Dyslexia is a learning disorder, and it is the most common diagnosis among all learning disabilities in the United States. It is also a common condition in the general population, so it makes sense that people with autism would develop dyslexia at similar rates as their neurotypical peers.
There is some overlap between autism, dyslexia, and other neurodevelopmental conditions, including the fact that there is no cure for these disorders. There are several great approaches to treatment, so symptoms of the disorders can be reduced.
Autism is likely to be diagnosed first. Work with your child’s pediatrician and behavior therapist to screen your child for co-occurring conditions like dyslexia.
Is Dyslexia Associated With Autism?
Dyslexia is a condition in the brain that makes reading more difficult. The process of reading requires translating connecting letters and combinations of letters to spoken sounds, putting them in the correct order, and stringing the ordered sounds through words, sentences, and paragraphs.
People with dyslexia struggle with this process, typically having difficulty matching the letters they see on a page to words they know how to speak. They struggle with phonological processing because they have difficulty with syllables or phonemes. This makes the rest of the reading process difficult.
This is a common condition, typically impacting about 20% of the American population and covering between 80% and 90% of people who have learning disabilities.
Dyslexia is also characterized as an unexpected difficulty with reading when the child is otherwise very smart and academically capable. People with dyslexia tend to be creative thinkers with strong reasoning skills.
There is no cure for dyslexia, but therapy can greatly help. With the right assistance, your child can perform better throughout school and into their careers.
Children with autism may also have dyslexia, but depending on the severity of autism, it can be difficult to detect.
Similarities Between Autism & Dyslexia
Dyslexia and autism both tie into how the brain processes information, so it fairly common for people with autism to also be diagnosed with dyslexia.
Although there may be some co-occurrence of autism and dyslexia, these are different disorders and they are not closely linked. Autism is a developmental disorder, while dyslexia is a learning disability, which is a term encompassing various struggles with the learning process.
Overlap between learning disabilities like dyslexia and developmental conditions like autism include the following:
- Neither has a cure, though both have treatment options.
- Both are lifelong conditions.
- Both impact the individual’s life and make some parts of functioning in society more difficult.
- Early detection and management are important for both.
Emotional and behavioral issues appear in both, including:
- Emotional dysregulation.
- Sensory processing issues.
- Trouble with social skills.
Neurotypical children begin learning about phonemes and the basics of reading while they are in preschool, starting around 4 years old. Early elementary school is when the reading process truly begins, so many children are found to be dyslexic around 6 years old. This means they can have access to special reading programs and learn ways to process textbooks, like audiobooks or reading with special fonts.
Children with autism are no more likely to have dyslexia than their neurotypical peers, but it may be harder to detect dyslexia in children on the autism spectrum.
Often, children on the autism spectrum are early adopters of reading and may develop hyperlexia, where they learn to read at a very young age without being taught to do so. However, children on the autism spectrum may also have weak reading comprehension skills, so they may be able to quickly and accurately read a book or magazine, but they may not be able to remember what they read.
Hyperlexia requires a different treatment approach, helping the child slow down enough and focus more on what they read, so they can remember the content of the page.
Declarative Memory: The Potential Link Between Autism & Dyslexia
Research into five types of neurodevelopmental disorders has found a core component: declarative memory. This is a type of memory using facts or events that can be consciously “declared,” which can be explicitly retrieved. It is different from procedural memory, which involves body awareness.
The five associated neurodevelopmental disorders are:
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
- Tourette’s syndrome.
- Specific language impairment (SLI).
A publication in 2015 reported that using declarative memory to compensate allowed people with these five conditions, which have some overlap, to cope with social situations. They were able to do so by learning specific scripts for specific situations, managing tics or compulsions, and developing strategies to overcome learning challenges like reading trouble.
Declarative memory tends to be flexible, allowing it to develop several compensatory strategies for stressful situations. These may help the person develop coping mechanisms for situations they do not understand, and this may cover impairments in people with mild autism symptoms. This study suggested that behavioral therapy that makes use of declarative memory could be more beneficial than other forms of therapy.
Other Conditions Comorbid With Autism
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism are known to be comorbid conditions. Dyslexia and ADHD also often co-occur.
One study noted that a common problem for children with dyslexia is that they misinterpret spoken language, which can appear like mild autism symptoms. Children with dyslexia and children on the autism spectrum often take language literally, and they have little understanding of metaphorical language. For example, if you tell them to run in one spot, they may begin looking at the floor for a spot that has been painted on.
Other language disorders are comorbid with autism and ADHD as well. These are dyscalculia, which involves trouble with numbers and mathematics, and dyspraxia, which involves struggles planning and processing motor functions like walking or dancing.
Of all these conditions, autism is likely to be diagnosed first. Children around the age of 2 years old will develop differences in their ability to communicate, socialize, or learn that a pediatrician will generally notice. Parents often notice these early symptoms and bring them to the attention of the pediatrician as well.
Once you have a good behavior therapist, they can work with your child’s medical team to identify and diagnose other comorbid conditions. These clinicians will understand how to screen your child at different ages for learning disabilities like dyslexia or even for hyperlexia. Once you have proper diagnoses, you can get appropriate treatment for your child.
Children with both autism and dyslexia are able to improve greatly in therapy. With early intervention and intensive treatment, children can grow into healthy, successful adults. Parental assistance is essential to this growth, as are solid behavioral and educational treatments.
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Parents Seek Help Recognizing Dyslexia in Child with Autism. (November 2013). Autism Speaks.
Conditions Associated With Autism. (January 2020). Psych Central.
How to Differentiate Autism From a Learning Disability. (January 2020). ADDitude.
Declarative Memory: Definitions & Examples. (February 2014). Live Science.
A Brain System That Appears to Compensate for Autism, OCD, and Dyslexia. (February 2015). Science Daily.
Visual Illusions: An Interesting Tool to Investigate Developmental Dyslexia and Autism Spectrum Disorder. (April 2016). Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.