Research into Issues for Adults with Dyslexia/Specific Learning Difficulties ~ Margaret Malpas

Over the last 12 months, I have been conducting some pilot research to identify issues and experiences of adults with dyslexia or related specific learning difficulties (SpLD).  The aim was to use the pilot to discover which characteristics were helpful to adults with dyslexia and other SpLD. I anticipated that topics which were very relevant would appear and help shape more detailed research. However, the findings were so consistent and interesting that I decided to publish them and to use them as a basis for a book (“Self Fulflment with Dyslexia: A Blueprint for Success” available from 21 February 2017).  Here is the report on my findings.

Thank you

In total, 45 individuals have now completed the questionnaire. Thank you very much to all of you for taking the time and effort to fill it in.


I did a literature review of existing research on adults with dyslexia, excluding research on reading acquisition. The available research was not extensive but produced some interesting connections. In addition, having listened to many adults with dyslexia or a related condition, I was able to put together the questionnaire. The questionnaire is attached as an appendix at the end of this report.

The questionnaire has not been through an ethics review by a university but I did seek feedback from two senior academics.

Who Filled in the Questionnaire?

There were three groups who completed the questionnaire. The first group, of 15, were from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and locations. The second group were all individuals attending the B.D.A.’s International Conference in March 2016.  There were 17 respondents (2 were not dyslexic but were knowledgeable about dyslexia). This group of individuals were either academics or specialist dyslexia teachers with a lot of knowledge about dyslexia and SpLD. The third group of 13, were present at the B.D.A.’s AGM in November 2016. They are activists and want to help others with dyslexia, as is evident from their work as members of B.D.A. and its local associations.

The majority of respondents were aged over 35 years and many were over 50 years. This meant that they were able to take a long view, reflect on their life experiences over many years.

The questionnaire required mostly free format answers. This ensured that the individual is not led to answer but it also makes analysing the responses rather more difficult. So, it was necessary to accept some close synonyms. For example in the answering the first question “What do you put your key successes in life down to?” many people said “determination” but some said “persistence” and these answers are treated in the results as being under “determination”.


The answers given to each question are shown here.

  1. Key successes were ascribed to:
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total %
Determination 8  (53%) 10  (67%) 6  (46%) 56%
Empathetic 6  (40%)  4  (27%) 0  (0%) 23%
Intelligence or particular ability 0  (0)%)  4  (27%) 6  (46%) 23%
Motivated by helping others 3  (20%)  5  (33%) 0  (0%) 19%
Supportive family 4  (27%)  2  (1%) 2  (15%) 19%
Hard work 0  (0%)  3  (20%) 3  (23%) 14%
Effective education 0  (0%)  3  (20%) 1  (8%)   9%
Wit 4  (27%)  0  (0%) 2  (15%)   6%

In analysing the three groups’ responses, we need to be aware that this is asking people to self-report and so, for example, I found that the second group (of academics) ascribed their success to a mixture of determination and hard work in a subject they were already good at. They also reported that their intelligence was a key element of their success and that this had nothing to do with their dyslexia. It was apparent, though, that having an effective education and particularly sympathetic teachers had, had a significant effect on this group compared with the first group. Interestingly, the controls also put down ‘determination’ and ‘hard work’ as their primary reasons for success. The third group had a number of self made individuals, including lawyers, politicians, consultants and nurses. This experience of making it despite difficulties at school came through very clearly.

It’s particularly useful to look at this data with the answers to question 4 “Do you believe your dyslexia/SpLD has bestowed certain abilities on you”.  In their replies to this question, there were even more individuals including determination, persistence and particular abilities. This will be discussed in more detail with the question 4 responses, below.

  1. Diagnoses of dyslexia/SpLD

I was interested to learn the proportion of individuals who had been formally diagnosed or had self diagnosed. Diagnoses of dyslexia/SpLD have increased as a consequence of better awareness in schools and especially the implementation of the Disabled Students Allowance scheme but are still low.

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total %
Diagnosed 12

Self-diagnosed 2

Diagnosed 11

Self-diagnosed 4

Diagnosed  7

Self diagnosed 6




  1. Perceived Levels of Self Esteem
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3
Range 5–10

Mode 8

Range 6–9

This group also reported variability according to recent experience

Range 4-10

Mode 8 (7 participants scored themselves at 8)

The majority of respondents reported high levels of self esteem. There did not seem to be a connection between whether they had received a formal diagnosis or were self diagnosed and their levels of esteem. However, there was a distinct relationship between those who later answered that they felt they had strengths because of their dyslexia/SpLD, and their levels of self esteem. Those reporting self esteem levels at 4 and 5 did not see dyslexia as conferring a benefit to them.

  1. Abilities and strengths Perceived to be from Dyslexia
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total
Yes 7 9 12 65%
No 2 3 1 14%
Number of respondents listing strengths  








Seeing big picture 7 7 5 44%
Atypical problem solving 5 5 3 30%
Empathy 3 4 4 26%
Determination 5 1 3 21%
Data patterns 2 1 1 9%
Inspiring others 3 1 0 9%
Coping strategies 1 0 0 2%

 There is a need for interpretation on these figures.  There were some people who did not circle the “yes” but did list strengths, hence the row on those who listed strengths does not quite match the number in the “yes” row. There were 3 respondents who replied “no” but went on to list attributes which others considered strengths of dyslexia. These were determination and empathy with other dyslexic people. So we have 69% of respondents specifically saying they have strengths and abilities that arise through their dyslexia/SpLD.  There was very considerable overlap in the wording used by respondents to describe these abilities. This could in some cases be because some of the descriptors are ones used throughout the dyslexic community. However, the second part of the question asked for examples, and these firmly bore out these descriptions of strengths. Here are some examples of these which also demonstrate how some of these abilities were clustered using synonyms.

