ARE YOU a stealth dyslexic?
WHAT IS STEALTH DYSLEXIA?
“Stealth dyslexia” is a relatively recent term that describes students with above average reading abilities or gifted reading abilities who use coping strategies to hide their dyslexia. Since intellectually gifted kids are better able to mask their dyslexia by over compensating for their difficulties, they usually go undiagnosed. However, by the time the stealth dyslexic student starts secondary school, the strategies the students relied on, the strategies that ensured they did well enough at school so as to have their difficulties go undetected, begin to fall apart.
Kids with stealth dyslexia fly under the radar because they typically have very good comprehension skills at an early age and appear to be able to sound out words (decode words). They are also able to compensate for problems in decoding words on the basis of sound (phonological awareness) by skipping words they do not know, filling-in the gaps by guessing or through relying on inference and/or their general knowledge. However, these are simply compensatory techniques that ensure their difficulties go undetected. In reality they are not decoding but reciting words they have memorized.
The inability to automatically decode words jeopardizes reading comprehension. As the words get longer and more complex, and comprehension becomes more challenging, kids with stealth dyslexia begin to struggle. The coping strategies that they relied on when they were younger are no longer sufficient to compensate for their deficits. As a consequence, their reading comprehension begins to suffer. Instead of focusing on comprehending the passage they are reading, they are focusing on decoding words. This ensures that they are less likely to understand the passage they read.
WHAT CHARACTERISTICS DO KIDS WITH STEALTH DYSLEXIA HAVE?
Kids with stealth dyslexia tend to have the following characteristics:
High verbal abilities and average academic performance
Are a mystery because they are bright and are not performing to their perceived potential
Poor handwriting (for example, randomly mix upper case and lower case letters when writing words)
Poor spelling (for example, the student gets most of the spellings correct on the weekly spelling test they study carefully for, but forgets most words by Monday because of deficits in spelling words from memory)
WHAT DISTINGUISHES “STEALTH” DYSLEXIA FROM “CLASSIC” DYSLEXIA?
Since kids with stealth dyslexia tend to score well on reading comprehension tests, most people conclude that they cannot be dyslexic. Yet these students also show the most classic feature of dyslexia: they struggle with phonics and decoding.
Kids with stealth dyslexia have problems decoding words just like kids with “classic” dyslexia. However, unlike typical dyslexics, their scores on tests of reading comprehension are typically above average or within the gifted range of reading abilities. Due to their apparently strong reading skills, most of these kids have never been identified as dyslexic or have ever been given the help they need to overcome their academic difficulties. As a consequence, students with stealth dyslexia often underperform in the classroom.
In my case, I reversed my letters, misspelt simple words (for example, spelt “which” as “wich” and “they” as “thay”) and often skipped words or paraphrased when reading out loud. However, since I scored high on comprehension and spelling standardized tests and had a high reading ability, my parents were repeatedly told that I could not have dyslexia.
CAN INTELLECTUALLY GIFTED KIDS HAVE STEALTH DYSLEXIA?
Yes. Stealth dyslexia is especially common among intellectually gifted kids. This is because intellectually gifted kids are able to use strong higher-order language skills to compensate for the low-level deficits in auditory and visual processing that cause the reading problems in dyslexia. As a result, they are able to read with relatively good comprehension.
A distinguishing feature of kids with stealth dyslexia is the wide disparity between their intellectual ability / potential and their academic performance. Even with their superior thinking skills, kids with stealth dyslexia often struggle in school, especially once they reach secondary school and the pace and difficulty of the school curriculum increases. Their teachers often perceive them as bright but lazy, careless and unmotivated. The reality is that this perception could not be further from the truth. Kids with stealth dyslexia have to work much harder than their non-dyslexic peers to compensate for their deficits. Often times, kids with stealth dyslexia are acutely aware of their difficulties. Without the benefit of a diagnosis, they are left without an explanation, which can lead to frustration, anxiety and depression.
WHAT SKILLS DO KIDS WITH STEALTH DYSLEXIA FIND CHALLENGING?
The following are skills that kids with stealth dyslexia find particularly challenging:
Reading new (and especially long) words
Reading out loud
Silent reading speed and reading accuracy
Writing (both handwriting and the speed and quantity of output)
Due to their problems with these basic skills, kids with stealth dyslexia often have a hard time with these more complex tasks:
Reading short passages. This is because short passages do not provide enough context to allow a student with stealth dyslexia to guess the words they cannot sound out. For example, questions and answers on multiple choice tests or math word problems.
Reading skills that appear to fall within the normal or even superior range for kids their age, at least on silent reading comprehension.
Reading passages on an unfamiliar topic (where students cannot use their background knowledge to guess the words they cannot sound out)
Reading passages that contain many unfamiliar words or new terms (especially in the natural or social sciences or subjects dealing with foreign cultures or languages)
Keeping up with lengthy reading or writing assignments
Persistent difficulties with reading word-for-word, resulting in subtle word substitutions or skipping of words. For example, when reading out loud I tend to paraphrase rather than read word-for-word
An enormous gap between oral expression and written expression. Students with stealth dyslexia tend to be very eloquent yet their written work does not reflect this eloquence
Handwriting problems caused by motor coordination problems, such as dyspraxia
Spelling errors in their written work that are far out of character when compared with the student’ general language, working memory or attention skills
For many students with stealth dyslexia, academic difficulties at school only become apparent when the workload becomes very heavy or complex and it is no longer possible to keep up just by increasing their effort. Often this may not be until high school or even university.
