Why Study Nonverbal Skills in Dyslexia?

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By Jeff Gilger and a Special Topics Panel* of The Dyslexia Foundation (TDF)

May 2017

Like everyone, people with dyslexia have relative strengths or profiles of cognitive abilities. Some skills are low and others are relatively high. If we knew that dyslexia drove the development of above average compensatory skills in a specific area—such as the visual-spatial domain—or if we could document that dyslexia co-occurred with above average visual-spatial abilities in a high proportion of affected individuals, such information would be highly useful.

It would help in guiding people with dyslexia in their career choices. It also might have implications for instruction and treatment approaches, which commonly focus on verbal deficits to the neglect of fostering nonverbal strengths (should they exist).

…to make such claims or to take such actions without solid empirical evidence invites significant risk to students already educationally and emotionally stressed.

However, to make such claims or to take such actions without solid empirical evidence invites significant risk to students already educationally and emotionally stressed. Thus, the question of whether or not dyslexia is associated with visual-spatial strengths is not only an interesting area to study, but is also clinically important. We have a social responsibility to determine whether claims that nonverbal talents and dyslexia are linked can be supported, and if so, to identify how best to tailor clinical and educational interventions to help students make the most of these abilities.

Decades of research have focused on the etiology and expression of reading-related decoding problems in dyslexia. In this article, we address some of the “myth” around abilities in people with dyslexia and repeat a call to study a broader range of abilities and disabilities in these individuals.

Is Dyslexia a Gift?

Some suggest that we de-stigmatize dyslexia, move away from a purely deficit perspective, emphasize visual-spatial strengths, and more extreme, that we consider people with dyslexia as “gifted” or that the status of having dyslexia is a gift in itself (e.g., Davis, 2010; Eide, 2013; West, 1997, 2009).

The conclusion (sometimes implied, sometimes explicit) of these authors is that those with dyslexia are inherently talented in nonverbal areas and will excel at careers or avocations related to these special aptitudes (e.g., West, 1997, 2009). This issue also is discussed in Cowen (2014a, 2014b).

But, do we have sufficient scientific evidence to support this notion? In 2015, TDF held its second meeting on this subject (a) to revisit this issue, (b) to consider what advances have been made, and (c) to examine currently available research and technology that might tell us about the neurocognitive differences of those with dyslexia—extending beyond reading-related deficits. This is a summary of that report, recently published in Annals of Dyslexia.

Summary of Data on Visual Spatial Aptitude and Careers 

Reports have continued to circulate suggesting giftedness or talents in the nonverbal/spatial domain among people with dyslexia (for reviews see Gilger et al., 2016; Crogman, Gilger, & Hoeft, submitted). These reports contend there are elevated rates of dyslexia among those with careers in art, music, theater, physics, and engineering (e.g., Hickman & Brens, 2014; Schneps et al., 2011; Taylor & Walter, 2003), and differences in visual-spatial aptitude on certain neurocognitive tests (e.g., Schnepps et al., 2011; Duranovic, Dedeic, & Gavrić, 2014; Wang & Yang, 2011); Attree, Turner, & Cowell, 2009; von Károlyi, 2001; von Károlyi, Winner, Gray, & Sherman, 2003; Winner,von Karolyi, Malinsky, French, Seliger, Ross, & Weber, 2001). Attree, Turner, & Cowell, 2009; von Károlyi, 2001; von Károlyi, Winner, Gray, & Sherman, 2003; Winner, von Karolyi, Malinsky, French, Seliger, Ross, & Weber, 2001).  

Generally, there appear to be two broad classes of claims made in these reports or by the popular media based on this work:

(1) Dyslexia is associated with entrepreneurial success and creativity.

(2) Dyslexia is correlated with specialized skills in the domain of visual-spatial processing. 

TDF concluded that the current data supporting these claims are weak at best. For example, in two recent reviews of the visual-spatial literature, people with dyslexia were found to perform equal to, or worse than, normally developing readers on a variety of visual-spatial tasks on the order of 90% of the time (Gilger, Allen, & Castillo, 2016; Crogman et al., submitted)

However, for tests involving virtual world tasks (e.g., Attree et al., 2009) or the ability to perceive Impossible Figures (e.g., von Karolyi et al., 2003; Diehl et al., 2014), there was suggestive evidence that individuals with dyslexia may have a slight advantage. The only two neurological (brain imaging) studies of complex visual-spatial reasoning suggest that when people with dyslexia perform these spatial reasoning problems, their functional neurology is different from that of normally reading peers, regardless of what their outward test performance looks like compared to normal readers (Olulade et al., 2012; Diehl et al., 2014). This parallels the common notion that people with dyslexia think about, or approach, problems in unique ways and highlights the need for more research in this area.

