Developmental Dyslexia Was Essential For Human Survival and Still Has Benefits Today

Child with dyslexia struggling to read with successful dyslexics in the back

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that affects a person's ability to read, write, and spell.
  • Although dyslexia is often mistaken as a sign of low intelligence, new research suggests its strengths contributed to the successful evolution and survival of humans.
  • Researchers are calling for a change in our perspective of dyslexia as a neurological disorder.

As the most common cause of spelling, reading, and writing difficulties, dyslexia affects about 15% to 20% of the population. It's a learning difficulty that does not discriminate, as it affects the general population nearly equally, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background.

Widely misunderstood, dyslexia is often written off solely as a disability or falsely considered a sign of low intelligence. But new research suggests that dyslexia is an essential contributor to the successful evolution and survival of humans as a species. Researchers aim to change the way we perceive and approach dyslexia as a neurological disorder.

What Is Dyslexia, Really?

As psychotherapist and school psychologist Amy Rollo, PhD, points out, dyslexia is one of the most researched learning disabilities, but also one of the most misunderstood.

Rollo, who specializes in dyslexia, says it's often believed that the disability is a visual learning disorder that causes an individual to read and spell backwards, when in reality, it's rooted in deficits in auditory processing.

When a person with dyslexia is spelling and reading, these processing deficits make it difficult to sound out the words in front of them. Because of this, they'll often spell words backwards or out of order, which leads to the false assumption that the person wasn't taught correctly, lacks exposure to vocabulary, or has a low IQ.

"It is actually the other way around," Rollo says. "Dyslexia has a mismatch between reading and spelling ability and one's general intelligence. That means someone with dyslexia has a much higher IQ than their reading and spelling skills."

The Research

Researchers from the University of Cambridge set out to examine developmental dyslexia from an evolutionary perspective, rather than the typical perspective of educational difficulty.

They did this for a number of reasons: dyslexia's prevalence and heritability within the general population, the fact that it's polygenic in nature, and that writing is a relatively "recent technology, and the need to read and write is unlikely to have exerted any significant evolutionary selection pressure," according to the study.

After analyzing past studies in psychology and neuroscience using this framework, the findings suggest an "explorative bias" in individuals with dyslexia that results in greater strengths in discovery, invention, and creativity.

The difficulties people with dyslexia experience today are the product of a "cognitive trade-off between exploration of new information and exploitation of existing knowledge."

Amy Rollo, PhD

So many dyslexics have changed the entertainment, business, and science world. It is time we start leaning in on the strengths of dyslexia, instead of focusing on the difficulties.

— Amy Rollo, PhD

These findings challenge the notion that dyslexia is a disorder, but rather a "specialization," and early humans evolved to specialize in different but complementary ways of thinking. Through this collaboration, humans were better equipped to adapt during times of uncertainty and change.

Researchers argue for a reframing around the way we think about dyslexia, as explorative learning isn't commonly nurtured in the education system or the workplace. If humans are to continue to evolve and problem-solve, they say, collaboration must be prioritized over competition.

"The deficit-centered view of dyslexia isn't telling the whole story," said lead study author, Helen Taylor, in a release. "This research proposes a new framework to help us better understand the cognitive strengths of people with dyslexia."

Superpowers of Dyslexia

While dyslexia is often misunderstood, a movement has been underway to raise awareness of the real experience of being dyslexic.

There are some known potential strengths of people with dyslexia, says Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the "How Can I Help?" podcast.

Individuals with dyslexia are often fast problem-solvers, big-picture thinkers, great verbal communicators, and creative entrepreneurs.

Saltz, who authored the book "The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius," notes that people with dyslexia also often have increased visual spatial relations, a heightened ability to discern patterns, and a wider spatial attention, or "they can note more information in the periphery of their view."

"Due to their struggles with symptoms, perhaps they often have increased empathy, resilience, and perseverance," Saltz says.

The experience of dyslexia and the impact it has on a person's life varies greatly, as it affects a wide range of people and each person's experience is unique. In fact, you may be surprised by how many people you've read about or seen on television that are also dyslexic.

Some celebrities with dyslexia are Muhammad Ali, Whoopi Goldberg, and Jennifer Aniston, and such historic figures as Thomas Edison and F. Scott Fitzgerald were dyslexic.

Gail Saltz, MD

Due to their struggles with symptoms, perhaps they often have increased empathy, resilience, and perseverance.

— Gail Saltz, MD

Richard Branson, Orlando Bloom, and Kiera Knightley have all spoken out about their experience of living with dyslexia via platforms like Made By Dyslexia, an organization advocating to "disrupt the world's thinking" around the condition.

"So many dyslexics have changed the entertainment, business, and science world," Rollo says. "It is time we start leaning in on the strengths of dyslexia, instead of focusing on the difficulties. Who knows what can come from it?"

What This Means For You

As a common form of neurodiversity, dyslexia comes with its own challenges and benefits. Society is shifting toward recognizing dyslexia as a difference, rather than an illness or problem that must be fixed, but there's still work to be done.

For more information and educational resources, visit:

International Dyslexia Association

National Center for Learning Disabilities

Learning Disabilities Association of America

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. International Dyslexia Association. Frequently asked questions.

  2. Taylor H, Vestergaard MD. Developmental dyslexia: Disorder or specialization in exploration? Front Psychol. 2022;13:889245. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.889245

  3. International Dyslexia Association. Dyslexia at a glance.