HOW CAN YOU BE A STEALTH DYSLEXIC IF YOU CAN READ?
Although kids with stealth dyslexia can read, they often show persistent, though subtle, difficulties with reading. Despite the appearance of age-appropriate reading comprehension or even good scores on standardized tests, careful examination of oral reading skills almost always reveals persistent difficulties with word-for-word reading.
These difficulties / deficits usually result in subtle word substitutions or the skipping of words. They can also result in significant under performance relative to the student’s potential, especially on tests. Kid with stealth dyslexia consistently show good comprehension when reading lengthy passages or even long books, yet significantly under-perform or even fail reading comprehension written tests because they have difficulty reading short test questions or multiple-choice answers.
On the surface, the reading difficulties of kids with stealth dyslexia seem like a paradox: the longer the passage they read the better they can understand what they have read. This seemingly paradoxical difficulty can be better understood by considering the nature of the reading difficulties children with stealth dyslexia usually have.
Kids with stealth dyslexia typically have difficulties with word-by-word reading. They skip words occasionally and making word substitutions. Reading longer passages allows them to use techniques to compensate for their deficits. When reading longer passages, kids with stealth dyslexia can often use their excellent language skills to fill in or correct errors in their word-by-word reading. They can also rely on the contextual cues and repetition that are usually available in longer passages. However, short passages contain fewer contextual cues, have less repetitive content, and often have more condensed syntax. As such, short passages provide fewer opportunities for correcting individual word errors. which increases the likelihood of errors. Ironically, the shorter the passage the more likely a stealth dyslexic is going to struggle to read and comprehend the passages.
WHY DO STEALTH DYSLEXICS UNDERPERFORM ON TESTS?
There are very few types of writing that are briefer, non-contextual, less repetitive and condensed than test questions or multiple-choice answers. When reading these types of passages, a single missed word (especially conditional words such as “not” or “except” or comparatives such as “before” or “since”) can have detrimental consequences on a kid’s performance. As a result, children with stealth dyslexia often make “silly mistakes,” giving answers quite different from those they would have given if they had correctly interpreted the question or answer choices.
Although these silly mistakes typically result in underperformance, intellectually gifted kids with stealth dyslexia, may be able to compensate well enough to avoid actual failure, especially during the early elementary years. As a result, their dyslexia may go undetected. They may not be correctly identified as having dyslexia or any other learning challenge and may not receive the appropriate interventions.
In my case, I frequently misinterpret exam questions (especially in the sciences). Since I tend to skip words or rely on word substitution, I often inadvertently change the exam question. My teachers are always baffled by my tendency to answer a different question, especially since they know that I could have answered the original exam question. As a consequence, I frequently underperform on exam questions.
Intellectually gifted kids with stealth dyslexia, often find themselves in this pattern. They have impairments severe enough to significantly impair learning and school performance, but not severe enough to be recognized or to qualify for appropriate services or accommodations. As such, gifted stealth dyslexics often “fall between the cracks,” so that the nature of their problem goes unrecognized.
Typically, kids with stealth dyslexia struggle through primary school, performing well below their potential and often making superhuman efforts just to keep up. When they meet the heavier writing demands and more complicated reading assignments of secondary school, they frequently find themselves unable to keep up. A downward spiral of failure and despair is often the result. This outcome is completely unnecessary and easily preventable. With early diagnosis / identification and appropriate interventions, kids with stealth dyslexia can close the gap between their potential and performance, so that their performance is in synch with their potential.
WHY DO SO MANY SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEURS HAVE DYSLEXIA?
Studies have demonstrated that there is a strong link between dyslexia and entrepreneurship. According to Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London, approximately 20% of the United Kingdom’s business self-starters are dyslexic. Her research into the United States market showed that 35% of company founders identified themselves as dyslexic, compared with 15% in the general population.
Professor Logan compared the traits, attributes and early experiences of people who identified as dyslexic against a sample of entrepreneurs who were not dyslexic to determine what attributes set them apart. Professor Logan determined that dyslexic entrepreneurs reported as good or excellent at oral communication and creative and spatial awareness tasks, whilst non-dyslexics reported as average or good. She found that people with dyslexia tend to compensate for things they do not do well by excelling in oral communication, problem solving and people management.
According to Professor Logan:
"We found that dyslexics who succeed had overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills. If you tell your friends and acquaintances that you plan to start a business, you'll hear over and over, 'It won't work. It can't be done.' But dyslexics are extraordinarily creative about maneuvering their way around problems."
The study also found that dyslexics were more likely than non-dyslexics to delegate authority. This is because dyslexics learn early on to delegate tasks in their areas of weakness to reliable individuals, which is an essential entrepreneurial skill.
According to author Malcolm Gladwell:
"We see so many entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. When you talk to them, they will tell you that they succeeded not in spite of their disability, but because of it. For them, they view their disability as desirable, ultimately."
WHY APPROPRIATE INTERVENTION IS IMPORTANT?
If you think you could be a stealth dyslexic, get tested by an individual who is qualified to diagnose learning disabilities. Getting a formal diagnosis can be an enormous relief and can explain why you under perform in school. A formal diagnosis can also greatly improve your classroom experience. If your teachers understand that you are not lazy or inattentive, but rather, are struggling with a learning difference, you are more likely to get the support you need.
The good news is that while students with stealth dyslexia often struggle in school, they are typically extremely good thinkers and problem solvers. The compensatory and problem-solving skills, perseverance, creativity and worth ethic, ensure that stealth dyslexics are very successful as adults.