Today, a person with a learning disability is less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be unemployed as an adult, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The stakes are getting higher as success in life becomes more and more dependent on one's ability to read.
A team of experts at Florida State University (FSU) is working to better understand and diagnose dyslexia and other learning disabilities with a new $8.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
"When I was in school, children in my hometown of Akron, OH, who struggled with reading would drop out and get a job in manufacturing, where they could make a good living," said principal investigator Richard Wagner, PhD, professor of psychology at FSU and associate director of the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). "Now it is difficult to even work at a fast food restaurant if you struggle with reading."
The formal name for the project is the Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center. The staff includes educators, psychologists, and a wide range of experts from various disciplines working collaboratively.
"The research team is poised to make even greater progress in advancing our understanding of a set of disabilities affecting 15 percent to 20 percent of the population," said FCRR director Barbara Foorman, PhD, a professor of education.
Previous studies at the center have pointed the researchers in new directions, Dr. Wagner noted, but the initial work also showed the problem to be much more complex.
"Now it looks like the genetic susceptibility for dyslexia probably won't be localized into one or even a handful of genes but is represented more by the complex interactions among a large number of genes and areas of the genome that do not appear to contain genes," he said.
The environment also plays a role in dyslexia, making it all the more important to identify the disorder early. Today, risk for future reading problems in children can be identified as early as age 3.
"It is important to be able to identify children as early as possible and try to provide them with prevention programs designed to strengthen weak areas so they will have a better outcome when they get to the point of learning to read," said Dr. Wagner.
Other researchers serving as principal investigators on the grant are FSU faculty members Carol Connor, Christopher Lonigan, Yaacov Petscher, Christopher Schatschneider and Jeanette Taylor. Joining them is Elena Grigorenko, of the Yale University Child Study Center.
Dr. Foorman is a co-investigator on the project, along with FSU faculty members Sara Hart, Mike Kaschak, Young-Suk Kim, Beth Phillips and Jeanne Wanzek.