Neuroscience can’t answer all our questions about neuro-differences.

I did a literature review a few months ago, looking for examples of research that evaluates different interventions to support adults with dyslexia in the workplace.

I found 4.

Out of 11,117 articles written about dyslexia, since 1995, in the English language..

So what are people researching?  They are researching the biological component of dyslexia.  The majority of the research is neuroscientists scanning the brains of dyslexic people (mainly children) to search for the bit that’s broken.

Now I am a bit in awe of neuroscience, as are most people.  I even took a Master’s level course in neuroscience last year to get up to date. But neuroscience isn’t perfect and will still make mistakes.  This is worrying because researchers have found that people are unlikely to question results or conclusions of neuroscientists.  And while great advances are being made all the time, in Parkinson’s studies, working memory and making spines mend themselves,  neuroscience doesn’t have all the answers and isn’t the only place to ask questions.  Sometimes it raises more questions than it answers.

For example, neuroscience has just discovered that Chinese dyslexic brains look different to the brains of dyslexic English speakers.  Why would that be?  Because the language is so different.  We don’t have a special bit of the brain that does reading.  That would be weird, since we only evolved reading as a behaviour in the last few hundred years (in a mainstream way).  So logically, reading has to be a product of different bits of the brain combining to produce meaningful engagement and this is why there is such a lack of consensus to all these different studies and geographies as to what causes dyslexia.

Is it not the same for everyone.

In education they talk about the reading triangle – the three tenets of literacy acquisition being:

1)      Understanding sound (phonological);

2)      Understanding visual symbols (orthographical);

3)      Making meaning (semantics).

We also know, thanks to neuroscience, that these things happen in several brain locations at once.  So any part of the neural network suffering can bring the whole thing down.  If you are reading Chinese, then visual processing is going to be vital.  With English, the sound / visual links are so convoluted that you need to be hot on both.

This makes dyslexia a rather meaningless ‘condition’ (to quote Professor Elliot) and a much more important ‘symptom’, with many possible causes.

However that doesn’t mean that the experiences of dyslexic people are not valid, and based on sound medical evidence.  What is clear, from many decades of research spanning different psychological disciplines , education and neuroscience is that there are different types of people in the world.

1) Those who are very able at everything they try. 2) Those that are average at everything they try. 3) Those who are struggling with everything they try 4) Those who excel / are average in some areas yet struggling in others.


The last group are who we call ‘neurodiverse’, and where their struggles are defines their labels.

We can certainly learn more about specific interventions to help specific struggles, so that people can achieve their potential in the world.  That learning will be relevant to everyone who struggles, not just the neurodiverse.

So I think that there is a much bigger question in the air than which bits of our brain might be ‘broken’, and it is about the interaction between individual and their environment.

This is evident in our job design.  Thirty years ago, if you were a social worker or policeman and had the typical dyslexic talents of verbal communication and gift of the gab, you would excel because 90% of your time was spent with people, helping and listening.  Now our worlds of work require these professionals to spend 50% of their time documenting.  So we’ve changed the job to require people to be homogenously able in all areas of delivery.  This is true in medicine, nursing – all professional roles that used to come with admin support.  And worse, it is now starting to affect all levels of employment, since apprentices of vocational skills are now required to pass GCSE standard English and Maths even for careers in practical subjects.

Who said we need to be equally able at everything?

When did we start being assessed  on every scale and feeling unworthy if we weren’t doing okay on everything?

When did we start aiming for a world full of homogenous people organised in a hierarchy of ability with no diversity between them?

When did we start saying that you can’t be a hairdresser if you can’t read and write?

This blog is dedicated to Ester McVeigh, Conservative Minister for Employment in the UK in 2014, who exploded with outrage when I suggested that Hairdressers didn’t need to be able to pass GCSE standard literacy, and a more basic version would suffice.  Her argument was that she didn’t want her hair dyed by someone who couldn’t read colour charts (which, btw, are colour coded).