making the first assessment that this individual might be dyslexic, it is primarily the ability to handle the written language at the level expected given the individual’s intellectual ability, that should influence our diagnosis.