The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that both young and older dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe illustrates the lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.



What is dyslexia?

To most, dyslexia is the difficulty with words, but in truth the term is misleading. The true effects of dyslexia go well beyond having a difficulty with words and spelling, as it also affects the ability to remember names and facts, balance and the ability to tie shoe laces and tying ties, misreading and misunderstanding the relevance of numbers, to write neatly, and to recall facts once learnt (even from two minutes ago).


The young dyslexic

The effects of dyslexia are widespread, and in mainstream education everything the dyslexic has difficulty with is valued highly by teachers and their peers. Can they read fast and write neatly? Well, no. Can they remember spellings for a test? Well, no. Can they recall enough facts to write an essay? Well, no. So a young dyslexic will see their friends and peers perform at ‘normal’ rates and progress smoothly through school, and each year the gap widens. Unless teachers have knowledge of special needs and/or dyslexia, it is unlikely that the young dyslexic will be identified as having learning difficulties or differences.

Studies of teacher training courses and the knowledge-bases of teachers support the argument that most teachers are unqualified to recognise a dyslexic child in their midst. So what happens? The dyslexic child begins to see themselves as ‘abnormal’ and ‘stupid’, which is exactly what they are told, either openly by teachers or by their friends, or indirectly by being put on the ‘stupid’ table with the other ‘slow’ kids. Children know who the clever and not-so-clever ones are very fast, and no matter how teachers dress up mixed-ability classrooms, kids know! In the playground the clever kids mix within their own circles, excluding all the others as misfits.

Each year the dyslexic child falls even further behind their peers, and their common reaction is to give up even trying in class, as no matter how hard they try, they always seem to get the lowest marks. No matter how hard they revise spellings or facts, within minutes or hours such facts or spellings are lost like grains of sand.

Emotionally such failure on a daily or hourly basis is harsh. What can the dyslexic child do in such a hostile environment? Well, many withdraw and develop depressive symptoms to cope, as it’s easier that way.


The adult dyslexic

After ‘surviving’ school, maybe without any qualifications to their name, dyslexic young adults are faced with finding a job, or going to college to gain the qualifications they need to start an apprenticeship. They see their peers leave school with 8-10 GCSEs, and all they have is one or two qualifications in unvalued subjects, such as Art or Drama. They see their peers go to university or train up to any career that takes their fancy, but what can the dyslexic do? Do they have a choice? Not with the lack of qualifications they have. Their dreams of being lawyers or doctors are just that, dreams.

Do they either start on a low-level college course to develop their basic skills, take a job in manual labour, or be unemployed – they begin to question their place in society. Can they take their place, or are they excluded from a society that highly values those who can read and write? Once again, they see that withdrawal is a good option to protect their self-esteem, and again depression looms. Many find completing application forms so exhausting that they give up even applying for jobs or benefits, and some even turn to crime to make ends meet.


Dyslexics and their families

Parents of young dyslexics are bemused by their child who can orally seem intelligent but just cannot seem to cope at school. They know they work hard but nothing seems to stick. They know that no matter how long they work at writing an essay, it looks messy and rushed. Compared to their non-dyslexic children, they can see their dyslexic child starting to give up, and beginning to withdraw into a shell-like existence.

The dyslexic child begins to question their place in their family; it is almost like they don’t fit in. They begin to question if they were adopted, and many have been known to write ‘help me’ on signs in their bedroom windows, or even run away from home, as they feel trapped by a family that they don’t feel a part of. What does running away achieve? It manifests their anxiety about fitting in. It says to them that it’s better to leave as they don’t fit in, and that their parents and siblings do not understand them. Many keep a packed bag under their beds, even from an age as young as seven, so when the pressure gets too much, they can flee at a moment’s notice. Where do they go? Anywhere, as it must be better than a home that feels more like a prison.


What can be done?

  • Schools need to train teachers to recognise dyslexics in their classes. Research suggests that 20% of all school-aged children will have a learning difficulty at some point in their education, and dyslexia is the single most common difficulty. Seen severely in 5% of schoolchildren and another 5-10% more mildly, that’s at least one to two dyslexic children in each classroom.
  • Teacher training needs to teach recognition of learning difficulties.
  • All teachers are required by the UK government to be qualified to teach all children with special educational needs in their classrooms, but most lack this ability, so additional training is urgently required for them to ‘differentiate’ their lessons effectively.
  • Schools need to identify early and provide specialist teaching to children with special educational needs.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harm.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Parents need to praise the effort not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.


