Have you always struggled with tasks that required reading? Do you have trouble pronouncing written words or interpreting numbers? Did you grow up hating school because your teachers criticized the quality of your handwriting? Did you excel in certain classes, but consistently do poorly in subjects like spelling or grammar? If you meet these criteria, you may have dyslexia, a language-based learning disorder. According to Paediatrics and Child Health, dyslexia occurs in between five and ten percent of individuals, depending on how the disorder is defined and measured.
Dyslexia does not reflect a person’s level of intelligence or potential to succeed. Nevertheless, many children with dyslexia grow up feeling ignored, left behind or neglected in school. Dyslexia can increase a child’s risk of being marginalized socially, which can put her at risk of using drugs or alcohol to mask feelings of isolation and depression. These feelings often continue through adolescence and into adulthood — along with the substance abuse. Adults with dyslexia may hesitate to pursue higher education or advance professionally because of their disability. Finding positive solutions for dyslexia is the key to avoiding the substance abuse issues that can accompany this disability.
The co-occurrence of a learning disability and a substance abuse issue is known as a Dual Diagnosis. The successful treatment of a Dual Diagnosis requires careful attention to both problems. Treating alcoholism or drug abuse while overlooking a learning disorder like dyslexia won’t lead to total healing.
Dyslexia (from the Greek words “dys,” meaning “abnormal,” and “lexis,” meaning “language”) isn’t always easy to recognize. Many children learn how to hide their disorder to avoid being mocked by their classmates or criticized by teachers. Other students go out of their way to avoid attention in class, disappearing into the background to avoid being asked to read out loud or answer questions involving language skills.
At one time, educators and behavioral health professionals believed that the hallmark sign of dyslexia was reversing letters. More recently, researchers have discovered that people with dyslexia have difficulty analyzing the components of language. They often have trouble separating words into syllables, recalling words or letters, and analyzing sentences. The neurological conditions that cause dyslexia may also affect other areas of academic life, including mathematics, time management, memory and studying, notes the University of Michigan.
Although everyone with dyslexia may display slightly different symptoms, these clues may indicate that someone in your family has the disorder:
- They are slow to learn how to read and may show little or no interest in books.
- They may focus completely on pictures and avoid trying to pronounce words when looking at books or advertisements.
- They have trouble breaking words into their individual sounds or pronouncing syllables correctly.
- They have trouble remembering words, names or numbers.
- They have problems placing events in sequence or understanding the narrative flow of a story.
- They omit sections of words or entire words when writing.
- They avoid reading out loud whenever possible.
- They struggle when trying to take notes or complete handwritten exams.
- Their handwriting is very difficult to read.
Diagnosing dyslexia at an early age can prevent some of the psychological damage caused by an unrecognized disability. But even for adults, it’s never too late to identify the condition and improve language skills.
Challenges of a Learning Disorder
Language is vital to the way we communicate and express ourselves, and having dyslexia can affect your life on multiple levels. Because the disorder can also interfere with organizational skills, time management and memory, students with this disorder may have trouble keeping up in school, in spite of their intelligence. Chronic low performance can have a profound impact on self-esteem, making children and adults feel dumb, although they may be quite gifted.
Dyslexia is often a genetic disorder, according to the Nemours Foundation. This means that a dyslexic child’s experience with the disorder could depend at least partly on the parent’s experience. An adult who successfully overcame the disorder can be a good role model for a child with dyslexia. However, a parent who has coped with dyslexia in dysfunctional ways — like by drinking alcohol or using drugs — could be a negative influence.
Dyslexic children and teens often exhibit signs of the disorder in their social lives, such as:
- Difficulty communicating with teachers or peers
- Understanding spoken statements
- Interpreting body language
- Maintaining healthy self-esteem
- Resisting negative peer pressure
Young people who don’t feel that they fit in with their peers are more likely to give in to the temptation to drink and use drugs. Even intelligent teens who understand the risks involved with substance abuse may be driven to drugs or alcohol by loneliness, a poor self-image and depression.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University presents some disturbing facts on learning disabilities and substance abuse:
- Almost 11 million American children are living with a learning disability like dyslexia.
- Many children with learning disabilities also have conduct disorders, anxiety disorders or mood disorders.
- Children with learning disabilities are more likely to have a negative self-image and engage in self-destructive activities, like drinking and abusing drugs.
- Up to 40 percent of adults getting treatment for substance abuse issues have a learning disability.
To troubled teenagers, substance abuse seems to offer temporary relief from loneliness and isolation. Drugs and alcohol give young people easy access to a social circle, even if that circle consists of other self-destructive teens. But substance use can quickly turn into dependence and addiction, especially in impressionable adolescents who don’t understand the risks.
Can Dyslexia Be Cured?
There is no cure for this neurological disorder. However, there are treatment strategies that can make it easier to overcome the challenges of living with dyslexia.
The earlier the disorder is identified and treated, the greater your chances of success.
But even if the disorder is diagnosed in high school, college or adulthood, there are solutions that can boost your chances of success.
Dyslexia treatment often involves individualized tutoring to address problems with reading, writing and spelling. Creative educators can help dyslexic children learn to communicate by appealing to their senses of sound and touch, which may make up for problems with visualization. High school and college students who have trouble taking notes in class or reading their assignments can tape their lectures and rely on recorded lesson plans. Parents can help dyslexic children by reading aloud, helping with homework and providing emotional support to boost self-confidence.
The rights of dyslexic individuals to be accommodated in schools and in the workplace are legally protected. Federal law requires that American schools provide special education for children with learning disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the primary program requiring states and local school systems to support students with learning disorders. Other programs protecting the rights of disabled children and adults include the Elementary & Secondary Education Act (also known as “No Child Left Behind”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).
Overcoming Substance Abuse Issues
Getting the help you need to deal with dyslexia can be challenging enough, especially if your disorder has gone untreated for years. But when you’re also faced with the challenges of overcoming addiction, you need the support of a Dual Diagnosis treatment program.
Dual Diagnosis programs address the special needs of those with learning disorders, such as:
- The need for addiction recovery services that are integrated with psychotherapy
- The need for a supportive approach to treatment that motivates the individual and strengthens self-esteem
- The need for specialized learning materials for individuals who have challenges with reading, writing or spelling
- The need for self-paced programs that allow recovering individuals to learn at their own speed
Treating the psychological effects of a lifelong learning disability can be a slow, painstaking process. Therapists must be prepared to address the emotional scars caused by poor self-image and social isolation as well as the physical and mental damage of substance abuse. An adult who is struggling with dyslexia and substance abuse needs a treatment team that can provide support for her learning disorder as well as the depression and anxiety that can occur as a result of addiction. This multi-dimensional treatment model is essential for long-term healing.
Not all recovery programs are equipped to fill the needs of Dual Diagnosis clients. In fact, fully integrated programs that treat learning disabilities and substance use disorders at the same time can be hard to find. At FRN, we understand that providing comprehensive care for co-occurring conditions is vital to our clients’ success. We feature a full range of services to help you in your healing process. Our programs include one-on-one motivational therapy, couples and family counseling, and recovery groups based on the 12 Steps. Depending on your needs, we can treat you in an inpatient or outpatient setting at our exclusive facilities in Southern California or Tennessee.
Our holistic approach to healing encompasses mind, body and spirit. Call our admissions coordinators at any time for a free, confidential discussion of how we can help you today.
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.