October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and while many have heard of dyslexia, it is often not well understood.
The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as “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.” Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, impacting millions of kids and adults, with estimates ranging from between 5 and 10 percent of the population, to a broader estimate by DyslexiaHelp at the University of Michigan that up to 17 percent of the population may have the learning disability.
It can be difficult for parents of children with dyslexia to navigate the challenges associated with it. Here, experts offer some suggestions for them.
1. Dyslexia is not about the reversal of letters
Many people think switching the letters b and d is an indication of dyslexia, but that’s not so, explains Joanne Pierson, Ph.D., project manager of DyslexiaHelp. “Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, not a reversals of letters problem,” Pierson says.
“Our brains are wired differently. It’s a decoding issue,” says Don Winn, an award-winning author of children’s books who himself has dyslexia.
Pierson notes that letter reversals are part of normal developmental trajectory in younger children, but if a child continues reversing letters after second grade, it could be a sign to consider the potential of dyslexia. “Children should have a good assessment of both written and spoken language to determine whether they have dyslexia,” she says.
2. Kids with dyslexia are smart
The National Institute for Learning Development reports that people with dyslexia often have average to superior intelligence. According to Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of The Yale Center for Creativity and Dyslexia, in cases of dyslexia, “the seemingly invariant relation between intelligence and reading ability breaks down.” The intelligence of dyslexics has been noted since the first published description of dyslexia by a doctor in England in 1896, who described a 14-year-old boy who struggled to read as “a bright and intelligent boy.”
Traditional education often focuses on literacy and language skills, but dyslexics often have strengths in other areas. Pierson notes that dyslexic kids have strengths in visual-spatial skills, logic, deductive reasoning, art, and athletics. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. We need alternative ways in the classroom where kids can demonstrate their strengths,” Pierson says.
Children often develop coping mechanisms and appear disinterested or uncaring, which is not at all the case. “Sometimes it’s easier to not attempt it at all versus attempt, try hard and fail,” Pierson explains.
Winn says he knew he was dyslexic but that it wasn’t until he saw the documentary film “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” that he really began to come to terms with the impact it had on his life, and shifted his focus. He says, “I not only began advocating for dyslexic kids, I also began discovering myself and my strengths.”
3. Know the signs and when to have your child tested
“As a parent, if you think something’s wrong, there usually is,” says Melissa Menn, the director and owner of Learning Lab Chicago, who notes that getting help sooner rather than later is always advisable.
Problems reciting the alphabet, learning their letters, and struggles with rhyming and word play are all signs of dyslexia in preschool according to Pierson. For older kids, signs can be avoiding reading aloud, lack of fluency, difficulty telling time, and finding it hard to copy words from the board at school.
Sometimes evidence of dyslexia appears as children progress through school and challenges become more evident. Possible indications of dyslexia can include cases in which children do well in preschool but struggle with print literacy in the early elementary years, or they hit a slump in fourth grade because the curriculum changes from learning to read to reading to learn, or they struggle when transitioning to middle school when more reading and writing is expected of students.
Shaywitz suggests getting help when a gap between intelligence and reading skills is apparent, which can be around first grade.
“Intensive intervention works, and early intervention is the best,” says Pierson, but she and other experts agree that while early intervention is ideal, intervention at any time can be effective. She also notes that doing so early can help prevent a child from losing self-esteem or developing a negative attitude toward school.
4. Know that help is available
In addition to technology, teaching approaches and interventions are evolving. Menn says that she’s had great success using the SLANT (Structured Language Training) system, a multisensory approach to teaching reading. Pierson also notes that the structured literacy has shown great outcomes for all kids, with and without dyslexia, but it is not the model typically found in public schools in America. She is hopeful that more and more public school teachers will be trained in it soon.
Parents should take full advantage of help from schools, teachers and tutors, and Menn advises that parents opt out of struggling with their kids. “Leave it up to the professionals and don’t ruin your relationship,” she says. “You’re the one that’s home with them all the time. You need to be their soft space to land.”
5. Acknowledge the challenge, but focus on the positive
Parents need to be their child’s biggest cheerleader. “It’s important for a parent to understand that it takes a lot more for a kid with any kind of learning disability to go to school. Because it’s 100 times harder for them, it’s so critically important that their parents be supportive,” says Menn.
Gov. Dan Malloy of Connecticut, in a video for the Child Mind Institute, acknowledges that dyslexia is a challenge, but like many things in life, there are both positives and negatives to it. “Some of my best and worst experiences in life were caused by the fact that I was born with dyslexia,” he says.
To parents, he says, “…Take a deep breath, support your child and make sure that they know that you feel it’s important that they be a good person and a kind person and they love themselves and other people.”
Winn echoes those sentiments and urges parents to not focus on the negative. He says instead parents should say to their child, “Yes, you struggle, but here’s why, and here’s what you can do about it.”
6. Give dyslexic kids positive role models
Dyslexia is not new, and many people with it have gone on to do wonderful things. Malloy notes that dyslexia does not stop an individual from changing the world.
“If you read any of the success stories and listen to those who are successful dyslexics, they say they wouldn’t be where they are and doing what they are if not for dyslexia. It makes them look at life differently,” says Pierson.
Winn wrote the “Sir Kaye the Boy Knight” chapter book series with a dyslexic character whose unique way of looking at things saves the day on more than one occasion because he wanted a character who was both relatable and inspiring to kids like himself.
“When a child with dyslexia can see that they are part of a tribe of people accomplishing good things, that will help prevent the shame and give them the motivation to keep working and keep moving forward,” he says.
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Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshopto the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”