But don’t some dyslexics survive school and succeed in life?

Whilst it is true that some dyslexics do well in life (e.g. Richard Branson, Keira Knightley, Mollie King, Jamie Oliver, Tom Cruise), researching them you hear the same thing. School was hell and they left as soon as possible. They also highlight that they found something they were good at early on, maybe not school subjects such as English, Maths or Science, but vocational skills such as selling, persuading, acting, cooking, art and design, etc. This allowed them to balance the negativity at school with their ability to out shine their peers outside school. Ongoing research in dyslexia and success has found that each successful dyslexic has a ‘chip on their shoulder’ to prove everyone who ever doubted their ability wrong, to prove that they are not ‘stupid and thick’. They are driven by their school failure and humiliation to do well in life. Even returning to school for their own children is hard for them, they can have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when seeing small chairs, smelling sickly floor cleaner, or seeing drawings pinned up on walls, as theirs were not deemed good enough for presentation.


Dyslexics, unless diagnosed and helped early on in their school career, will suffer from varying levels of emotional pain. Be it low self-esteem, self-doubt; withdrawal or running away from home. It is important to recognise that secondary bad behaviour is commonly covering up for primary difficulties, but most teachers are just satisfied by mislabelling pupils as troublemakers and try to move such needy pupils to a different teacher.


Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

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19 Responses

  1. john smith January 10, 2016 / 1:46 am

    Im dyslexic. I dont even understand other dyslexics. They dont seem to have a very bad memory like mine. My short & long term memory are terrible. I could talk about the negative aspects of my own dyslexia forever. I’d be here forever. I cant remember so much,no lyrics of songs, no poems, no names of people or places ..except a bare few like a friend & names of family members. If i cant remember how can i go to college & learn ? I been there, but the information wont stsy in my head. Not in one million years. So i had to leave. Story of my life. Failure, after failure, after failure. Fast forward to a career. I cant remember sequences. This affects me at work, in everything i do in my life. Everything. Show me how the computer works in a bar & give me a job. You will fire me after halfofthd fire me after half of the first night, after the first hour ..really. The info wont stay in my head. Thats one of many examples i could give you. I cant remember my way around the city ..except for the regular routes i use. I cant remember the names of streets, except for the bare few main streets i use. Maybe four or five streets. My memory is bad. Tell this to someone in your family, to someone in college,a class mate, a tutor. They stand there like a rabbit in a head light. They dont have an answer. They dont know what to say. And its your problem,not their problem. Fast forward to trying to date someone, trying to talk about topics of intetest, music, film. Names of places, actors. Its all a blank. Thdre is nothing,no names, dates, etc in my brain. Now ask why i wash dishes for a living. All my life. Because i cant do anything else. Ive tryed & its hell. I find i dont need much memory to do this job. It causes me no problems, except for the fact that i have to work for minimum wage & my life style, accomodation, etc are at low end life. I have to be content existing, but not really achieving ..except for paying my bills. Thats an achievement, but i cant get past this level.

    Im out, i will explain no more.

    The end.