Atypical problem solving/ thinking outside the box/finding alternative approaches or solutions were exemplified by taking successful legal appeal cases with an alternative approach; complete post graduate degrees (against a poor literacy achievements at school); develop learning opportunities that suit the individual and overcome problems; develop a career based on problem solving and consultancy/ advisory work.

Creativity was mentioned a lot but in the context mainly of problem solving.

Determination, persistence, and grit came up repeatedly. In several instances these had not been mentioned as an answer to question 1 but were included here as one of the positive outcomes of dyslexia. Examples quoted for this included setting up and running a charity for 22 years; several people described completing post graduate degrees despite having severe literacy problems at school, and working in the professions.

Recognising patterns was another common theme which did not easily fit into being clustered. For some, it was about recognising patterns in data, for others it was about recognising patterns of behaviour, being able to read others; and for others, it was described as recognising connections between things that others have not seen.

  1. Challenges from Dyslexia


Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total
Literacy 12 (80%) 8 (53%) 13  (100%)  


Memory particularly affecting organisation 5  (33%) 10  (67%) 6 (46%)  


Background distractions 4  (27%) 1 (7%) 0 (0%) 12%
Getting lost 3 (20%) 0  (0%) 1 (8%) 9%
Learning is difficult 2  (13%) 0  (0%) 2 (15%) 9%


Almost all the respondents wrote about their challenges. There was considerable consistency in the replies which can be seen above. In terms of literacy difficulties, the comments were mainly about slower reading speed, slower comprehension, and difficulties managing large tracts of reading material. Many respondents had trouble with confidence with spelling and quite a few commented that their writing was scruffy.

  1. The Effects of these Challenges on their Lives
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total
Considerable difficulties Many 0 Many Many
Underachievement 5 2 3 67%
Relationship issues (personal and professional) 9 1 1 26%
Stress and health issues 6 3 0 21%
Lack of self-belief 3 0 2 12%

As the responses were freely worded, it wasn’t possible to calculate all the answers numerically. In some cases, it was necessary to take a qualitative approach and recognise that the lists of outcomes would create considerable difficulties at some point in the individual’s life. This is where the table shows “many”.  In all the other challenges the actual words used were counted and synonyms were not used here.

  1. Have you received individual support?
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total
Relative or spouse 4 8 5 40%
No one 3 3 5 26%
Dyslexia coach 6 3 1 23%
Network member 3 3 2 19%
Sympathetic teacher 0 3 4 16%
Mentor 3 2 0 12%
Sympathetic boss 0 2 0 5% 

Out of 45 total respondents, 37 individuals said they had received support from a particular individual. In the main, those who listed a family member spoke mostly about that person maintaining their self esteem. The support from professionals which included mentors at work and specialist dyslexia teachers or coaches was on the development of coping strategies.

  1. Disclosure
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total
Yes 9 11 6 60%
No 3 4 7 33%
Positive experience 5 11 1 40%
Negative experience 4 0 4 19%

Previous research has shown that disclosure often has not resulted in positive outcomes for the individual. We also see very low numbers of take up on schemes such as the Government’s Access to Work where disclosure to the employer is a requirement. This question was included in order to see if anything more could be learned in this area as it is critical in tackling discrimination at work. There were quite a few individuals who had not disclosed their dyslexia to an employer because they were self employed in this sample. There were also individuals who described two experiences of disclosure to an employer, frequently a bad and a good experience.

  1. What would you recommend to a young person?
Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Total
Learn coping strategies 9 9 2 49%
Look for things you are good at 0 6 6 28%
Take or ask for help 3 4 3 23%
Recognise you are different but not less worthy 4 2 2 19%
Don’t worry, it will all work out 4 4 0 19%
Develop a positive mindset 0 5 2 16%
Get a diagnosis early 3 2 1 14%

There was a lot of consistency in these answers. It was an interesting question to ask these respondents as most were at least middle aged and could look back over their lifetime with some distance on any emotions that dyslexia challenges had presented.  The answers were overwhelmingly positive in outlook.


I was surprised at the consistency of answers. This was not expected given that the questions were largely free format. There was also surprising consistency over the three different groups who were not chosen to be similar, other than their dyslexia/SpLD.

It’s quite clear from these responses that there are some significant themes. Determination, hard work, motivation and the encouragement of others all lead to successful life outcomes. Issues with literacy persist throughout life but can be improved by the use of assistive technology.

Lack of awareness in schools results in poorer literacy outcomes, lower achievement but also persistent bullying by staff as well as other pupils. This has lasting effects on individuals and can cause ill health.  Yet some individuals who were described as “thick” can use their determination to go on and achieve the highest academic levels.

Understanding that you are dyslexic be it through self awareness or a formal test is important to self esteem.

69% of these adults say they have strengths and abilities that are due to their different neurological condition, their dyslexia or SpLD. There are also some who do not attribute their determination or empathy directly to dyslexia but indicate that it is borne out of the experience of being dyslexic.

A detailed study of these responses together with the literature review undertaken, showed that there were ten characteristics which successful dyslexic adults often share. This has been made the subject of the book “Self Fulfilment with Dyslexia: A Blueprint for Success” by Margaret D. Malpas, MBE. It is being published on 21 February 2017 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. The book covers all ten characteristics and how to develop them, as well as case studies to illustrate each trait. All royalties have been donated to the B.D.A.

Appendix – Research Questionnaire into Issues for Adults with Dyslexia/SpLD

Margaret Malpas

January 2016

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