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Determination Key to Overcoming Dyslexia

October 19, 1986|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

At the Orange County school where she teaches, no one knows that Laura needs to use a template to grade math papers. Or that an aide helps her write letters. If the principal, the parents or other teachers knew, Laura (not her real name) fears, they would think what she herself thought until a few years ago--that she is stupid and incompetent, perhaps no brighter than her special education students.

In fact, she is dyslexic.

When she found out that she had been suffering since birth from a learning disability, she was privately relieved but angry that it had taken so long to be diagnosed. And she was embarrassed to go public.

"People don't understand the turmoil, the inner turmoil," she said, "when you have an IQ of 115 and get nearly a 4 point in graduate school and can't do simple, simple things like remember that 7 times 8 is . . . um . . . ," she blinks and sighs, "whatever it is."

Despite much increased public awareness about dyslexia, many people mistakenly think it is a children's reading disorder--one in which, for example, was is mistaken for saw and B for D . However, it is actually a lifelong problem that involves a variety of perceptions and that affects an estimated 20% of the population, according to UC Irvine researcher Mary Louise Kean, who is studying adult dyslexics.

Although a few are diagnosed as children and treated with special reading programs, others have been diagnosed only recently. Many others do not know they are dyslexic and still cannot understand why, despite their most intense efforts, they find it difficult to read, write, balance a checkbook, get on a freeway or remember names.

Dyslexia, a disorganization of the brain in people of normal intelligence, is generally inherited, primarily striking those of northern European descent, according to Kean. She said dyslexic brains develop the right number of cells but that between the 16th and 24th week of gestation, the cells do not migrate outward to the proper place in the cortex. The confusion is always in the language areas of the left hemisphere of the brain.

Other parts of the brain may also be damaged or, in compensation for damage in some areas, enhanced, leaving dyslexics with highly individual combinations of liabilities and talents. They are typically intelligent but underachievers who are perhaps unable to follow directions or maps or who perhaps lack the coordination necessary for sports. Under pressure, they may forget or stutter or not hear correctly.

Some have superior right-brain proficiency in the visual and spatial areas and become accomplished artists, architects, engineers, entertainers or even athletes or writers, Kean said. Famous dyslexics include Rodin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie and current celebrities Cher, Bruce Jenner and television producer Stephen J. ("The A-Team") Cannell.

Many are left-handed and are susceptible to autoimmune diseases or allergies, Kean said. The disease is present in a range of intensities in men, but women have either severe or mild cases, she said. But even "mild" dyslexia, according to one dyslexic, is like a "mild case of the bubonic plague."

The reason dyslexia is so insidious is that it is invisible, victims say. Worse than the symptoms were the excruciating blows to self-esteem when they were labeled lazy or stupid by parents or teachers or even themselves. Many dyslexic adults, after a lifetime of failure in school or low status in their families, may feel they are not good at anything, said Sarah Solomon, a learning disabilities specialist and director of the Newport Center for Educational Therapy in Costa Mesa.

'Don't Say Anything'

"If you don't want to be incorrect or look stupid, you don't say anything," said Orange Coast College art instructor Karen Mortillaro, 42, who was diagnosed as dyslexic only last year, three years after learning she has lupus, one of the diseases often correlated with dyslexia.

In high school, she said, she was told she was mentally retarded, "but I didn't believe it." Her determination carried her through, however, and she went on to junior college and to art school, taking no more than two academic classes a semester. In eight years, she had earned bachelor's and master's degrees.

Her thoughts are always clear in her mind until she tries to talk or write them down, she says. "I know what you say and what I hear are different," she said. Once, when a friend observed there were sculptures in the courtyard of a museum, Mortillaro replied, "What are they doing in the closet?" She says she cannot "hold thoughts" or recall thoughts from memory, which makes math and remembering names difficult.

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