    • Guy Griffith May 10, 2017 / 6:59 pm

      I am dyslexic, and my dyslexia is like John Smith’s dyslexia. My parents had the money and resources to get me all the help in the world when I was young and I know from my experience that my inability to read and write is not from a lack of resources or of trying . My parents put me in special schools and took me to experts, and I do feel that some people who are dyslexic can be helped to read, but some of us will never be able to read any more than blind people will be able to see. I believe there should be a push towards identifying those that will never learn to read and get them help in the form of technology are use an iPhone ( click, select all, read )… I can press the little microphone on the keyboard and begin speaking and words appear on the screen before my eyes. I was angry at God when I was a child, to the point that I gave up on him, but I have not given up on miracles such as the device I am speaking into right now, this phone has changed my life. I can snap a picture of written text and my phone will scan it and read aloud for me. My phone lets me surf the Internet and with the swipe of two fingers from top to bottom will begin reading the page allowed.
      Back to what John Smith said in the comments above. My dyslexia affectes so much more than just reading!!! Memory and sequences are just a few more problems I deal with every day. I’m not sure which of my other problems are from dyslexia or from the psychological effect of dealing with dyslexia. Like my fear of talking on telephones or even ordering food from drive-through speakers, and if I have to talk about my childhood hood school experiences I am reduced to tears, and my throat swells shut as it is doing right now.
      Some blessings are curses:
      My parents owned a drilling company, and were able to give me the kind of jobs I would never have been able to get with dyslexia. I am 47 years old now and a few years ago my father came down with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease at the same time and he debilitated rapidly, The drilling business went under and I was forced to find a job elsewhere. The first three years I worked for several companies that were clients of my father’s company. I would beg them to put me in the lowest job where I knew in my own mind I would be safe, but these old friends of my dad would always put me in some higher position and then when I could not do the paperwork everything would collapse and I would find myself looking for another job. This has shaken my confidence in myself, but I continue to press forward using technology and in my last job I was a foreman over a drill crew and was able to turn in reports that I spoke into my phone sometimes taking me till three in the morning or longer to produce while in a hotel room off the clock.
      I am starting to ramble now, and losing my train of thought.
      If you have dyslexia, there is hope in technology.
      I am running out of old drilling friends to work for and have taken a job driving a school bus. The school bus pay is terrible but probably a little better than John Smith’s dishwashing job which I have been thinking a lot about lately.

  2. Debra Haslam July 11, 2016 / 7:22 pm

    58 dyslexic don’t want to talk about school family life only say that left school at 14 then had a child who is dyslexic same problems 40 years later find it very hard to go through all the pain again watching my child things have not changed

  3. anthony November 2, 2016 / 3:01 am

    i am dyslexic. ive been through the pain and the depression. not wanting to leave the house, not wanting to leave the bed. this goes out to every dyslexic kids and adults out there. Hope and faith, if you steer the wheel right you’ll go anywhere YOU see yourself in life. never stop trying because i have been there and i never want to go back in the black hole again. learn.

  4. Lindsey Ahmet November 7, 2016 / 11:27 pm

    I’m a dyslexic and while some of the above is true, this blog post paints a steriotypical picture of all dyslexics as under achievers and thus adds ‘fuel to the fire’ to the view that dyslexic means not intelligent. In actual fact many dyslexics are extremely intelligent and have a real struggle with pressure to do well and live up to expectations, along with accusations of just being lazy when they are in real need of support and help. It’s took me 15 years to believe in myself and attempt a degree and a masters because of this very narrow minded view of a dyslexic. I hope that anyone who is dyslexic understands that just because you have this learning disability, it does not mean you cannot do great things in life, please do not be put off.

  5. Caitlin January 5, 2017 / 10:25 pm

    @Lindsey Ahmet, I don’t think the article is saying that dyslexics are not intelligent people, it’s more that the sytem by which we measure intelligence at school/uni is not suited to dyslexics.
    My daughter has been diagnosed with dyslexia and I never thought I had it but it is very painful to watch her feel the same way I felt and still feel. I have no idea how to help her when I couldn’t even help myself. Reading and writing are just tqo symptoms , It’s so much more than that. I feel dyslexia has shaped my whole life, I get very confused with forms and bills, my money is a total mess, I totally under performed at school, I don’t understand other people way of thought at all, I’m very reclusive. I have a low end job, and really poor memory. Just find the organisation of daily life really difficult yet think about things in a wider sense. My passion is illustration yet I have lost any kind of confidence in myself. I think dyslexia can be debilitating.

  6. Lord Muck of Muckshire January 27, 2017 / 2:54 pm

    nonlexic 50years, diagnosed at 37.

    Dear Sir
    Its not that nonlexic folk are unintelligent per se, its that the world is uninteligent. built and run by spreadsheet monkeys who think in straight lines.

    I am sick of famous nonlexics being paraded… its even worse that lexic folk think that if you are nonlexic and not famous or a towering geniuos, you are a double, double fail.

    it has ruiend my life. ruined my relationshps, affected my kids through my lack of rational behavoiur.

    The ‘gift’? dont make me lol, yeah, I arrive at the answer 1st, yeah i can think in 3d, yeah i can out think my peers… so what? if you dont have any self belife, if you are programmed to view yourself as an ‘idiot’ if you cannot cimmunicate with teh lexic world you are basically stuffed.

    Welcome to a life where opportunities are for other people.

