Orlando Bloom is famous for his roles in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Lord of the Rings,” among others, but not many people are aware that he came of age with dyslexia.
“I was an angry, angry child at times,” Bloom told me, reflecting on the challenges he faced growing up with a learning disorder. “Somewhere in me I knew I was smart, but I was really struggling … My creative outlet, performing — that was what got me through.”
I had the honor of interviewing Bloom at the annual Adam Katz Memorial Lecture, a lecture designed to raise awareness of dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It is also the inaugural public education event for the Child Mind Institute, of which I am the president.
Bloom has certainly demonstrated that one can have dyslexia and be very successful. He is quick to note, however, that not only did he receive an early diagnosis and the support of his family, but also he found his passion, acting, which enabled him to succeed while putting his mind to work in a different way. Too many dyslexic children aren’t nearly as lucky.
Dyslexia is a life-long neurological disorder whose sufferers experience difficulties getting to the sounds of spoken language. Dyslexics struggle with word retrieval, spelling, foreign languages and reading fluency because they stumble when matching the letters they read on the page to the sounds those letters make.
Dyslexia represents 80 percent of all learning disorders, and although an estimated 10 million children suffer from it in the United States alone, we seldom hear this because policymakers focus on the number of services and accommodations offered in our schools, and unfortunately, at least two-thirds of dyslexic children receive neither. The majority of them suffer in silence and, left untreated, they are at much higher risk of dropping out of high school, losing employment, and serving time in jail.
While hearing Bloom speak about his struggles and successes, I couldn’t help being struck by how his life story echoed and then departed from Adam Katz’s. Adam was a handsome, charismatic “good guy,” but unlike Bloom, he could find neither his passion nor a successful treatment for his dyslexia and co-occurring ADHD. Bloom, 33, is the age at which Adam died.
Consider, for a moment, Adam’s story. As a child, his attention shifted from one distraction to the next. He had to be on the go — “in motion,” his teachers said — and always taking risks. When his reading difficulties, inattention and hyperactivity led to academic failures, his parents sought help from experts across New York City. He was prescribed Ritalin, which didn’t work for him, and then moved from school to school. It was the 1980s. Adam’s parents tried to help him, but he picked up marijuana at age 14, and two years later, he moved on to other drugs. He died, finally, from an accidental drug overdose.
Adam grew up during a time when we didn’t have effective psychosocial interventions and medication alternatives for dyslexia or any other learning or psychiatric disorder. Bloom correctly stated in our conversation, “I’m lucky. I was born lucky … I found the way my mind can work” with dyslexia.
And when I asked Bloom what he thought the parents of dyslexic children should know, he said, “That you can take this obstacle [dyslexia] and make it a reason to have a big heart. It takes obstacles to learn, grow, be better.” I agree with this message wholeheartedly, but would add that we need parents, along with all caring adults, to be on the alert for signs of language-based learning disorders, and to ask for an expansion of the clinical and education programs that identify and treat those in need.
The greatest barriers to helping children with dyslexia and co-occurring mental health disorders are stigma — the myth, for example, that dyslexics aren’t as smart as their nondyslexic peers — and the refusal of schools and testing agencies to accept diagnoses and offer accommodations. We often talk about how no child should be left behind, but when we judge children who are suffering from learning and psychiatric disorder, or deny that their conditions are real, we’re doing worse than leaving children behind: we’re instilling in them the feeling that they’re somehow unworthy or not trying hard enough. We can all agree that this is unacceptable and that we can do better.
To get started, here are some tips for all parents of young children.
- Observe your child’s language development. Don’t ignore problems in rhyming, pronunciation, and word retrieval.
- Read with your child, and pay attention to how he or she sounds out words. Observe patterns and recurrent problems.
- Find out whether there’s a history of dyslexia in your family. If there’s a family history and your child is struggling with spoken and written language, then it is a good idea to have your child tested for language-based learning disorders.
- If your child is struggling with dyslexia or another learning disorder, focus on his or her strengths as well as weaknesses. And take advantage of available resources. One of the best is the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.
Bloom is right: he’s lucky. He’s talented, smart and determined. Kids with dyslexia, he said, should know that while they’re challenged, they’re gifted, and if they want, they can say they’re “in Orlando’s club.” Nothing is cooler, after all, than knowing there’s a problem, being able to name it and then make it better.
Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D. , is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and founding president of the Child Mind Institute.