I was lucky enough to have a visit today from one of my former students. She is an extraordinary young woman . . . accomplished in academics and athletics, a very successful college student, personable, articulate, intellectually curious, empathetic beyond words, and dyslexic. However, when I first met her, she was timid, unsure and unhappy. Her educational experiences from early on had convinced her that she was stupid, she would never go to college, she needed remedial math because she clearly didn’t get it (she turned out to be a gifted math student), and she had no potential.
The people who said these things to her had clearly never met her mother.
When my student was diagnosed with dyslexia, her mother immediately educated herself. She read every book on the subject, she talked to every one of her patients who was dyslexic, and she looked long and hard to find resources in her community that could help. She became what every dyslexic child needs . . . an advocate. This mom, a busy physician, devoted much of her time trying to make things better for her daughter. She talked with her daughter’s school about accommodations; she went to bat with teachers over all the red marks on her papers because of spelling errors; she asked for extra time and for oral testing. But as so often happens in many schools, she was denied the help her daughter needed. “Your daughter just isn’t trying hard enough, she isn’t smart enough, she is clearly working to her potential and isn’t capable of more, if we give her accommodations it isn’t fair to the other children.”
But my student’s mother was an unstoppable force. She refused to accept what these people had to say about her daughter; rather, she became even more determined to find help for her child. She found a wonderful tutor in her community who began the work, and then learned that there were schools devoted to the remediation of dyslexia. Tireless champion that she was, she made sure that her daughter found a place in our school. I should mention, however, that our school was over an hour away from their home. Undaunted, this mother found a way to make it work. She drove her daughter on some days, and on some nights the girl spent the night in town with her grandmother. Her daughter even came to school on a day that was so icy that most of the other children in school were absent!
Meet another unstoppable force . . . her daughter. The one who never wanted to miss a single day of school. In the beginning I was especially concerned about this student because she so clearly lacked confidence in herself academically. She was fearful to answer questions and was reluctant to ask for help. But she was the hardest working student I have ever known. No assignment was too much, even though she was usually working in the car on the hour-long ride home or studying at 6 a.m. on her way to school. I came to learn that this young woman personified persistence. She was doggedly determined to learn everything that she could. Through encouragement and praise, she came to realize that she actually had tremendous potential. She became an excellent math student, one of the strongest in the grade. She studied harder than anyone and made exceptional marks. Most importantly, she became secure in the fact that her dyslexia was a gift.
That’s what our dyslexic children need to understand. Their brains function differently. Their problem-solving skills, strong work ethic, intellectual curiosity, impressive verbal skills and out-of-the-box thinking make them extraordinary people whose worth will be recognized and valued in the workplace. Traditional academics may always be a bit difficult for them because they are required to memorize information. But when they encounter situations that allow them to learn experientially, find solutions to problems and think creatively, they will soar. They need advocates to encourage them and help them find these strengths within themselves. Not every child can attend a special school for dyslexics, but there are resources within many communities that can help.
So just how do you go about becoming your dyslexic child’s advocate? Begin by reading everything you can so that you can understand your child’s academic challenges. I recommend starting with Overcoming Dyslexia, by Sally Shaywitz, M.D. Dr. Shaywitz and her husband, Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, are co-directors of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. The Center’s website contains much helpful information, such as a good explanation for what dyslexia actually is as well as suggestions for how to talk with your child about his/her diagnosis. The parents’ section includes information about signs of dyslexia, suggestions for parents of dyslexic children and perhaps most importantly, excellent advice for those parents planning for their first meeting with their child’s school after diagnosis.
There are many other wonderful resources, including PBS Resources for Parents of a Dyslexic Child which includes such items as a reading list for parents, books written for children about dyslexia, and web sites such as All Kinds of Minds and Misunderstood Minds. Reading Rocket’s Top Ten Resources for Dyslexia is another good source of information. The International Dyslexia Association offers a wealth of information for parents and educators.
Now that you’ve become an expert, where do you turn for help? If you’ve done your research, you know that your child will require remediation in order to achieve his/her true potential. But where do you look to find help? You could begin with your state chapter of the Academy of Orton Gillingham Practioners and Educators. The dedicated folks there will be happy to help you find an Orton Gillingham tutor who can work with your child, no matter their strengths or weaknesses. The Orton Gillingham approach is a scientifically research-based method for the treatment of dyslexia. The Academy will also help you locate a specialized school for the remediation of dyslexia if you are interested in pursuing enrollment. Keep in mind that OG is only one method of remediation . . . there are other good ones as well. Just be sure to investigate your tutors to make sure that they are fully trained and have a proven track record of success.
Become actively involved in your local chapters of The Orton Gillingham Academy and the IDA, and become members of the national associations. You will be kept apprised of legislative efforts regarding dyslexia remediation at both the national and state levels, and you will have access to on-going research about dyslexia. At your local chapters, make a point to become acquainted with fellow parents because they can be a tremendous source of guidance and support. Ask for help and you will realize that you and your child are not alone; some sources report that dyslexia occurs in as many as one out of every five people!
Finally, talk to your child about the gifts that come along with dyslexia. Help him/her understand that dyslexic brains function in a wonderful way and that his/her problem-solving skills, strong work ethic, intellectual curiosity, impressive verbal skills and out-of-the-box thinking make him/her an extraordinary person whose worth will be recognized and valued in the workplace. Traditional academics will always be difficult for them, even with remediation. They will have to work harder than anyone else. But when they encounter situations that allow them to learn experientially, find solutions to problems and think creatively, they will soar. They need advocates along the way to encourage them and help them find these strengths within themselves.
And take heart . . . you have an exceptionally gifted child in your care. Don’t listen to people who tell you your child is lazy or unmotivated. Keep looking for solutions that can help them become the extraordinary people they are destined to be.
Like my former student who came to see me today and reminded me just how extraordinary dyslexics can be when someone believes in them.
Dedicated to Dana and Mary Elizabeth