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Understanding dyslexia
Understanding dyslexia

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1.8 Reflecting on definitions of ‘abnormality’

The main thing to remember is that the way that ‘abnormality’ is defined will have consequences for the method of identification. It will also impact on people's expectations of their future development. For example, we discussed the way that dyslexia is defined in relation to a person's IQ. Does that mean that if someone has a low IQ and an even lower reading age we should adjust our expectations of what that person can achieve with help, or let IQ influence how much help is offered? Similarly, if positive indicators suggest that the problem is neurologically based, do we assume that it cannot be overcome? Moreover, do the individuals themselves believe that they cannot overcome their difficulties? Definitions can be powerful influences on people's beliefs and expectations.

Finally, it is worth reflecting on what dyslexia has told us about the way we think of people who experience disability. It is easy to assume that everyone with a particular difficulty will have highly similar characteristics but in practice these groups are much more heterogeneous than you might first expect. Again, this often reflects the difficulties associated with identifying the precise nature of a psychological difficulty and differentiating it from other types of problems. More fundamentally, individuals differ in all kinds of ways, and the key issue is that deviation from the ‘norm’ is not always ‘abnormal’ in the sense of pathological. The same characteristics that are disadvantageous in one situation can be advantageous in others. It may also be, as we saw in the sub-section on positive indicators (see Section 1.4), that lesser ability in some skills may go hand-in-hand with greater ability in others.

Meanwhile, there is increasing recognition that people should not be defined or characterised by the difficulties they experience, but rather understood as people who have been affected by them. This is why you will notice that psychological texts increasingly talk about ‘ people with dyslexia ’, rather than ‘ dyslexics ’, ‘ people with autism ’ rather than ‘ autistics ’ and so on. It shows that we realise that people do not conform to some kind of stereotype just because they experience difficulties in certain areas, and helps us to remember that they are all individuals first and foremost. However, even this terminology suggests that dyslexia and autism are clear ‘entities’ that people do or do not have (and they also sound like medical labels, to which many people still object). In fact, all the evidence suggests that labels such as dyslexia and autism are just that – labels. They are useful descriptions of collections of characteristics that can affect different people in different patterns to different degrees. To capture this dimensionality, it would probably be more accurate to identify people as slightly, very or not at all dyslexic (or whatever condition is under consideration), and include plenty of additional information about the precise pattern of strengths and weakness that they show in relevant situations.

By now you might realise that during our discussion of dyslexia the different approaches discussed in Section 1.2 have been reflected in the way that dyslexia has been defined. For example, discrepancy definitions of dyslexia are based on a statistical definition of ‘normality’. Definition by exclusion, in emphasising the biological basis of dyslexia, is subscribing to a medical definition of normality, as does the notion of positive indicators’. Finally, the identification of dyslexia as a problem’ in itself is the result of cultural expectations of literacy being part of an adult's ‘normal’ repertoire of skills.

Summary of Section 1

  • ‘Normality’ and therefore ‘abnormality’ may be defined in a variety of ways: in relation to statistical frequency, perceived disability, cultural expectations or personal distress. No single definition is appropriate for all purposes.

  • Dyslexia is a label used to describe a condition involving, but not confined to, specific difficulties in learning to read and write. The term ‘dyslexia’ has been used by approaches which propose that there is a (constitutional) biological basis to those difficulties.

  • Definitions of dyslexia were originally based on exclusion criteria, but are now based on the discrepancy between potential and actual literacy ability. Modern assessments also identify positive indicators of the presence of dyslexia.

  • As a result of the heterogeneous nature of people with dyslexia, there have been attempts to classify different combinations of symptoms into discrete subtypes of dyslexia. These attempts have been unsuccessful because people often show the characteristics of more than one subtype.

  • Dyslexia is known to co-occur with other developmental conditions.