Dyslexia is a learning disorder that affects both children and adults. Its symptoms are different with age, and severity can vary as well. For children with learning problems, the earlier you intervene, the better.

Dyslexia is often known as a reading disability. It’s most often identified in childhood when reading problems first become apparent. Generally, people with dyslexia have difficulty breaking down words into simple sounds. They struggle to learn how sounds relate to letters and words, which leads to slow reading and poor reading comprehension.

But dyslexia can go undiagnosed for years or even decades.

Dyslexia is not connected with intelligence. It is a neurobiological disorder that affects the parts of your brain involved in language processing.

Despite its biological basis, dyslexia can’t be diagnosed with a simple blood test or brain scan. When doctors make a diagnosis, they consider the results of a series of reading tests along with the symptoms reported by the person, their parents, or their teachers.

Keep reading to learn how dyslexia symptoms can vary with age, plus what symptoms to look out for and when.

The preschool years

The earliest signs of dyslexia emerge around 1 to 2 years of age when children first learn to make sounds. Children who don’t say their first words until 15 months of age or their first phrases until 2 years of age have a higher risk of developing dyslexia.

However, not all people with speech delays develop dyslexia, and not all people with dyslexia have speech delays as children. A speech delay is just a cue for parents to pay attention to language development.

Children from families with a history of reading difficulties should also be monitored closely for dyslexia.

Other dyslexia warning signs that arise before age 5 years include:

  • having problems learning and remembering the names of letters in the alphabet
  • having difficulty learning the words to common nursery rhymes
  • being unable to recognize the letters of their own name
  • mispronouncing familiar words or using baby talk
  • being unable to recognize rhyming patterns

Keep reading: What causes developmental delays? »

Kindergarten and first grade

Around age 5 or 6 years, when kids begin learning to read, dyslexia symptoms become more apparent. Children who are at risk of reading disabilities can be identified in kindergarten. There is no standardized test for dyslexia, so your child’s doctor will work with you to evaluate their symptoms.

Signs that your kindergartener or first grader may be at risk include:

  • not understanding that words break apart into sounds
  • making reading errors that aren’t connected to the sounds of the letters on the page
  • having a history of parents or siblings with reading problems
  • complaining about how hard reading is
  • not wanting to go to school
  • showing problems with speaking and pronunciation
  • having trouble sounding out basic words like “cat” or “map”
  • not associating letters with sounds (for example, that “p” sounds like “paa”)

Early intervention programs usually focus on phonological (word sound) awareness, vocabulary, and reading strategies.

Second through eighth grade

Many teachers are not trained to recognize dyslexia. Children who are intelligent and participate fully in class often slip through the cracks because they are good at hiding their reading trouble. By the time your child reaches middle school, they may have fallen behind in reading, writing, and spelling.

Signs of dyslexia in grade school and middle school include:

  • being very slow in learning to read
  • reading slowly and awkwardly
  • having difficulty with new words and sounding them out
  • disliking or avoiding reading out loud
  • using vague and inexact vocabulary, like “stuff” and “things”
  • hesitating while finding words and answering questions
  • using a lot of “umms” in conversation
  • mispronouncing words that are long, unknown, or complicated
  • confusing words that sound alike
  • having trouble remembering details, such as names and dates
  • having messy handwriting

Read more: Vision-based therapies may not be needed for all dyslexic children »

Young adulthood: High school and college years

High school and college involve a new set of challenges for students with dyslexia. They face far more rigorous academic challenges when quick reading comprehension is essential. High school and college students are assigned more reading material. They must also learn to work with several different teachers, all with different expectations.

Without treatment, some people’s childhood dyslexia continues into young adulthood. Others’ will improve naturally as their higher learning functions develop.

In addition to the signs already seen in childhood, dyslexia signs in young adulthood can include:

  • requiring a great mental effort for reading
  • reading slowly
  • rarely reading for pleasure
  • avoiding reading out loud in any situation
  • pausing and hesitating often while speaking
  • using a lot of “umms”
  • using vague and imprecise language
  • pronouncing names and places wrong frequently
  • having difficulty remembering names
  • confusing like-sounding names
  • missing quick responses in conversation
  • having limited spoken vocabulary
  • having difficulty with multiple-choice tests
  • considering themselves stupid despite good grades

Dyslexia in adults

It’s unknown exactly how many adults have dyslexia. A lack of a uniform definition of dyslexia makes it hard for researchers to study. Various estimates suggest that as many as 5 to 10 percent of the population may have dyslexia. It’s typically diagnosed in childhood, but some people are never diagnosed. If you’ve always had trouble reading, there’s a good chance you could have dyslexia.

Symptoms you might recognize in yourself include:

  • You rarely or never read for pleasure.
  • You hate reading out loud in front of your coworkers, friends, and children.
  • You have trouble understanding jokes, puns, or turns of phrase.
  • You struggle with tasks that require memorization and repetition.
  • You have time management issues, or things take much longer than you think they will.
  • You have trouble summarizing things you read.
  • You have trouble doing math.

Learn more about dyslexia in adults »

How to get help for dyslexia

For children with learning problems, the earlier you intervene, the better. Start by reaching out to your child’s school. Get the teacher’s opinion. If your child’s reading level is below what the teacher expects for their age, then you should consult your pediatrician.

Understand that it takes time for doctors to make a diagnosis of dyslexia. First, they need to rule out other possible causes of your child’s reading problems. Your pediatrician might refer you to any of the following specialists:

  • pediatric psychologist
  • clinical or educational psychologist
  • learning disabilities specialist
  • speech pathologist
  • ophthalmologist (eye doctor)
  • audiologist (hearing specialist)
  • neurologist (brain specialist)

If you suspect that you might have undiagnosed dyslexia, it’s never too late to seek help. Adult education programs can help most people significantly improve their reading and writing ability at any age. Talk to your family doctor about getting an evaluation.