BY JAMIE LOBER
Nine year-old Nicholas of Perry struggles with his homework, dislikes reading and is failing language arts. His teacher suggested that he may want to get an eye exam to rule out a vision problem. After waiting and hoping for signs of improvement, Nicholas’ mother requested an evaluation from the school psychologist. Testing confirmed that he had dyslexia.
Dyslexia is more common than you may think. 15–20% of the population have a language-based learning disability. Of the students with specific learning disabilities receiving special education services, 70–80% have deficits in reading, according to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA).
Although dyslexia usually involves a struggle with reading and writing tasks, there is a misconception that dyslexia is an eye problem. “Dyslexia is not an eye problem. It is a specific learning disability that is neurological in nature. It has to do with the brain not registering something,” clarifies Dr. Henry Schneider, ophthalmologist of Warner Robins. In fact, reading and writing letters in the wrong place is just one of the symptoms, and is not present at all in some cases of dyslexia.
Children with dyslexia have trouble identifying the separate speech sounds within a word and/or learning how letters represent those sounds. Unfortunately, these abilities are key to learning to read and write. It’s important to remember, too, that dyslexia is not due to either a lack of intelligence or desire to learn. Indeed, a child cannot have a lower IQ and be accurately diagnosed as dyslexic.
IDA maintains that dyslexics have trouble acquiring and using language. Some problems most dyslexics might experience include:
•Learning to speak
•Organizing written and spoken language
•Learning letters and their sounds
•Memorizing number facts
•Learning a foreign language
•Correctly doing math operations
According to IDA, “Signs of dyslexia in young, preschool children include talking later than expected, a slowness to add new words, difficulty rhyming, and trouble following multistep directions. After a child begins school, the signs of dyslexia include:
•Difficulty reading single words, such as a word on a flashcard
•Difficulty learning the connection between letters and sounds
•Confusing small words, such as at and to
•Letter reversals, such as d for b
•Word reversals, such as tip for pit
“Having one of these signs does not mean your child has dyslexia; many children reverse letters before the age of 7. But, if several signs exist and reading problems persist, or if you have a family history of dyslexia, you may want to have your child evaluated.”
Dyslexia does not have to be a negative diagnosis. “The hardware is the brain and the software or the applications are a bit different than traditional,” describes Becky Sessions, headmaster at Woodfield Academy in Macon. It is usually identified by the classroom teacher when academic performance is affected. The child may fall behind as assignments become more complex. Although dyslexia is neurological or related to the way the brain functions, it is not related to mental retardation or intellectual ability.
Do not sit back. “The first message is that if your child is struggling in school, you need to find out why. Under federal law, you can request from the principal that the school evaluates your child,” informs Dr. Larry Silver, psychiatrist in Rockville, Maryland. You may choose to reach out to your child’s teacher. “Say you are worried and would like your child evaluated. The other direction is that if a teacher is worried, he can set the process in motion,” says Silver.
The diagnosis is usually made through formal academic testing. The Dyslexia Assessment Battery is most common and gives the definitive diagnosis along with the severity and type of dyslexia.
There are two main ways the school can help with dyslexia. “One is specific remedial intervention which should be done by someone trained in the field who helps the child with what he has trouble learning. The second is accommodations like the teacher going over a worksheet to make sure the child understands the instructions,” explains Silver. Your child does not have to suffer. “With the right help, he can learn to compensate for the problem and move ahead. I have yet to meet a lazy kid who does not want to do well in school,” assures Silver.
Some children may go to therapy which incorporates the following strategies:
•Becoming aware of phonemes
•Practicing listening, reading, writing and speaking
•Mastering sound associations
•Using new elements while reinforcing ones that were previously taught
•Repeating skills until comprehension is achieved
Try to control your feelings. “The diagnosis of dyslexia often comes as a shock to parents. The child very often knows something is wrong and is relieved to finally give it an identity,” says Madigan. Remember that you should be on your child’s team. “Having and helping a dyslexic child can be either a very positive experience, or a completely negative one, depending on how you as a parent handle the situation,” reinforces Madigan.
Think of the famous people who were dyslexic but overcame the disability such as: Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise, President George Washington, Leonardo DaVinci, and Whoopi Goldberg.
We are fortunate to have accommodating schools. “Woodfield Academy is the only private school in the Central Georgia region where all children who are eligible for enrollment have one or more professionally diagnosed learning differences,” says Sessions. Their curriculum concentrates on some challenging skills. “We work on things as basic as phonemic awareness and figuring out how your mouth feels with the different sounds and what letters represent those sounds. We work closely with consultants and psychologists who help us,” shares Sessions.
For some children, dyslexia comes with additional challenges. “They may have coexisting issues like underlying processing disorders whether it has to do with visual or auditory processing. They can be somewhere on the autism spectrum,” says Sessions. Remain supportive through the journey. “Be willing to be open and patient to your child’s development,” encourages Sessions.
Finding an approach to learning that works for your child is important. “The child has a greater sense of safety in the smaller, more peaceful environment. We can slow things down and break things down to smaller pieces or parts with a smaller group and a more individualized approach,” shares Sessions.
Remember that having a learning disability can affect a child socially and emotionally. His self-esteem may be negatively affected such that he will feel stupid. He may be bullied or called lazy if the diagnosis is not made. Behavioral problems can develop as a result. Be sure that you act as your child’s own best advocate. You have more control over his academic success and sense of wellbeing than you may imagine.