Why is dyslexia usually associated with children, and not adults?

Dyslexia, for those who don’t know, is a specific learning difficulty that causes trouble processing language, whether in written or spoken form. This most commonly manifests as struggles with reading, writing and spelling, and is especially noticeable when children start school. It is estimated that 1 in 10 people in the UK have some degree of dyslexia, and for most of these people it is diagnosed in early childhood.

Dyslexia is most commonly diagnosed when children are in school and struggling to learn how to read, write and spell. One of the most common questions posed by parents after a child has been assessed is whether or not their child will grow out of it. It is considered by many to be a condition that only affects children, or in some cases even as simply an excuse for poor performance in school. Neither of these assumptions are true of course, so why do they persist?

One of the reasons for this is the way that dyslexia is tested for. There is no uniform test for dyslexia, and as a result they can sometimes be rather narrow. The assessments usually target specific academic weaknesses, using phonetic testing and comprehensions tests. They often also exclude aspects which manifest more in adults than children, such as ability to read a clock, tell left from right, up / down, processing instructions etc. With the focus on education based weaknesses these tests often do not test the full range of symptoms that may be present in adults, and things are missed out.

These sorts of tests often do well to diagnose children, as it is easy to compare marks with peers. However by the time we have reached adulthood most of us have developed coping strategies to aid us in such areas of weakness. Such coping strategies can range from something as simple as using post it notes or a specific type of diary to organise one’s self, or be as complex as using varying reading techniques, or even software to aid a person in their work. These coping strategies can be so habitual that they make it appear as though the underlying cause of the problem, ie. the dyslexia, is no longer present. Dyslexia however, does not magically disappear; dyslexic children grow up to become dyslexic adults, even if their coping strategies make their day to day lives easier.

The combination of the way in which dyslexia is most often tested for, and the coping strategies developed by adults mean that people often assume that it has ‘lessened’ or that one has ‘grown out of it’ by the time they reach adulthood. Adults no longer have school assessments to compare progress with their peers, and in many cases they may do jobs that do not require vast amounts of written work. When this is the case the most obvious indicators of dyslexia, ie the reading and writing, are less prevalent. Add to this the idea that sprung up in the 80s and 90s that dyslexia was a label used to excuse children’s poor performance in school by middle class parents, and it is something that, for most of the history of it’s study, has been focused mostly on children. This focus means that dyslexic adults have, until more recent years, been overlooked. This leads to the common misconception that it is a child’s malady.