Friday, 26 June 2015

Is dyslexia associated with exceptional visual-spatial abilities?

Image: Jose.Stuefer / Flickr
Children and adults with dyslexia have a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects the development of their literacy and language related skills. But what if such a profile also tended to be associated with exceptional strengths in other areas, such as visual skills? That's certainly what some experts have proposed, for example based on the observation that people with dyslexia are over-represented in fields that involve visual-spatial abilities, such as art and architecture.

Now a team led by Mirela Duranovic has tested 40 children (19 boys), aged 9-11 and diagnosed with dyslexia, on a range of tests of imagery and visual memory. The children with dyslexia performed similarly to 40 age-matched, non-dyslexic controls (19 boys) on most tests, including the mental rotation of shapes; copying a complex, abstract figure (the so-called Rey-Osterrieth Figure); and following the beginning of a line to the end, through a tangle of other lines from the left to right of a page.

On memory for simple geometric shapes there was a tendency for the dyslexic children to underperform. And on one test, the children with dyslexia clearly performed worse than the controls: this was drawing the Rey-Osterrieth Figure from memory.

However, on yet another test, the dyslexic children excelled, outperforming the controls. This was the Paper Folding Test, which requires looking at a depiction of how a piece of paper is folded and where a hole is punched through it, and then judging which one of several illustrations correctly depicts how the paper will look once unfolded again (see below; the correct answer is C).

The superior performance of the dyslexic children on the Paper Folding Test is intriguing – this test is arguably more challenging and complex than simple mental rotation tasks, and involves a larger sequence of mental steps to complete.

This new study adds to a complicated, contradictory literature on visual spatial skills in dyslexia,  filled with studies that have reported no differences between dyslexic people and controls, deficits in dyslexic groups, and advantages in dyslexia.

More research is now needed to explore why the currently reported dyslexia advantage was observed: what is it about the mental processes involved in the Paper Folding Task that meant the dyslexic children performed better than controls? Also, will the finding replicate, and will it generalise to other tasks that require the same mental processes?

"Connecting dyslexia to talent leads us in a more optimistic direction than only associating dyslexia with a deficit," the researchers concluded. "The revelation of talent in individuals with dyslexia opens a door to more effective educational strategies and for choosing professions in which individuals with dyslexia can be successful."


Duranovic, M., Dedeic, M., & Gavrić, M. (2014). Dyslexia and Visual-Spatial Talents Current Psychology, 34 (2), 207-222 DOI: 10.1007/s12144-014-9252-3

--further reading--
The enigma of dyslexic musicians
Most genes that influence maths ability also affect reading

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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