Neuroscientists at the University of California San Francisco, just reported their finding that dyslexic children ages 7-12 showed stronger emotional responses as measured by a variety of measures than their non-dyslexic peers.

 

From the study abstract:

“..we examined whether right-hemisphere-based emotional reactivity may be elevated in dyslexia. We measured emotional reactivity (i.e., facial behavior, physiological activity, and subjective experience) in 54 children ages 7–12 with (n = 32) and without (n = 22) dyslexia while they viewed emotion-inducing film clips. Participants also underwent task-free functional magnetic resonance imaging. Parents of children with dyslexia completed the Behavior Assessment System for Children, which assesses real-world behavior.

During film viewing, children with dyslexia exhibited significantly greater reactivity in emotional facial behavior, skin conductance level, and respiration rate than those without dyslexia. Across the sample, greater emotional facial behavior correlated with stronger connectivity between right ventral anterior insula and right pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pFWE<.05), key salience network hubs. In children with dyslexia, greater emotional facial behavior related to better real-world social skills and higher anxiety and depression. Our findings suggest there is heightened visceromotor emotional reactivity in dyslexia, which may lead to interpersonal strengths as well as affective vulnerabilities.”

The rationale for investigating right hemispheric emotional responses was that “lower activity in one brain circuit can be accompanied by greater activity in another” and dyslexia is known to be associated with lower activity in left hemispheric language system (trade-off).

“There are anecdotes that some kids with dyslexia have greater social and emotional intelligence. 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.” – Virginia Strum, PhD UCSF

 

From the Pre-Proof:

 

Look at the dramatic difference in skin conductance between dyslexic and non-dyslexic children (arrow, ours)!

An interesting part of this study is that beside physiological tests like sweat conductance and brain functional MRI, the scientists also interviewed about real world social functioning, mood, and anxiety.

What they found is that the physiological differences correlated with real world behaviors.

 

From the paper again:

“Enhanced visceromotor emotional reactivity in dyslexia had real-world implications: children with dyslexia who displayed greater emotional facial behavior had better social skills as well as greater symptoms of anxiety and depression. These findings suggest that accentuated visceromotor emotional reactivity in dyslexia may have both positive and negative impacts on social functioning, leading to interpersonal benefits as well as affective vulnerabilities…

Emotional facial behavior and autonomic nervous system activity are direct readouts of the salience network, a distributed neural network critical for emotion generation and sensation… Previous studies have shown that tighter intrinsic connectivity between the vAI and ACC is associated with more intense emotional experience, greater autonomic nervous system responding, and higher socioemotional sensitivity.

On previous study of children with reading disorders found they had elevated connectivity between the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex compared to children without reading disorders and that greater connectivity between these structures related to higher anxiety symptoms. These findings, like ours, suggest stronger connectivity between emotion-relevant structures may relate to elevated emotionality in dyslexia….”

The findings of this group will hopefully lead to additional research into the social and emotional and experiential aspects of dyslexia. As the study authors point out, greater emotional experiences can have its strengths as well as weaknesses.

For parents and professionals of dyslexic children, the findings may be both eye-opening as well as, in some cases validating.

There are so many twists and turns on the dyslexia journey and yet surprisingly little consideration for students’ emotional lives.

As a group, dyslexic children may be exposed to more stresses and social pressures than non-dyslexic children. Children who are perceptive and emotionally sensitive are also subjected to tremendous personal, interpersonal, and societal pressures.

On the one hand, emotional responsiveness and sensitivity can drive creativity, altruism, and leadership, but on the other hand, it can take its toll in social withdrawal and alienation, depression, and anxiety.

My take-home points: Dyslexic children (and likely adults) may be more emotionally responsive and sensitive than their neurotypical peers. Knowing that, we should take care about emotional and social environments and relationships that trigger unwanted secondary problems.

As a strength, emotional sensitivity can also be nurtured so that it contributes to what some believe is one of world’s most important “intelligences”, emotional intelligence.

There may be many reasonable concerns that emotional sensitivity can result in emotional fragility, but there is a middle way between fragility and stoicism.

For additional resources about emotional resiliency that might be helpful, check out Emotional Resilience.

 

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