  7. Lord Muck of Muckshire January 27, 2017 / 2:57 pm

    oh a question, is your book designed to be readable by us? or as a tool for those who would help?

    • JKP January 27, 2017 / 3:02 pm

      It’s primarily written as a tool for the helping professions and other practitioners who work with people with dyslexia.

  8. John JFK February 16, 2017 / 4:34 pm

    Sitting this moment in genetics class, final year of uni. Painful!

    Had to repeat a year because of complete handicap with learning. Diagnosed only last year with dyslexia, and the relatively unknown Irlen Syndrome. So not only do I find it hard to learn and coordinate the info, I can barely see it either.

    Normal strong daylight or fluorescent lights interfere with the images my brain sends me.

    The world is painful, and intolerant to say the least. Even when you are given allowances during exams, they are still corrected and graded by those who do not experience difficulty and who still view your work as “disjointed”

    Hmmm, they should see from this side just how disjointed the world looks like!

  9. Fellow Traveler March 21, 2017 / 12:47 am

    Same story as the above. Learned some tricks, like names, by associating a person I already knew to the one I needed to. But pretty much failed my way through school. The auditory part was very distressing while young.
    And the Anxiety, the constant pressure and threats that early on led to deep depression.
    Very deep depression. The beast at the door every day.
    Still work at menial low paying jobs while having excellent verbal skills has people think I’m lazy, but I’ve got a thousand ideas and projects going all the time.
    After years of berating and humiliation for never being able to keep up, having been tossed out of three colleges, and not able to remember a single thing from work a day ago, I continue to read constantly. I read at a very, very slow rate, but every day I keep moving on. No TV, no phone or games, I read.
    It’s not for anybody but me. Just to prove to myself every day that I can.

  10. Cris Freeman May 14, 2017 / 1:02 pm

    I am a parent of a 42 yr old with severe dyslexia. I want to say I applaud all those who have contributed to this blog for telling their stories. My son completed a university degree many years ago and is now studying for a second degree. I recognised his dyslexia long before, in fact, 14 years before he was properly diagnosed. I tried for 14 years to get an answer to what I knew was wrong with my son, yet everyone was telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about. I got the same over and over, as you have all said, he’s lazy, just doesn’t want to learn etc. etc. etc. It was only through sheer utter persistence that I finally found someone who could diagnose the problem correctly. I took my son out of school and home schooled him through year 9 to the HSC. He thrived because of the way he was taught and earned himself a place in the top 10% of university. Yet, brilliant as he is, he still has doubts about his intelligence, and suffers from depression. No- one, except those who suffer from the stigma of dyslexia knows what it ‘s like to be thought of as dumb and/or lazy. The world has an opportunity to embrace those with dyslexia and their different way of thinking, which is so far above us mere mortals who don’t have the problems of learning to read, spell and write. Very little has changed in 42 years. Yes, we hear about dyslexia and it is recognised as a learning disability or difficulty in some areas, but being a university, college and TAFE teacher myself, I still, to this day, have never seen evidence of teachers’ understanding of students with dyslexia and their style of learning, their creativity, their intelligence in my country. What a dreadful admission but true nevertheless.

  11. Paul June 22, 2017 / 9:26 am

    thank you for creating this blog on what it is like to be dyslexic and the difficult journey I and others share in trying to live with it. As a proportion of the population (10%) there is a huge number of people out there who can benefit from greater awareness and support. The mental health affects of dyslexia can act as a further anchor to self fulfilment and achievement

    I would like there to be more information and supports available that relate to adult dyslexics on how to overcome negative self belief and anxiety about their abilities as well as coming to terms with what dyslexia means for them. Personally I only found out that I have dyslexia last year. I’m a 35-year-old man and all my life I thought I was stupid, a Fraud and worthless. I still struggle to believe the assessment from the psychologist. My education and life experience compounded these belief to the point where it has severely affected my life.I have looked for support with this however I found there is limited available but your work helps to know there are others out there like me who gave struggled but achieved.

    Good luck everybody

    Cheers Paul

  12. Catherine Dellbridge August 12, 2017 / 11:11 am

    Reading this blog and the comments has been helpful and heartbreaking. My husband is dyslexic and I was horribly ignorant when we got married of the full impact of how it affects his life. I keep learning. Please keep talking about how dyslexia affects your lives. Because of people sharing, my marriage is in a much better place and my husband has a far more understanding wife. Thank you!

