Research: Children with dyslexia show stronger emotional responses

For me, being dyslexic means feeling emotions and the emotions of others VERY DEEPLY. I’ve always thought of this as both a blessing and curse. Now we have evidence to show this may be the way we’re wired.

A new study from the University of California, published in November 2020, shows that dyslexic children have stronger emotional reactions and higher emotional intelligence than their non-dyslexic peers. And not just compensentary (i.e. “making up for a loss”), but actually the way the dyslexic brain functions. This has implications for understanding and supporting students and adults with dyslexia.

“The results broaden current conceptualizations of typical dyslexia and suggest the syndrome is much more complex than just a weakness in reading skills, adding support to the growing awareness that dyslexia is often associated with hidden interpersonal strengths.”


The study (a small sample of 32 dyslexic and non-dyslexic students) was done at the UCSF Dyslexia Center, where the children’s breathing, skin conductance, heart rate, and facial expressions were monitored as they viewed short film clips designed to elicit specific positive and negative emotions, such as amusement and disgust. They were also monitored using functional MRI scans.

The children with dyslexia had “emotional reactivity” that was correlated with stronger connectivity in the brain’s salience network, a system that supports emotion generation and self-awareness:

“These findings suggest that many children with dyslexia may possess strengths around social acumen, since stronger emotional responses can be a key element of successful social relationships. Some adults with dyslexia report that that they made it through school by “charming their teachers” [guilty as charged]. This ability to make social connections, often interpreted as a purely compensatory strategy, could instead be a sign of enhanced emotional abilities at a neurological level.”

Key takeaway – targeted interventions needed

Parents involved in the study reported that higher emotional reactivity and sensitivity can also be a risk factor for developing anxiety and depression, as these children could possibly be detecting emotional cues differently from neurotypical individuals.

“The message for families is that this condition may be defined by its negative effects on reading, but we need to look more deeply and broadly to all brain functions in dyslexia in order to gain a better understanding of associated strengths and identify effective remediation strategies,” said Maria Luisa Gorno-Tempini, MD, PhD, the Charles Schwab Distinguished Professor in Dyslexia and Neurodevelopment and co-director of the UCSF Dyslexia Center and the UCSF-UCB Schwab Dyslexia and Cognitive Diversity Center.

The researchers hope that in better understanding social and emotional processing and other strengths in dyslexia, they will be able to develop more targeted interventions to prevent negative mental health outcomes and decrease stigma.

We need to base teaching on strengths as well as weaknesses. For example, kids with dyslexia may do better in one-on-one or group teaching scenarios depending on how they connect emotionally with teachers or peers. But we also need to be aware of their vulnerability to anxiety and depression and be sure they have adequate support to process their potentially strong emotions,” said Virginia Sturm, PhD, the John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Foundation Endowed Professor in the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and a member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.

This study really hits home to me personally, and to many parents in our community. Along with effective reading instruction, we must support dyslexic children in their emotional journey through school. Let’s help them understand how to manage their emotions, and use their incredible emotional intelligence as an advantage. This could help shift the way we think about dyslexia, and improve mental health outcomes for our super sensitive kids.


University of California – San Francisco. “Children with dyslexia show stronger emotional responses: Syndrome can confer neurological strengths as well as challenges, researchers say.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 December 2020. <>.

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