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Dyslexia and pit bull terriers

(Published in the Malay Mail Online 1 April 2015)

“I was like a ‘pit bull terrier’ when it came to dealing with my son’s school, fighting for precious extra time for exams and other accommodations he needed. I think they were sick of me by the time he left…”

Valerie, mother-of-three, was sitting at my kitchen table describing her efforts to help her son who suffers from dyslexia, a disability that hampers the ability to read and write among other things.

We met when my family moved to Paris in 2013, back to Europe after 10 years overseas. Valerie was my youngest son’s class teacher and we certainly lucked out: she’s one of those “rock star” teachers you hear mums talking about at the school gates — deeply-dedicated, clever and buzzing with enthusiasm.

She’s taught English in international schools (France, Spain and South Africa) for 25 years, 17 of which included special needs and dyslexia support at primary level.

Very well equipped you might say, although she’s the first to admit that coping with her son’s dyslexia, was, at times, overwhelming.

Whether it was helping him pass exams or his driving test — which he did on his third attempt — to reviewing his CV, Valerie’s unwavering and steely commitment has paid off: Her 22-year-old son graduated from university last year, he’s trilingual (and foreign language acquisition is notoriously difficult for dyslexics) and is heading to the prestigious University of Edinburgh to start a Master’s degree this September. Not bad, eh?

I wanted to hear everything she had to say about this hidden disability, especially as one of my kids was diagnosed with dyslexia last year… and we’re finding it very challenging.

In fact, we are by no means alone: Studies show that dyslexia affects 20 per cent of the population, many of whom go through life undiagnosed, hiding their reading problem and privately developing their own compensatory strategies to get by.

It is said that no two dyslexics are alike, but what they all have in common is that:

“They say they are in pain. Dyslexia inflicts pain. It represents a major assault on self-esteem… on their sense of self-worth.” ― Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia

I hope that by sharing the wealth of Valerie’s experience today, and my own experience in the next column — if I can, because it’s tough when you see your child suffering so — it will help other parents, other children. Who knows? Someone close to you might be struggling with dyslexia.

This is a summary of our question and answer session:

1. What exactly is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a genetically-inherited neurological and language-based disorder. It can impact reading, writing, spelling and sometimes mathematics. It affects how information is processed, stored and retrieved.

Dyslexics typically have weak short-term and working memory, organisation and sequencing skills. It is lifelong and often leads to frustration, low self-esteem, low self-confidence and a lack of motivation.

Most children born to a parent with dyslexia will also have some kind of dyslexia. It is not connected to intelligence.

Much of what I can tell you on this question comes from Dr Sally Shaywitz (leading neuroscientist and professor of paediatrics at Yale University) who wrote what I, and many others, consider to be the bible of dyslexia — Overcoming Dyslexia. I strongly recommend that parents read this book — it’s a bit of tome — but it’s hugely informative.

2. How can dyslexia be detected and at what age?

Typically, a dyslexic child will struggle to link letters to sounds and acquire what’s known as phonemic awareness — the awareness that words are broken down into smaller units of sounds.

Dyslexia markers can be picked up in children as young as four to five years old. Pre-school or kindergarten teachers and parents should be aware that young children may be at risk of developing dyslexia if they struggle to:

* rhyme;

* match letters to sounds, such as not knowing what sounds ‘b’ or ‘h’ make;

* blending sounds into words, like connecting sounds c-a-t to the word cat;

* pronounce words correctly, such as saying “mawn lower” instead of “lawn mower”;

* learn new words and have a limited vocabulary;

* learn to count or remember nursery rhymes, letters of the alphabet, songs;

* are slow or reluctant readers despite intelligence, motivation and education.

Early identification and intervention using explicit and sequential multi-sensory instruction is absolutely key. Effective intervention in the primary school years can make a real difference to the child’s reading fluency.

After 10 to 11 years, intervention is less effective, and you then move into the realm of securing accommodations, like extra time for tests or use of computers etc, for your child.

A cautionary note to parents:The majority of mainstream teachers have not undergone dyslexia training; this means that the early tell-tale dyslexia signs are not always picked up.

Studies show that dyslexia affects 20 per cent of the population, many of whom go through life undiagnosed, hiding their reading problem and privately developing their own compensatory strategies to get by. — AFP pic

3. What’s the biggest hurdle in dealing with dyslexia (A) as a parent? (B) as a dyslexia specialist?

A and B have the same frustrations: Namely seeing a bright child having such an awful time at school and struggling so hard to meet expectations. But, wearing both hats, let me list what I see as the most challenging hurdles:

Overcoming guilt and denial: One of the first hurdles is getting the parents to recognise there is a problem — that their child might have dyslexia. Because dyslexia is believed to run in families, one or both of the child’s parents will have experienced the same difficulties. Parents may feel some kind of guilt for passing the learning disability to their child and sometimes relive their own failures and frustrations through their child’s school experience.

Other parents, often fathers, just deny the existence of dyslexia and believe that their child should just apply themselves and try harder. You can imagine how this makes the child feel.

