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Dyslexia and Autism: Is there a Connection?

December 18, 2023

Every parent of a child on the spectrum knows – autism is challenging enough on its own. When combined with other comorbidities, those challenges keep adding up. Language impairments are common among autistic individuals, but is it possible to have both dyslexia and autism?

An autism diagnosis may explain challenging behavior in children, but parents often wonder if all symptoms are autism-related. Additionally, autism commonly coexists with other conditions, including dyslexia. This article aims to clarify by defining autism and dyslexia separately, exploring common symptoms, and examining potential overlaps.

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Understanding Dyslexia

Dyslexia is commonly misunderstood as merely reversing letters, but it involves more than that. While it’s a common symptom, not everyone with dyslexia shows letter reversals, and it’s not the main characteristic of this condition.

The formal definition recognizes it as a neurobiological learning disability affecting: 

  • word recognition,
  • spelling, and
  • decoding.

Dyslexia’s impact extends to reading comprehension, vocabulary, and background knowledge, with potential challenges in auditory, memory, and language skills.

It is important to note that dyslexia is not related to low intelligence. Many dyslexic children have an average or above-average IQ. However, dyslexia can co-occur with other conditions, such as ADHD, autism, and more.

Understanding Autism

To better understand how communication impairments in autism may overlap or present similarly to those found in dyslexia, we can examine the core criteria and symptoms of autism.

According to the DSM-5, autism involves persistent challenges in social communication and interaction, including issues with social-emotional reciprocity and nonverbal communication. 

While the criteria highlight language impairments, it’s crucial to note that autism extends beyond communication problems, including:

  • restricted behaviors, 
  • sensory difficulties, and 
  • repetitive interests.

All of this distinguishes autism from dyslexia, which is a developmental language disorder where most symptoms are language-related.


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Autism and Its Comorbidities

When individuals have more than one distinct condition, it’s called comorbidity, a term often debated among experts. Studies emphasize understanding the mechanisms and implications of these conditions for better clinical care.

Researchers agree that comorbidities and coexisting conditions are highly prevalent in children and adolescents with autism spectrum conditions. This creates challenges in diagnosis and treatment planning, especially when symptoms overlap or manifest differently.

This may add to parents’ worries about a child on the spectrum. What if a symptom or behavior written off as just being part of autism manifests as a comorbidity or separate condition that requires a different diagnosis and treatment plan?

While research on the autism and dyslexia connection is limited, parents note the co-occurrence. Deciphering whether language difficulties stem from autism or a comorbid condition like dyslexia requires clinical evaluation, ensuring appropriate support for each child’s unique needs.

Diagnosing Dyslexia

The difficulties caused by dyslexia can’t be denied, but diagnosing the condition has always been difficult. Some studies feel the existing definitions of dyslexia are to blame for unreliable diagnosis.

A 2018 research article suggests improving dyslexia diagnosis by using a hybrid model that considers multiple aspects of reading and spelling development. A holistic way of evaluating dyslexia may also be important when diagnosing a child with autism who shows such symptoms.

Rather than focusing on a single indicator, like the letter reversal, looking at the child’s symptoms, medical history, comorbidities, and other relevant factors is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis.

Little Girl With Dyslexia Struggling With Homework
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/dyslexia-autism/

Is Dyslexia and Autism a Comorbidity?

Autism spectrum disorders and dyslexia are both neurodevelopmental conditions increasingly seen in children. Officially, having one condition can exclude the diagnosis of the other.

While autism and dyslexia are distinct conditions, they can coexist in the same individual, as they share significant symptoms. Limited research exists on the connection between ASD and dyslexia, but a 2020 study has investigated a common gene between these conditions.

Overlap symptoms between autism and dyslexia, such as language deficits, can be identified by examining background information about both conditions.

Comparing the Early Signs of Dyslexia and Autism

Parents often worry about language difficulties in their autistic child, fearing a connection to social motivation. Concerns arise from the belief that limited social interaction might affect their child’s age-appropriate language development.

In contrast, dyslexia’s language issues are unrelated to social factors, arising from difficulties connecting spoken and written language due to phonological impairments. Let’s explore some other common symptoms of dyslexia and autism.

Early Signs of Autism:

  • Difficulty in learning to speak or a delay in language acquisition, often diagnosed around two years of age.
  • Spoken language delay, including verbal production and understanding.
  • Developmental milestones may be reached later, impacting behaviors like crawling, walking, and biking.
  • Challenges and difficulties in learning sounds, letters, and sight words.
  • Uneven acquisition of language, with some experiencing regression, loss of comprehension, and verbal expression.

Early Signs of Dyslexia:

  • Late-talking or delayed language acquisition, usually diagnosed around five or six years old when learning to read.
  • Deficits in phonology, including challenges in remembering nursery rhymes, recognizing rhyme, and difficulty with sequence and directions.
  • Struggles in learning letter names, muddling similar-looking letters, and frustration with later spelling difficulties.
  • Challenges in word recognition, including guessing, omitting words, stumbling, and decoding deficits.
  • Reading, spelling, and handwriting difficulties, often apparent as children learn to read and write.

