‘Yes, dyslexia does exist – let’s put that argument to rest’

We need to move beyond debating the existence of dyslexia and instead focus on best practice for teaching dyslexic students, argues psychologist Christopher Rossiter

“Dyslexia does not exist.”

I hear this statement far too often. As with much relating to special educational needs and disability, dyslexia has been questioned and debated no end. And the arguments are often binary.

Does it exist?  Is it a helpful term in the classroom? Are all dyslexics the same?

As a psychologist, I am frustrated that the debate has not progressed to something more useful and I want to unpick why this is.

Does dyslexia exist?

Let’s tackle this first. The clinical diagnostic criteria for dyslexia are well established. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is the authoritative guide to diagnosing disorders for psychologists. The document, originally published in 1952 and now in its fifth edition, contains hundreds of entries that cover all manner of disorders from depression to neurodevelopmental, such as dyslexia. The DSM is used for clinical purposes and is well established by research evidence.

So why do people think it doesn’t exist?

It could be a problem of definition/understanding beyond the realms of academia.

Academics, including Professor Joe Elliot, of Durham University, have questioned the definitions of dyslexia and called for a change of name to “reading disability”. I think he is right to pursue a better definition of persistent difficulties with reading because discrepancies in the current definition give weight to the idea that dyslexia does not exist.

However, Elliot doesn’t question the existence of reading problems and has said that they clearly have biological bases and cannot be ascribed merely to inefficient classroom practice.

The understanding of dyslexia and its characteristics within education – whatever name we apply to it – must be challenged, tested and modified, but the existence of it cannot denied. Dyslexia is recognised in public policy and legislation; for example, in the SEND Code of Practice and the Equality Act 2010. Dyslexia’s existence is enshrined in clinical and administrative codes, which bestow rights and responsibilities on children, their families and schools.

Clearly, some think that this isn’t enough, that somehow dyslexia and the “industry” that goes with it have infiltrated these codes to explain away children, who somehow ought to be doing better, and absolve ourselves of any responsibility.

This is not happening.

Let’s put it to rest: yes, dyslexia does exist.

What causes dyslexia?

The DSM makes it clear that dyslexia, under the umbrella term Specific Learning Disorder, is most likely caused by an interaction between genetic and environmental factors, which affect the brain’s ability to perceive and process verbal and nonverbal information efficiently and accurately.

How does dyslexia manifest?

The key indicators of dyslexia are word retrieval difficulties; poor phonemic awareness; difficulties with word reading, especially under time constraints; and poor spelling.

There are multiple working definitions of dyslexia, such as that proposed in the Rose Review (2009), which emphasises phonological awareness, verbal memory and speed of processing. These attempt to bridge the gap between what is needed for diagnosis and what is practical to know in relation to school support.

There are clearly discrepancies between the two, which I believe muddies the waters and creates room for debates as to whether dyslexia exists or not and what, if any, impact this has on children and schools.

What does this mean for teachers?

A diagnosis of dyslexia is insufficient in understanding what to do in the classroom. It may not help a teacher understand the precise needs of a child with dyslexia. So do not roll out a universal dyslexia intervention. Rather, adopt a graduated approach (of assess, plan, do, review) unpicking what works, what doesn’t and where additional support –  from a Sendco or other professional – might be needed. Such an approach benefits all children struggling with reading, writing, speaking and listening, and we can go beyond this debate and to a more nuanced discussion about how best to support them.

Dyslexic learners, like those with other forms of SEND, have common difficulties, although these will not necessarily be at the same level of severity, occur at the same time or be expressed in the same way.

It is undoubtedly the case that there are some very prominent examples of highly successful adults with dyslexia. However, the idea that dyslexia bestows advantages, over and above those we have as individuals, is of concern. For every success story, where a dyslexic person has beaten the odds, there are many who find that dyslexia means that school life for them is hard and frustrating, with a knock-on effect to their self-esteem.




What Doctors Never Told Me About Having a Baby With Down Syndrome

When you are pregnant with your first child it can be scary enough, but when the child you are carrying has something “wrong” with them, the fear can be magnified. Now I put the word “wrong” in quotes because there is nothing wrong with my daughter, but the doctors acted like there was.

Pregnant woman.


I was about 12 weeks pregnant with my daughter when I got the phone call (yes, a phone call) saying the MaterniT21 showed the baby I was carrying, my baby, would be born with Trisomy 21 or in other words Down syndrome. They then set up the appointment to discuss our “options.” Now what is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “options” while you are pregnant… yep that was the first option they gave us. Abortion, amnio or proceed with the pregnancy. Of course we chose to proceed, and they proceeded to tell us all the things that could go wrong.

Things that could go wrong. Heart issues. Intellectual delays. “Not amounting to much.” The list goes on and on.

The thing is, most doctors only see what could go wrong. They never tell you what could go right.

They never tell you that your little one will be the best thing that ever came into your life. That their smile is contagious and can light up a room and take all your cares away. They don’t tell you of the family you gain when having a child with Down syndrome, the support you get when things go wrong and the joy you share when things go right. You become part of a community of people who can answer your questions and who have your back, no matter what. They don’t tell you children with Down syndrome are beautiful, fun, and loving human beings, like any other child.



my son with autism “He doesn’t use his words, but he tells me he…”

How do you know he loves you? Does he say those three little words?