  13. FG October 25, 2017 / 1:49 pm

    I was diagnosed with dyslexia and erlens when I was 32 and studying for my second degree. I was so angry when I got the diagnosed. I have a master degree and a post graduate diploma. It wasn’t easy not one of my teachers if lecturers picked up my dyslexia – I was time and time again critised for my essays were not quite written in order and I should read my work though to check for spelling and grammatical errors . I’d always felt “different” to those around me. What I find awful is that I have been multiple times to the GP with sign and symptoms of depression and anxiety and reffered for numberous CBT sessions and various antidepressants….. nothing for me worked.
    I have worked in healthcare (pharmacist) for 15 years and have reached a high managerial position. It is only now that I am honest with myself and those that I work with that I am dyslexic…. since being open and honest life has got easier. I think that is dyslexics should educate those around us about how it feels emotionally to be dyslexic. There are negatives to being a dsylexic but socially and as a community our friends, family and work colleagues should be there for us to help us out when we struggle and when they need a multi lateral thinker who can solve complex problems they can come to us. Another thing that has got me though the dark days are befriending other dyslexics….. we understand and support each other and our partners often comment on the frustrations of living with us. They also enjoy talking to each other on coping mechanisms and systems in there relationships to make their lives easier as a couple.

  14. R November 10, 2017 / 4:04 pm

    I think i may have dyslxia espically y with numbers and spelling.I can read very well and write ok.I can read over and over how to spelll a certain something however i will always get a letter wrong reveresed no matter how many times i memorise it.

    I hated school i always felt left out and slow infact i was told at the age of 12 that i was stupid because i could not understand maths to a pass level.

    This was in year 2000 I am now 28 years old.I did complete my high school and passed everything at a pass level except maths i done foundation level which is the lowest grade.after that the only offer i got was for graphic design and i couldnt keep up with the assesments but it was also not for me and i left. I have struggled al my life and i know i am capable and have a hig emotional intellgince however in academics i am a failure. I have recently done a test to join polic. however i failed because i couldnt do the shapes test.I have recently done a maths test for a basic factory job and i know i have not passed as i found it hard. I do have a travel diploma that i am proud of and really enjoyed it unfortuntley i have not had succes in acheving my dream job yet. when i am passionate about something i do very well but always with extra work and re checking everything.

    I am very down today and i just want the same chance as anyone else.i try hard but each time get knocked back. i am happy i have a great man who supports me and believes in me.something i never had from teachers or family members. if you have a child with dyselxia encourage and support them never put them down as they already feel down in the schools.

  15. Laura December 5, 2017 / 8:31 am

    Thx for sharing. Im 49 and never been diagnosed with dyslexia but I have all the symptoms described in the first two posts. Reading, processing and retaining has always taken me 4x longer then people around me. I had a reading tutor in high school tell me I’d never make it through college…I went and graduated with mostly c’s in all my classes. And learned mad compensation skills…sang songs I made up to memorize, wrote my notes over on a notecard 3 or more times to memorize. Never retained but never cared.

    I went on to be a marketing director for two shopping malls, 10 years, sales for 6, then started my own business. My key to success was to work twice as hard, not care if things aren’t perfect and hire help that can stay organized and pick up the slack for my weaknesses while I focus on my strengths. I’m slow to learn but if I give a new job 6 months, it clicks and I tend to put a unique spin on things and I excel in out of the box thinking and sales.

    My success came when I learned to come up with my own systems and methods and not care what other people think. Also helps to take entry level jobs and learn a job slowly and advance when things click down the road. I also chose laid back people to work for and I always worked worked longer hours. My horrible organizational skills are manageable. I put my keys and phone in the same pocket in my purse every day. Bills have to be set up on auto pay or they won’t get paid.

    My boyfriend is dyslexic, hated school, reads and writes slowly but is a very successful contractor and has owned a business for 30 years.

    My uncle and cousin are dyslexic as well. My uncle worked for family biz….auto body and motel that he eventually took over and ran successfully with good workers. He now flips properties for a living. None of us are mainstream but we have learned to become successful focusing on our strengths And compensating for weaknesses with systems.

    Part of being happy is choosing to be and exercise is also a huge part. I take boot camp classes, hike, bike, run a few times a week. I am 10x more productive and focused with exercise!

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