Accepting that there is an enormous amount of effort and support required: Although there are many tools and strategies that can help children compensate for their disability, it takes time and effort to figure out which ones will work best for a particular child. Support continues long after the school years: The challenges/problems become easier to tackle, but they never go away.

Finding the right help, at the right time, in the right language: Is not always easy, but it is key to helping your child become more successful and happy. It also eases the feelings of helplessness and frustration felt by parents (indeed, it can be a challenge for the whole family), when faced with a child’s dyslexia-induced academic struggles.

Parents and specialist teachers need to work with the child’s school and class teachers to gain their understanding and co-operation in terms of intervention and securing the necessary accommodation. For expatriates living abroad, such as France, seeking the help of a specialist teacher in the language the curriculum is taught in is essential.

Do you tell your child they have dyslexia? Most of the children who are told the nature of their reading problem are very relieved; they understand they are “not stupid, they are not dumb.” Talk to them about their difficulty, tell them: it’s called dyslexia; it’s a common problem that intelligent people have with reading; it can be overcome and that they will learn to read.

4. How can I support my child?

There is no cure for dyslexia; but early intervention is the key. If you suspect that your child has a learning disability:

* talk with your paediatrician as soon as possible;

* arrange for hearing and visual tests to first rule out any vision or audition problems;

* learn all you can about dyslexia, and exchange information with other parents of children with dyslexia;

* make sure your child has a dyslexia assessment and is getting the help he/she needs at school (teachers, learning specialist) and at home (specialist teacher). Learning specialists and special needs teachers use a variety of techniques and strategies to help children cope with their dyslexia;

* meet with your child’s teacher and specialists if your child becomes increasingly frustrated, discouraged or if they are not progressing or are showing signs of emotional suffering or depression;

* be a good role model by showing your child how important reading is by reading to, and with, your child 15 to 20 minutes daily. Point to the words as you read. Try to be patient, relaxed and stress-free when doing so, and use selective praising and encouragement. Once you have established this time together, gently encourage your child to read out loud to you;

* invest in dyslexia-friendly books and dyslexia-friendly font (see resources), coloured writing paper/transparent reading overlays that facilitate your child’s writing and reading;

* don’t be afraid to delegate and get help from a specialised tutor for homework and dyslexia support;

* as dyslexic children think mainly in pictures instead of words, multi-sensory learning is very effective. Multi-sensory programmes like the Orton-Gillingham reading approach are often recommended for optimal learning. Understand and use your child’s preferred learning style (visual, auditory and/or kinaesthetic). For instance, if your child is an auditory learner, use audiobooks or DVDs;

* play rhyming games, sing nursery rhymes and songs with rhyme and alliteration, and play word games which focus on the sounds in words (phonemes);

* dyslexics are weak multi-taskers — a feature often overlooked. Help your child strengthen this skill by visualising time and engaging in planning by hanging up picture timetables, charts, clocks, and calendars. As they get older, teach mind-mapping and the use of graphic organisers;

* talk regularly with your child’s teacher and special needs teacher to put in place accommodations and/or modifications;

* encourage your child to participate in non-academic activities such as sports, theatre, cooking classes, which provide enjoyment and a way for them to show success and excellence;

* continue to talk to and educate your child about their disability. Be aware that dyslexic children stress quickly once faced with a hurdle, talk through this problem and try and find coping strategies;

* understand and accept your child’s limitations;

* give your child emotional support and build self-esteem and self-confidence by systematic selective praising;

* above all, offer unconditional love and support while teaching your child to persevere and learn from mistakes. You must maintain your belief in your child and hold true to a vision of his/her future.

5. What resources on dyslexia would you recommend?

I have found the following useful:


Education resources:


LDA Learning:

Hope Education:

Dyslexia friendly books


Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz (highly recommended)

The Dyslexic Advantage by Dr Brock L Eid & Dr. Fernette F Eide

The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald D. Davis

For iPad apps:

6. Do you think dyslexia is a “gift”?

The “gift” expression comes from The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald D. Davis. It refers to the long list of famous people with dyslexia, geniuses even (because of their dyslexia ,Davis theorises): Winston Churchill, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Sir Richard Branson, W.B. Yeats, Alan Sugar, Walt Disney, Jay Leno, Charles Schwab (revolutionalised financial service industry), Graeme Hammond (an elite cardiothoracic surgeon) Keira Knightly, Jamie Oliver…

As dyslexics think in images instead of words, they interpret the “visual world” a lot easier and quicker than a non-dyslexic can. They can mentally manipulate these pictures and “think outside of the box”, and as Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

According to Davis, this mental ability and others shared by dyslexics — like being more curious than average, being highly intuitive and insightful, having vivid imaginations, being able to think and perceive multi-dimensionally — if nurtured and not suppressed, can result in “higher-than-normal intelligence and extraordinary creative abilities”. The so-called “gift”.

Focusing on the “gift” side of dyslexia is important to boost self-esteem and confidence, but it obviously shouldn’t detract from the necessity for remediation and intervention which will help the child build coping strategies."

* Valerie lives in the Yvelines area (Department 78) and can be contacted on:

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