He doesn’t use his words, but he tells me he loves me, a hundred times a day, in a hundred different ways. He tells me with his eyes, when he wakes up and I’m the first person he sees. He smiles the faintest of smiles, with his puffy morning-eyed slumber and I know I’m the luckiest person in the world. I sneak in a snuggle and breathe in the smell of life from the top of his head, and I wish I could cancel the world and stay in bed with him all day.

He pulls me over to the swing, and gestures to help me place him on the seat. I push and push and push, until my arms want to fall off, his entire body at peace. I push him on the swing 100 times in a row. And then one more push after I swore I was done. His happiness, his calm, his squeals of delight- is nothing but a big huge, I love you.

He tells me I love you with his unstoppable strength, when he doesn’t want to work and he is so sick of another session or appointment or therapy. He aches to play outside and be alone. He screams and cries and looks to me to rescue him. I don’t, I tell him, you can do this and I am so proud of you, even though sometimes I really just want to grab him and run away. He tells me that he loves me when he calms down, stops crying and starts to do what is asked of him. His face says, I don’t want to do this today, but I trust that you know what’s right for me momma.

When he falls down and gets hurt, he rushes right over to me, and it makes me feel like I just won a prize. He cries while I hold him, and whisper- it will be okay. He lets me hold him tight while we rock back and forth until his shuddering stops. His arms around my neck, his ability to find his calm in me, tell me without a doubt that he loves me with all his heart.

He tells me that he loves me with the relief in his eyes, when I am able to figure out exactly what he is looking for, or what he wants, or needs- even if he is not able to say the words. I know when he is hungry or sad or frustrated. I know when he is hot or cold or excited, all by just a look. I know he is anxious when he can’t stop humming, ticking and moving and he is covering his ears. I know he is happy when he jumps up and down and flaps his hands and makes high-pitched noises. I’ve intently studied all of his non-verbal cues over the years and sometimes I think I know him better than I would if he could speak.

He tells me that he loves me, when out of the blue, for the first time in months he tenderly grabs either side of my face with his sweet little hands, he places his warm soft forehead against mine and looks so deeply into my eyes that it steals my breath. I know you are in there, baby, I whisper with tears threatening to jump out. I will never give up on you. I love you too.

So no, he doesn’t speak the three little words, “I love you”, but he tells me all the time. He loves me, and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.



trichotillomania so whats that pros and cons

“the harmful effect that occurs when the general population endorses prejudice and subsequently discriminates against people with mental illness (Corrigan, Roe & Tsang, 2011, pp. xiii). More importantly I feel for my illness is the internalised stigma that develops, by directing negative attitudes inwards leaving a feeling of unworthiness and just ‘less’ of a being. It is an incredibly frustrating disease, while being described in psychiatric records as far back as the 19th century, research on epidemiology, psychopathology and treatment is sparse. It has only been in the last decade that trich has received increased attention, with the first book on the disease published in 1999.


 Prior to wearing a wig I feel that I dealt with social stigma on a more regular basis. This was mainly because my hair was obviously short, thinning and patchy. More often than not I had members of the public sharing their pity with me about my ‘chemotherapy’ treatment. This was particularly evident one day when I was working in Scotland. An older gentleman came in to purchase his bus tickets from me and proceeded to share his story of surviving testicular cancer. Although honoured that this man had shared his very personal experience with me, I had to tell him that my hair was not the result of a terminal illness but I was pleased he was doing so well. This was a statement I had to use regularly, “no, I don’t have cancer and my illness is not that serious” I would say. Sometimes I even said I had alopecia, because it was just easier to explain than “I pull my hair out” which can lead to either silence or further questioning.

(Sometime during the 1990’s, one of the few times I went to the hairdressers in an attempt to disguise my pulling)

For those of us that pull, there are often a range of feelings that develop after a good pulling ‘session’. Most involve guilt, sadness, frustration and an increase in anger, but all add to the internal feeling of helplessness that can lead to a decrease in self-esteem and self-efficacy. This can then have a direct effect on an individual’s pursuit and accomplishment of life goals, such as getting a job, living independently, and developing meaningful relationships.



1/ no longer the need to worry about their secret getting out

2/ others may express their approval

3/ others may have had similar experiences

4/ the person may find someone who can help them in the future

5/ the person is promoting their sense of personal power

6/ the person is living testimony against stigma



1/ others may disapprove of their mental illness or stigma

2/others may gossip about them

3/ others may exclude them from social gatherings

4/ the person may worry more about what people are thinking of them

5/ the person may worry that others will pity them

6/ family members and others may be angry they disclosed.


Personally I expect a mix of both through my experience writing this blog.  I am more hopeful that it will be a therapeutic experience for myself and a learning and/or sharing experience for others. 


Corrigan, P., Roe, D., & Tsang, H. (2011). Challenging the stigma of mental illness: lessons for therapists and advocates. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Son