Visual Dyslexia? What does that mean?

Is visual dyslexia a myth? For years, parents, teachers and even reading specialists believed that dyslexia meant that a person read backwards or reversed letters and numbers. In fact, there’s article after article still talking about visual dyslexia . Not only that, there is still eye training being done to overcome visual dyslexia.

This is interesting, because over the last two decades, there has been much research done on the cause of dyslexia. As a result of this research, a new definition has emerged which emphasizes that dyslexia is indeed a reading disorder, however it is caused by defects in the language processing part of the brain, not in the visual part of the brain.

At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, a husband and wife team, Drs. Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz, found that when a child struggled with reading, it was the language part of the brain that was involved, not the visual. For parents who are confused about whether they should take their child for eye training, they need to call us so we can help point them in the right direction.

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As a tutor for children with dyslexia, for over 40 years, I can certainly understand why so many people believe that it is caused by a visual defect. I have worked for years and years with children who read the wrong word, put in letters, omit letters, read what for that and was for saw. How can adults working with dyslexic children not think that the child is having difficulty visually?

And perhaps, the child who struggles to read may need glasses. I always recommend that these children see a pediatric ophthalmologist. But, the visual issue is not dyslexia (or even visual dyslexia). It is another issue that has to be addressed. Dyslexia is caused by a defect in the language processing part of the brain. Some children have both issues. Naturally, in those cases, diagnosis and remediation is more complex.

If the child is having a hard time understanding the words on the board, then rest assured that it is not visual dyslexia at cause. Not being able to see the board makes that learning curve very steep. Visual dyslexia might not be real, but a pair of glasses may go a long way.


  1. John Hayes says:

    Visual problems that make reading difficult exist in a subset of dyslexics and is properly called visual dyslexia. Sometime the visual problems co-exist with other more common language processing problems. Sometimes visual dyslexia exists without other dyslexia problems.

    Shawitz bases her analysis about dyslexia on fMRI data. She ignores that there are prior studies of the visual centers of the brain that show the same results as the phonological areas. It is not proper to just ignore studies that don’t fit your pet theories.

    BTW, Dr G Eden former president of the IDA was the researcher that did the visual fMRI studies .

    In general people who promote specific interventions like to claim that they are effective for all dyslexics while in reality, to date every intervention has non-trivial amounts of non responders. The presence of visual dyslexia is part of the reason for the non responders.

    If anyone actually understood dyslexia and had an effective intervention for all dyslexics then there would be no reason to hide what an individual’s expected results would be or publish what results have been achieved by those interventions.

    • Wow, thanks John, this has been an issue for me. I have 2 struggling children, one DX’ed dyslexic with clear langauge issues, and one with no DX and no language peice at all, but yet has all these visual reading issues, along with extreme phoetic spelling. He’s articulate, no one beleives there is a problem because he has no phoenetic issues or speech issues.

  2. Speaking as someone who has been diagnosed with visual dyslexia, mine is visual problem. For whatever reason, I will see things flipped as in a mirror. This is not usually a problem, but when I read letters such as b and d can flip. It cam about by being taught to read letter by letter. I finally got a good tutor who taught me to read word by word and now I have a master’s degree. The problem never had anything to do with language processing, it had everything to do with a visual issue that glasses cannot fix.

  3. I am having a really tougth time getting anyone to take my 5yr symtoms seriously. He trys to read from right to left and has hit a brick wall when it comes to his reading now. He has had an eye test with nothing wrong there. At school he is using the Toe by Toe learning system because he is behind in his work now and still writes most of his letters and numbers backwards and unless he can sound out the words he has no chance of putting the word together. You wouldnt believe the variations you can get for the word “The” bless him. When he reads the words move about but School have said they wont test him for Dyslexia until he reaches the age of 7yrs and they wont do a colour spectrum test till the same age also. Even though he is reading through a blue filter because that stops the words moving.
    I just feel like its such a cop out and let down that my child has to get even further behind in his schooling because he isnt 7yrs old and thats all down to the school getting funding in. Everywhere i turn its the same advice “Im really sorry but unless he is 7 we cant help you”.

  4. Ron Teffaine says:

    Although phonological processing problems are a major contributor to dyslexia, there are other problems that often co-exist with dyslexia, or form subsets. Dr. Virginia Berninger, a neuroscientist at University of Washington, and Dr. Stanilas Dehaene, another neuroscientist just South of Paris, talk about orthographic processing problems. Even Dr. Sally Saywitz talked about the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA), but she thought the area was only for fluency. Since her landmark book in 2003, there has been a lot more research into orthographic processing problems primarily in the VWFA. It is a part of the brain in the left occipital-temporal area, in the sulcus next to the fusiform gyrus, that learns to recognize letter sequences. It is also involved in mirror imaging (i.e., failing to distinguish between mirror-image letters like b and d). Orthographic dyslexia can be treated with the Seeing Stars program by Nanci Bell, and with games developed by Dr. Berninger. Rapid naming problems are also common, as are attention problems.

    • Thank you, Ron. I do realize that some people use a much broader definition of dyslexia than the International Dyslexia Association. I agree with the IDA. Children can, of course, have other challenges with reading than dyslexia.

  5. Nancy latour says:

    I don’t know what to believe! I have a BA in Elementary Education and a Master’s in reading,but I couldn’t help my 7 year old learn to read! We had just moved to Australia and I was desperate! We found the Alison Lawson Clinic for visual dyslexia. I had not even heard of visual dyslexia and was convinced it was a hoax. Our son was first checked out by a pediatric opthamologist, which the centre referred us to( more skepticism). As all of the treatment was non invasive and some of it fun , like watching tv in black and white, we gave it a go!! It worked! In just 10 weeks our son was reading and loving school! This was in 2006. I am still not 100% sure it WAS visual dyslexia, but I know that whatever it was that we did at home and the Alison Lawson centre did one hour a week , worked!

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