Your child is well into grade school, but is somehow still struggling to learn how to read. He has trouble remembering words and what sounds letters make. He isn’t “dumb” or “slow”—so what’s going on?
“Comprehension is intact—the ability to understand is intact,” explains Ben Shifrin, vice president of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and a diagnosed dyslexic himself. “It has nothing to do with intelligence.”
About one in five people have some form of dyslexia, making it the most common learning disability, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. But that doesn’t mean it’s always recognized.
“Dyslexia is such an under-diagnosed problem,” says Dr. Ruth Milanaik, a pediatrician who treats children with dyslexia and the director of the neonatal neurodevelopmental follow-up program at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, NY. “It’s very, very easy for people to say, ‘my child is a slow reader’ before they even get to thinking, wow this could be something more concerning.”
What should parents be on the lookout for? Here are some signs:
• Early speech isn’t progressing or maturing; child uses “baby talk” well past the age of two or three years old
• Difficulty memorizing
• Difficulty remembering the names of the letters
• Difficulty recognizing his own name
• Difficulty memorizing the alphabet
• Trouble connecting letters to the sounds they make
• Trouble learning to read, lagging well behind other students
• Inability to rhyme and comprehend rhymes (i.e. understanding that “cat” rhymes with “hat”)
• Difficulty remembering spoken directions
• Trouble with word-finding, or retrieving words they’ve learned and their meanings, and saying “stuff” or “things” a lot when they can’t find the word they’re looking for
“If your child is displaying two or three of these, the IDA would recommend you have an assessment,” says Shifrin. “The earlier the intervention, the better.”
Lisa Ahern, PhD, the director of psychoeducational services at The Center for Emotional Health in Cherry Hill, a specialist in dyslexia and ADHD and the past director of The Learning Disorders Clinic at Duke University, says it’s tough to really identify if a child is dyslexic until she’s at least four—and often not until she’s even older.
“The issue is that kids learn to read until about third grade and then in third grade they’re expected to read to learn,” she explains. “So if they’re still struggling to read by then, you may be dealing with a learning disability.”
That said, you can have children screened when they’re in kindergarten if you or their teacher notice any signs.
“Teachers are going to be the first line of defense,” says Ahern. “They’ll notice how fast your child is learning compared to other children.”
If you see any red flags before teachers do while reading with your kid at home, you’ll want to document them and schedule an early assessment.
The Dyslexia Screening Law, effective as of last school year, requires schools to screen for dyslexia by the end of the first half of second grade if a child shows early signs of the disorder. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the assessment includes a review of developmental, medical, behavioral, academic and family history; an evaluation of general intellectual functioning (if appropriate); and tests of specific language, reading, writing, spelling and math skills.
If you suspect your child may have dyslexia, make sure he understands what the condition is—and what it’s not. Dyslexic students often feel “dumb” and can experience a great deal of stress at school. They need to know that dyslexia is about processing information differently, not about inferior intelligence.
“There are so many times I diagnose kids with dyslexia and they say, ‘I thought I was stupid,’” Dr. Milanaik says. “You have to really work on self-esteem, reinforcing every day that their learning disability doesn’t define them, and they can conquer it.”
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