Children With Dyslexia Show Stronger Emotional Responses

Posted on December 7, 2020

In the study, published online in an early form Nov. 20, 2020, in Cortex, children with dyslexia who watched emotionally evocative videos showed increased physiological and behavioral responses when compared to children without dyslexia. This higher emotional reactivity was correlated with stronger connectivity in the brain’s salience network, a system that supports emotion generation and self-awareness.

The results broaden current conceptualizations of typical dyslexia and suggest the syndrome is much more complex than just a weakness in reading skills, adding support to the growing awareness that dyslexia is often associated with hidden interpersonal strengths.

“There are anecdotes that some kids with dyslexia have greater social and emotional intelligence,” said Virginia Sturm, PhD, the John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Foundation Endowed Professor in the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “We don’t want to say that all kids with dyslexia are necessarily gifted in this way, but we can think about dyslexia as being associated with both strengths and weaknesses.”

The researchers recruited 32 children between the ages of 8 and 12 with the classic “phonological” form of dyslexia to participate in the study, as well as 22 children without dyslexia. The team tested the children with dyslexia to confirm that they all had difficulty reading, assess their comprehension of emotional terms and measure their performance on a range of cognitive tests. Children and parents also responded to questionnaires regarding their emotional and mental health.

At the UCSF Dyslexia Center, the children were fitted with sensors to monitor breathing, skin conductance, and heart rate, and their facial expressions were filmed as they viewed short film clips designed to elicit specific positive and negative emotions such as amusement and disgust. For example, they watched a baby laughing and a woman who was about to vomit.

The researchers found that the children with dyslexia displayed greater emotional facial behavior and were more physiologically reactive while watching the film clips than children without dyslexia. In addition, functional MRI scans of the children’s brain activity revealed that the children who were most expressive had stronger connectivity between the right anterior insula and the right anterior cingulate cortex – key structures in the salience network that support emotion generation and self-awareness. In the children with dyslexia, those with stronger emotional facial expressions also had greater parent-reported social skills but also greater symptoms of anxiety and depression.

These findings suggest that many children with dyslexia may possess strengths around social acumen, since stronger emotional responses can be a key element of successful social relationships. Some adults with dyslexia report that that they made it through school by “charming their teachers”. This ability to make social connections, often interpreted as a purely compensatory strategy, could instead be a sign of enhanced emotional abilities at a neurological level.

Still, a dyslexia diagnosis is not a guarantee of social success. As the parent reports indicate, higher emotional reactivity and sensitivity can also be a risk factor for developing anxiety and depression, as these children could possibly be detecting emotional cues differently from neurotypical individuals. One more reason to make sure that these children are protected and appropriately served in schools, college but even in the work place as adults


Category(s):Dyslexia

Source material from UCSF


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