Convinced he was “not smart,” 6-year-old Nicolas from Hunterdon County identified classmates by the costumes they’d wear on Halloween, and composed pictures instead of sentences in his writing journal. Hayden, a 12-year-old from Hamilton, rattled off the era, eating habits, and physical descriptions of dinosaurs, but labored to read books about them. Hayden formerly couldn’t see the difference between adding numbers and multiplying them. Daniel, 18, from Lawrenceville, struggled with spelling since kindergarten and couldn’t solve basic math equations without a calculator.
These children are all highly intelligent, and all share another trait: dyslexia, a learning disability that affects reading, writing, and spelling, and often results in difficulties with sequencing and speaking.
“It really impairs them across the board,” says Audrey Mainzer, Hayden’s mom. “If you can’t read, you can’t really do anything.” But “it’s definitely not a lack of intelligence,” says Dee Rosenberg, president of the New Jersey branch of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA). After all, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, and Albert Einstein were all thought to have had dyslexia.
Know the Symptoms
Misunderstood as a disorder that causes people to read backwards—and as something kids “grow out of”—dyslexia can encompass a variety of symptoms.
• Trouble learning letters and their sounds
• Previous difficulty learning to speak
• Trouble organizing written/spoken language
• Trouble memorizing number facts
• Difficulty reading quickly enough to comprehend the material
• Trouble persisting with and comprehending longer reading assignments
• Difficulty spelling
• Struggles with learning a foreign language
• Difficulty correctly doing math operations
• An inability to fathom directions like left and right
• Difficulty repeating a story just heard
• Difficulty with word recall
• Trouble remembering when prompted to recall names, dates, and facts, including addresses or telephone numbers
Dyslexic children usually can’t recognize relationships in language—like words that rhyme or begin with the same letter. When speaking, they may interchange words that sound alike, like tangerine and tambourine.
“By kindergarten, all children should be able to learn letter names and identify the sounds associated with those letters,” Rosenberg says. “If they can’t, that’s a big red flag.” While it’s normal for kids to write letters in reverse (“b” for “d,” for example), for kids older than 8, reverse writing can signal dyslexia.
Not all students who have difficulties with these skills are dyslexic. Formal testing of reading, language, and writing skills is
the only way to confirm a diagnosis of suspected dyslexia.
Causes of Dyslexia
According to the National Institutes of Health, dyslexia affects up to 20 percent of Americans. But what causes it? Gordon Sherman, PhD, executive director of the Newgrange School and Educational Center in Princeton, is a neuroscientist who studied the basis of dyslexia in the human brain. “We know that it’s caused by a connectional architecture of the brain. It’s not abnormal, just different,” he says.
Though it can range from mild to severe, there’s a proven genetic component. For example, Daniel’s father also battles the disability, as does his twin sister, to a lesser degree. There are also categories, including primary, developmental, and trauma. Then there are specific types: phonological, orthographic, double deficit, auditory, visual, and surface.
Dyslexia is often augmented by dysgraphia, marked by motor and processing weaknesses, and/or dyscalculia, difficulty with spatial and numerical relationships. It’s even been linked to ADHD.
Evaluation & Diagnosis
Parents who suspect that their child might be exhibiting signs of dyslexia or another language-based learning difference are likely to recount stories of family members who question their parenting skills, doctors assuring them their child is “normal,” or teachers who are unfamiliar with the disability. Yet, it’s crucial to intervene the moment a problem is suspected. The earlier a child receives intervention, the sooner she can get on the path to successful learning.
If you’ve already ruled out vision and hearing problems, schedule conferences with your child’s teacher, head of school, guidance counselor or pediatrician, and express your concerns. Don’t be afraid to request a formal evaluation of your child by a professional or a referral for testing to confirm a diagnosis of dyslexia or another language-based learning difference.
“If you have those nagging qualms, get your child help as early as possible. Early intervention staves off the full expression of dyslexia,” says Dr. Francie Matthews, a certified learning disabilities teacher-consultant in Westfield and past president of the New Jersey branch of the IDA. Once a child is diagnosed, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be tailored to his needs, so teachers and other service providers can help him learn effectively.
Various specialized educational institutions and learning approaches have emerged since dyslexia was first acknowledged as a learning disability in the 1960s. In addition, there are resources like LDonline, discussion forums, conferences, books, and events of the IDA that parents can turn to for information and support.
Having dyslexia doesn’t mean your child will never learn to read, attend college, or land a job. He may struggle with confidence and require special learning tools and techniques, but a dyslexic child can thrive. “They may not be ‘typical’ kids,” Mainzer says, “but they still bring you a lot of joy and help you grow as a parent—and a person.” Children with dyslexia are bright, capable, and able to go on to college and successful careers. If your child has dyslexia, it simply means that he or she learns differently. Many top CEOs, scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs are dyslexic.
How Parents Can Help
Use technology. Take advantage of technology like iPads, digital textbooks often help too. Both Live Scribe Smart Pen and Dragon Naturally Speaking offers a way for dyslexics children to save time and overcome some of the issues they may encounter because of their dyslexia, such as slow note taking or unreadable handwriting. These assistive technologies allow them to use their time for all the things in which they are gifted. For dyslexic students, technology opens doors and allows them to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that were unimaginable in the past. The digital world can actually be a much better fit for dyslexic people.
Build self-esteem. Nurture talent, whether in art, athletics, or music. Sally Shaywitz, MD, author of Overcoming Dyslexia (Blackstone Audiobooks, 2004) who is the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development at the Yale University School of Medicine and the co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, says dyslexia is a weakness in reading surrounded by “a sea of strengths.”
Encourage learning. Read aloud to your children. Include them in adult conversations in the car, at the dinner table, and when discussing an important issue. Dyslexic children typically develop strong listening skills. When you engage them in discussions, this helps them build their knowledge and word banks while developing conversation skills. It challenges children to use higher-level critical thinking skills and vocabulary. Dyslexics crave context. Conversations with adults offer children a context for ideas and words, two currencies that they will trade in throughout the remainder of their lives. Allow them access to listen to public radio.
Structure daily routines. Lori, mom to then-6-year-old Nicolas, avoided abstract requests like “get ready for bed” in favor of specific instructions (brush teeth, put pajamas on, etc.).
Push for improvement. Audrey Mainzer gives her son breaks during homework time, but doesn’t let him duck opportunities to read or practice math skills. Do avoid books that are below your child’s current reading level.
Educate yourself. Learn about dyslexia and understand your child’s world and how he learns so you can remain actively involved in his education. Read The Secret Life of the Dyslexic Child (Rodale Books, 2002) by Robert Frank, PhD, also dyslexic.
Offer encouragement, praise, and patience. “If we give Hayden 15 seconds to answer a question, he’ll answer it in 16. It may take him longer, but he will get it,” says his mom.
Jennifer L. Nelson is a freelancer who writes about parenting and health.
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