Addiction and Dyslexia

Addiction is a problematic use of drugs or alcohol, while dyslexia is a learning disability someone is born with and that makes reading and writing difficult. They commonly co-occur, likely because dyslexia often causes the same behavioral and emotional problems that are risk factors for substance abuse: low self-esteem, depression, social difficulties, and others. It is important to diagnose and treat children as early as possible for dyslexia to reduce the risk of later substance abuse, but even adults still struggling with both can get professional support that helps make reading easier and using drugs or alcohol less important.

What Are Addiction and Dyslexia?


Dyslexia is a learning disability that makes reading difficult. Someone with dyslexia has trouble with the decoding process used to read. Decoding refers to the process of recognizing the sounds in speech and relating them to the letters and words on a page. The part of the brain that is involved with language is affected in someone with dyslexia. Dyslexia is not related to vision or intelligence, and children with this disability most often have good eyesight and normal to above average intelligence.

Addiction, also called substance use disorder, is a behavioral, mental health, and brain disorder caused by abuse of drugs or alcohol. Not everyone who abuses substance will get addicted, but those who do struggle to stop using, continue using in spite of problems it cause, ignores responsibilities or other activities, and ultimately develops tolerance to the drug or alcohol, and withdrawal symptoms when not using.

A child with dyslexia may develop a number of complications, from doing poorly in school to having low self-esteem and struggling to fit in socially. Especially when dyslexia goes unrecognized and untreated, a child is at significant risk for eventually experimenting with drugs or alcohol, abusing substances, and developing a substance use disorder.

Facts and Statistics


Dyslexia is a common type of learning disability and it is also common in people who seek out treatment for substance use disorders.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Addiction and Dyslexia


Dyslexia if often overlooked, as complications of having this learning disability can easily be attributed to behavioral conditions, mental illness, or developmental and cognitive disorders. Diagnosing dyslexia requires several types of screenings, as there is no single test for it.

Doctors, educational specialists, and mental health professionals often work together to diagnose dyslexia. The diagnostic process includes medical exams, including vision tests, psychiatric evaluations, neurological tests, questionnaires and interviews, observations, and academic and reading tests. When all of these are put together, various other issues can be ruled out and a diagnosis of dyslexia can be made. Some symptoms of dyslexia in children include:

  • Beginning to talk later than normal
  • Difficulty learning or remembering letters and new words
  • Difficulty learning rhymes and songs
  • Reading below grade level
  • Having problems understanding verbal instructions
  • Difficulties with putting things in sequence
  • Having a hard time seeing or hearing how letters and words are different or similar
  • Struggling to sound out new words
  • Taking longer than expected to perform reading or writing tasks
  • Difficulty spelling
  • Avoiding reading

It is not unusual for a child’s dyslexia to go unnoticed and undiagnosed until adulthood, if ever. Even adults who were diagnosed as children may still struggle with dyslexia, especially if they did not receive adequate treatment. Signs of dyslexia in teenagers and adults include:

  • Trouble with reading out loud
  • Taking a long time to read or write
  • Difficulty spelling
  • Mispronouncing words often
  • Struggling to summarize stories
  • Struggling to memorize anything
  • Difficulty with math
  • Avoiding any activities that require reading

Addiction, or substance use disorder, can be diagnosed through screening using criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. To be diagnosed with mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder, a person must have two to three, four or five, or six or more of the eleven characteristic signs:

  • Using a drug or alcohol longer or in greater amounts than intended
  • Attempting and failing to stop using or cut back
  • Spending a great deal of time getting a drug or alcohol, using it, or recovering from it
  • Experiencing cravings
  • Being unable to manage responsibilities because of substance use
  • Skipping previously important or enjoyable activities to spend more time using
  • Using in spite of social and relationship problems
  • Continuing to use drugs or alcohol in risky situations
  • Continuing to use even when it causes mental or physical health problems
  • Needing more and more of a drug or alcohol to get the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal

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Causes and Risk Factors


Exact causes of addiction and dyslexia are not fully understood. With substance use disorder, of course, it is the continuous use of a drug or alcohol that eventually leads to addiction, but not everyone who misuses substances will become addicted. Factors that may increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder include genetics and family history, inadequately treated mental illness, and changes in brain structure and chemistry.

Dyslexia also seems to have a genetic component, as family history can predict occurrence. There may also be environmental factors that cause changes in the brain leading to dyslexia. Risk factors include family history, exposure to drugs or other harmful substances in the womb, being born with a low birth weight or prematurely, and having certain abnormalities in the brain. Dyslexia is also an important risk factor for substance abuse and addiction. A child with dyslexia is at a much greater risk than peers for turning to drugs or alcohol and then developing an addiction. That risk can be reduced with early diagnosis, intervention, and treatment.

Withdrawal and Detox

The first step in treating substance use disorder is detox, the process of stopping use of a drug or alcohol. This triggers withdrawal, which can cause headaches, sweating, shaking, irritability, insomnia, nausea, vomiting, depression, anxiety, and other symptoms specific to individual drugs or alcohol. It is always recommended that detox be supervised because relapse is a big risk. It is also important to realize that detox is not treatment; it is only a first step.

Co-Occurring Disorders


Dyslexia and addiction are co-occurring disorders with a complicated relationship. Children with dyslexia are known to be at a greater risk for the same emotional and behavioral issues that have been found to make a young person susceptible to drug or alcohol abuse. These include low self-esteem, difficulty regulating emotions, depression, and challenges developing peer relationships. Not everyone who struggles with dyslexia will turn to substance abuse, but there are factors like these that increase the risk.

It is also known that there are other co-occurring disorders that are common to both dyslexia and addiction. One of the most common of these is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. This neurodevelopmental and behavioral condition, which is characterized by impulsivity, difficulty focusing, and hyperactivity, also co-occurs independently with substance abuse. The complex interactions between all of these conditions, as well as the fact that they have common risk factors, helps to explain the link between learning disabilities and substance use disorder.

Treatment and Prognosis of Addiction and Dyslexia


More than half of people who seek treatment for substance use disorder also report having a learning disability. A treatment program is a good opportunity to screen people for learning disabilities like dyslexia, mental illnesses, and behavioral disorders, like ADHD, all of which often co-occur with substance use disorders. For the best outcomes, patients must be treated for all existing issues.

Treatment for substance use disorders include therapy, often a variety of types depending on individual’s needs, group support, medical care and medications when appropriate, alternative therapies, exercise and nutrition, lifestyle changes, vocational and life skills, family therapy and education, and often holistic or alternative strategies.

For dyslexia in children, educational interventions and plans are used to improve reading ability. Adults with dyslexia can benefit from tutoring and working with reading specialists, occupational therapy to learn how to live better with this disability, and accommodations and the use of technology to be able to function better at home, at school, or in the workplace.

There is no cure for dyslexia, but even for adults using accommodations and learning strategies for making better sense of written language can be a big help. Substance use disorders also have no cure, but ongoing therapy and support can help individuals stop using and enjoy a better quality of life. These two conditions often co-occur, but there are professionals who can help with both of them, leading to greater functioning and a more satisfying life.