It’s important to note that some signs may overlap, but each condition has distinct characteristics.

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Similarities Between Dyslexia and Autism

When learning more about these two conditions, it’s evident that they have many similarities that make them difficult to distinguish.

Some of the most apparent similarities between autism and dyslexia are:

  1. They are life-long disorders: Both conditions are life-long disorders, though they are often treated as childhood conditions. 
  2. They’re both neurodevelopmental: Both conditions are classified as neurodevelopmental disorders, indicating that they involve disruptions in the normal nervous system development.
  3. They possibly share a candidate gene: Some studies suggest the existence of a shared candidate gene between dyslexia and autism, indicating a potential genetic link.

Differences Between Autism and Dyslexia

Although they share some similarities, the differences between autism and dyslexia can’t be denied. Understanding these differences is crucial for accurate diagnosis, intervention, and support tailored to the unique challenges presented by these two conditions.

Some of the most common differences between autism and dyslexia are:

  1. Their core symptoms: Autism diagnosis relies on difficulties in two primary areas – social communication and repetitive behaviors or interests. Autism extends beyond language impairments, encompassing broader social interaction and behavior challenges.
  2. Their definitions: Dyslexia, while recognized as a learning disability with neurological origins, faces challenges in definition, manifestation, and symptoms. There is ongoing debate about the precise nature of the condition.
  3. Their impact on school performance: Dyslexia often manifests in challenges with word recognition, poor spelling, and decoding difficulties, impacting school performance. Autism, on the other hand, extends beyond academic aspects, encompassing broader social communication and behavioral difficulties.

Improvement Is Possible

Most experts agree that fluent reading can be taught to children with dyslexia, provided they attain the necessary support from teachers or professionals in a clinical setting and parents (or caregivers) in the home environment.

Impaired speech and language skills in autism can also be addressed through treatment options like Functional Communication Training, an evidence-based practice for individuals with ASD.

Parents worried about symptoms of autism, dyslexia, or both in their children should consult with a developmental-behavioral pediatrician or other medical professional. Children with autism and dyslexia benefit from early diagnosis and intervention.


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FAQs

Q: Is there a connection between autism and dyslexia?

A:  While both autism and dyslexia are neurodevelopmental disorders, they are distinct conditions with different core symptoms. There is no direct causal connection between autism and dyslexia, but they may co-occur in some individuals.

Q: Can you have both dyslexia and autism?

A: Yes, it is possible for an individual to have both dyslexia and autism. While they are separate conditions, they can co-occur in some individuals, leading to unique challenges and strengths.

Q: Can you have dyslexia and still read well?

A: It is possible to have dyslexia and still read well. Dyslexia involves a range of neurologically-based challenges, and individuals with dyslexia may exhibit strong reading skills despite facing difficulties in other academic areas related to dyslexia.

Q: Is there a test for autism and dyslexia?

A: There are assessments and tests available for both autism and dyslexia. Diagnosing these conditions typically involves a comprehensive evaluation conducted by healthcare professionals, psychologists, or specialists in the respective fields.

References:

“What is Dyslexia?”, The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity
https://dyslexia.yale.edu/dyslexia/what-is-dyslexia/

Overlaps Between Autism and Language Impairment: Phenomimicry or Shared Etiology?
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921070/

Autism medical comorbidities, 2021
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8085719/

Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Co-morbidities in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Literature Review, 2021
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8579007/

Defining Comorbidity: Implications for Understanding Health and Health Services
https://www.annfammed.org/content/7/4/357

Why Is It So Difficult to Diagnose Dyslexia and How Can We Do It Better?
https://dyslexiaida.org/why-is-it-so-difficult-to-diagnose-dyslexia-and-how-can-we-do-it-better/

Neural Mechanisms in Dyslexia
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00452.x

Early Childhood Educators’ Perceptions of Dyslexia and Ability to Identify Students At-Risk
https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1212432.pdf

Two Autism/Dyslexia Linked Variations of DOCK4 Disrupt the Gene Function on Rac1/Rap1 Activation, Neurite Outgrowth, and Synapse Development
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32009906/

About the Book: Overcoming Dyslexia, 2nd Edition
https://dyslexia.yale.edu/research-science/overcoming-dyslexia/

Oral Language Deficits in Familial Dyslexia: A Meta-Analysis and Review
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4824243/

Children with autism show specific handwriting impairments
https://www.neurology.org/doi/10.1212/wnl.0b013e3181c0d48c

Reading, dyslexia, and the brain
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00131880802082625

Early features of autism spectrum disorder: a cross-sectional study
https://ijponline.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13052-019-0733-8 

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