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Sally Shaywitz, 2020 AAAS Fellow, Has Worked to Unravel the Mysteries of Dyslexia

Sally Shaywitz
Sally Shaywitz. Credit: Jesse Stone.

When AAAS Member and 2020 AAAS Fellow Sally Shaywitz, MD, and her husband, Bennett Shaywitz, MD, began their life's work unraveling the mysteries of dyslexia in the early 1980s, most people still associated dyslexia with diminished intelligence and visual impairment, and likely thought the condition affected only a few men and boys. Now, thanks in no small part to the Shaywitzes' research, it is better understood that dyslexia is universal, affecting 20 percent of people worldwide.  The Shaywitzes are co-founders and co-directors of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

Dyslexia is defined by federal law as “an unexpected difficulty in reading for an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader… which affects the ability of an individual to speak, read and spell.” It is essentially a linguistic problem; the difficulty comes in making the association between sounds and letters. These difficulties can lead people to falsely consider a dyslexic person unintelligent. More regrettably, people with dyslexia may believe they lack intelligence themselves.

“It's a major problem. People [with dyslexia] think they're not so smart,” says Shaywitz, the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In fact, the opposite is true; dyslexic individuals are often extremely creative, productive people. Their data encouraged the Shaywitzes to develop what they call the “Sea of Strengths” conceptual model of dyslexia, as described in her book, “Overcoming Dyslexia,” as a circumscribed, encapsulated weakness often surrounded by a sea of strengths in reasoning, problem-solving, understanding concepts, critical thinking, empathy and vocabulary. Highly accomplished dyslexics include, but are not limited to: financier Charles Schwab, Harvard Professor George Church, attorney David Boies, economist Diane Swonk, cardiac surgeon and, from 2014 to 2018, CEO of the Cleveland Clinic Delos (Toby) Cosgrove.

At Yale, Sally Shaywitz was asked to see families with bright but struggling readers. “It was heart-breaking,” she recalls. Bennett Shaywitz, a pediatric neurologist, had been studying animal models of attention. Struck by the powerful negative impact of reading difficulties on both parents and children, “inspired us to work together on this,” Sally Shaywitz says.

The Shaywitzes took up the challenge in 1983 to launch the continuous and still ongoing Connecticut Longitudinal Study (CLS). Beginning with 445 five-year-olds, this ground-breaking study continues to follow and assess 382 participants who are now in their 40s. The goal is to identify, for the first time, what specific early factors result in positive and/or negative adult outcomes.

Data from the CLS demonstrated that the achievement gap in reading between dyslexic and typical readers is evident as early as first grade and persists. This finding, says Sally Shaywitz, led us to develop an efficient, economical evidence-based screening tool for teachers.” This can be used to determine if students from kindergarten to third grade are at risk for dyslexia. Children identified as at risk for dyslexia can be targeted for early intervention, significantly improving their chances for better outcomes.

“It's important for kids and their parents to know that this has a name, dyslexia, that they can be very smart even if they read slowly, and that they can have a positive future,” Sally Shaywitz says.

Shaywitz is a staunch advocate for ensuring that educators, parents and policymakers understand the importance of “evidence” and work to ensure that professional development programs and instructional materials are truly evidence-based. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technology that examines brain activation while a person reads, allowed the Shaywitzes to clearly identify a “neural signature” of dyslexia, an inefficient functioning of those brain systems for skilled, fluent reading. The difference they identified is “functional, not structural. It's a matter of people having to use an alternative pathway” in the brain for those tasks, Sally Shaywitz says. For the first time, this hidden disability became visible, and this finding has now been replicated in laboratories around the world.

For her notable work in the field, Shaywitz’s honors include: an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine:  the Liberty Science Center 2019 Genius Award “in recognition of your inspiring accomplishments and your pioneering work in advancing our understanding of dyslexia,” and a 2018 profile in the Scientists at Work section of the New York Times.

Shaywitz has testified repeatedly about the importance of recognizing and addressing dyslexia to Congress and other legislative bodies as well as to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland and to the GoogleX conference on the Future of Reading. At those events, she emphasized that we have enough knowledge to get to work on addressing dyslexia. “What we have now is an action gap. We must act—we can and we will.”


AAAS Staff

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