Is Dyslexia a Medical Condition?

One widely circulated definition of dyslexia is that of the International Dyslexia Association, which states that, “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.” This term, specific learning disability, tends to be used more frequently in educational settings.

In the medical field, per the American Psychiatric Association (APA), dyslexia falls under the category of specific learning disorder, since disorder is the term used when making a diagnosis. Per the APA, “Specific learning disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders that are typically diagnosed in early school-aged children, although may not be recognized until adulthood. They are characterized by a persistent impairment in at least one of three major areas: reading, written expression, and/or math.” Thus dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia are all considered specific learning disorders. This is documented in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and is detailed here with helpful information on diagnostic criteria and much more.

ICD-10 is the latest medical classification list by the World Health Organization that is used by medical professionals across the globe. There is a billable diagnostic code for dyslexia, R48.0. Whether your individual insurance will cover the evaluation and treatment of dyslexia will vary widely, so it is important to check with your insurance provider. 

In terms of who may diagnose reading and writing disorders, the most important factor is that they are trained and knowledgeable. This evaluation could be done by a qualified psychologist, neurologist, or speech pathologist. It is important to speak with the professional to find out about their training and experience around dyslexia and the assessment procedures they will use.  

Note: Several changes were made from the DSM-4 to the updated DSM-5, which was released in May 2013. This includes elimination of the IQ-achievement discrepancy requirement. Read more about these changes here.

Emily J. Mora, M.Ed., CCC-SLP