Our conclusion points to a lack of visual-spatial talents in RD individuals overall; however, the reader should bear in mind that this is limited to experimental data based on commonly used spatial tests. There may be other methods of assessment that better detect visual-spatial strengths. Future research, for example, may consider nonverbal tests that measure creativity or fluidity of thought. Personal experience suggests that many people with RD take a less linear approach to problem solving and this may in turn lend itself to unique solutions, or the same solution, through different paths. Preliminary neurological research, in fact, supports the idea that people with dyslexia have different ways of solving problems compared to those without dyslexia even if the behavioral outcome is the same (Gilger et al., 2013; Olulade et al., 2012; Diehl et al., 2014).  

Given these findings and unanswered questions, the TDF Panel agreed that there is a need for future research and for brain imaging studies to include nonlinguistic/nonverbal reasoning measures.

With regard to career choice and success, the research is less clear.

First, there is literature that shows an elevated representation of individuals with dyslexia in certain careers (e.g., fine arts, astronomy, etc.); some of these careers can be considered to rely on nonverbal and creative skills. However, there are few reports available, and sometimes they are contradictory. For example, Taylor and Walter (2003) found that people with dyslexia were more often in “people-oriented” professions, such as nursing or business, rather than laboratory science (see also Fink, 2002; Gottfredson, Finucci, & Childs, 1984).

In summary, while careers like art and job skills requiring out-of-the-box thinking have been tied to the atypicality of dyslexia, most of these reports are based on anecdotes, retrospective self-report surveys, with little or no published, well designed studies (Finucci, Gottfredson, & Childs, 1985; Hickman & Brens, 2014; Taylor & Walter, 2003; Wolff & Lunberg, 2002). Thus, it remains unclear to what degree or why these apparent differences exist. Future research will need to (a) control for factors like self-selection in studies and biased samples and (b) include appropriate controls.

The TDF Panel concluded that if career differences exist, there is currently no evidence that such differences are due to specific inherent talents or better-than-average skills that suit certain career types. There is also little reliable evidence that would allow us to determine whether success in these careers is due to inherent strengths or because these careers are chosen by default in order to avoid careers requiring extensive reading.

Closing Comments

While we agree that “dyslexic differences” likely encompass more than reading-related problems, there is little well-designed research examining this issue. There remain a number of unanswered questions regarding the underlying neurology and behavioral expression of the dyslexic brain as it pertains to the domains of reasoning and the processing of nonlinguistic/nonverbal information.

We need to know more about the behavioral consequences of the anatomical and functional differences seen in the brains of people with dyslexia that are not typically considered part of the reading pathway but have been well documented  (Diehl et al., 2014; Olulade et al., 2012; Gilger & Kaplan, 2001; Eckert, 2004; Maisog et al., 2008).

Finally, it is important to bear in mind that the foregoing discussion applies broadly to people with dyslexia. There is, however, a subgroup of people with the condition who are also gifted. Such individuals are often referred to as “Twice Exceptional” (2e), where a disability in one area (reading) co-occurs with a special talent, high IQ, or other above average strength. The causes and manifestations of 2e in dyslexic populations need further study and may provide great insight into how to best serve these people and facilitate their development (see Gilger et al., 2013).


The following were members of this panel: William Baker, Jr., The Dyslexia Foundation; Don Compton, Florida State University; Laurie Cutting, Vanderbilt University; Jeff Gilger, University of California–Merced; Amelia Baker Lauderdale, The Dyslexia Foundation; Peggy McCardle, Haskins Laboratories; Michael O’Boyle, Texas Tech University; Ben Powers, Eagle Hill Southport School; Kenneth Pugh, Haskins Laboratories; Joe Viscomi, Greplytix; Julie Washington, Georgia State University; Ellen Winner, Boston College. This meeting was funded by The Dyslexia Foundation.


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Jeff Gilger is Professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of California, Merced. He holds the Carlston Cunningham Chair in Cognitive Development and Directs the UCM Alliance Center. His work is multidisciplinary spanning the clinical, educational, and neuroscience disciplines. He has focused on typical and atypical neuropsychological development, genetics, and the etiology of learning-language disorders, especially dyslexia. Recent research projects include the neurology/genetics of the gifted-reading disabled individual, the use of virtual reality for spatial skills analysis, and spatial skill training in young children. Gilger has participated on a number of national and international research projects, has served as a reviewer for over 40 journals and publishers in the areas of education, psychology, and medicine, and has been on the Advisory, Editorial and/or Review Boards for national and international agencies, publications, and professional organizations, including IDA.

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