A version of this post originally appeared on my other blog Relentless. I have updated it before re-publishing here.
My youngest daughter was diagnosed with severe dyslexia a few years ago when she was just about to complete Year One. The diagnosis wasn’t a big shock; we had suspected she had a learning disability from the time she was at Kindy, and we had seen her daily struggle.
Having a diagnosis has helped in many ways. It allows her to label some of her challenges, to put them in a box and say to herself – and others – ‘that’s my dyslexia, that’s not me’.
From the very start she has owned her dyslexia. We haven’t tried to hide it, and I have encouraged her to talk about it with her classmates and friends. She stands up and talks about it as a news topic in class, she tells people about her dyslexia when she introduces herself, and I strongly believe this has helped stem some (though not all) teasing and bullying at school.
From a parent’s perspective, I have found her openness to be beneficial for me as well. Her willingness to share her difficulties – and for me to share them – has resulted in thoughtful conversations with other parents, many of which start with: ‘I had no idea what dyslexia even was…’ People have been so willing to learn about dyslexia, and I have found her school and the people to be very supportive.
My daughter is now halfway through Year Three. Yet her ability to read, write and spell is probably that of a child at least two years her junior. She could hold her head up high in Pre-Primary. She’s a smart kid though. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence, and most dyslexic kids test to be above average intelligence.
All dyslexics experience different strengths and challenges, and like many things, it operates on a continuum. This is how dyslexia affects my daughter:
Poor sense of word recall – she often struggles to find the word she wants to describe or explain something. As a result, she will use an incorrect word or simply make one up, which can be kind of cute. At eight she still can’t recall the word ‘pear’ so she calls them ‘squishy apples’.
Difficulty hearing sounds – she has difficultly hearing or distinguishing between certain sounds. This has a knock-on effect for both speech and spelling.
Poor concept of time – she has difficulty understanding the abstract notion of time and cannot grasp the difference between waiting for an hour and waiting for a year. The language of time, is therefore lost on her and she will talk about things happening yesterday when in fact she means tomorrow.
Poor speech – as she unable to hear certain sounds, she cannot replicate them, leading to difficulties with her speech.
Poor spelling – if you cannot hear or say sounds, then it makes sense that you won’t be able to use them when you are writing. For example, if you can’t hear the <t> in stretch, then you’re more likely to spell it as ‘strech’. When writing she often leaves out vowels and misses adjacent consonants. My daughter would most likely write ‘srch’.
Poor letter recognition and formation – she struggles to distinguish between visually similar letters such as b and d, n and h or similar sounding letters such as g and j. When she was younger she had difficulty visualising diagonals and so letters such as K, M, W and V were either written incorrectly or she would write them in a curly text.
(Don’t even get me started on the wide variety of fonts that appear in children’s books: it has taken her a while to realise there are multiple ways of typing a and g, and the presence or absence of a serif (a tick at the end of a letter in certain fonts such as Times New Roman) can cause great confusion. She’s not just learning A is one letter – she’s having to realise that A can be multiple letters.)
Confusion with left and right – if left unguided, she will often start reading a word from the right-hand side, for example she will read ‘got’ as ‘tog’.
Poor short-term working memory – if she correctly sounds out a new word on one page, she won’t necessarily remember it when she reads it on the next page. It will look like a new word and she will need to sound it out again. She may read the same word, three different ways over the course of a few minutes, for example ‘got’ as tog, get and got.
Slow processing – related to the working memory is the fact she processes information more slowly. It takes her longer to work through instructions, so if you give her a four-step process, by the time you have told her the last step, she’s only just processed the second, and probably forgotten the first. She can do everything you ask, but not if you dump all the information on her at once. This is usually when people accuse her of ‘not listening’, but she is listening… she’s probably listening very carefully – but she’s just trying to recall the information that is rapidly slipping away.
Poor number recognition – while she is able to visually understand numbers and put them in the correct order, she cannot name them. Often, she cannot tell you what a number is (for example ‘twelve’) without counting from 1 (ie 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-twelve).
There are many compensations though.
From early on, before we realised she was struggling to comprehend the world around her, she had already begun to discover methods of coping. She would use her body in a way to describe words she couldn’t find the language for, and as a result, she has always been physical and animated. When she couldn’t find the word for banana, she would curve her hands into the shape of the fruit, or pretend to peel and eat it. Automatically we would provide the word ‘banana’ which she would repeat, and all the while we had no clue that she was having difficulty recalling it to begin with.
She is able to spot differences and see patterns that ordinary brains cannot. She has walked into a room where one small thing has changed and notice it immediately. She completed a nine square sudoku style puzzle in seconds, where instead of numbers, images of different types of weather had been used.
She always kicks my butt at Memory and Go Fish, and I don’t even try to let her win. I don’t need to. I wish she’d let me win every now and then.
She has uncanny long term memory often dredging up a comment I made once, five years ago, or tearing up at the memory of something that happened when she was three. She will remember the faces of people she met once, or the precise location of her great-grandmother’s grave, but she has no idea what her uncles’ names are.
She has an eye for fine detail. Once with her speech therapist, we were playing a game where three of us had a different game board in front of us. Each board had 100 different images all jumbled up. A card was presented which contained six images – but only one of those six images was present on each of the boards, so you had to look at a board with 100 items, while searching for six different images, only one of which was actually there (a bit like Where’s Wally). It meant you could spend most of your time looking for an image that wasn’t even there. Almost every time she would win, and then find the correct image on our boards as well just to prove a point.
She is a wonderful artist, and will sit and draw for hours, often highly detailed and completely from memory.
She also has plenty of big ideas and makes connections between topics that would normally be beyond a seven year old. Truth be told, sometimes her statements are wildly left field and beyond the mortal brain of her mother (me), but I love her enthusiasm regardless.
I believe she also has a level of insight towards others that comes directly from her own personal anxiety and sadness. She recognises these feelings in others, because she has experienced it herself, and as a result she can be very empathetic.
I have been telling her stories about the many inspiring and successful people who have dyslexia and have achieved incredible things in their lives. She loves finding out that an actor she loves on TV or an author who wrote a book she enjoys also has dyslexia. She knows that although she will be challenged by her learning disorder, she won’t be limited by it – and tells me constantly that she can’t wait to see what amazing things she will do in her life.
I freely admit that before my own daughter was diagnosed, I hardly knew a thing about dyslexia. But chances are there will be one, two or even three children in every classroom in the country with dyslexia, diagnosed or not, so I think it’s important for all parents and teachers to know what it is.
Without a diagnosis, you might just think they are slow to learn, perhaps they are seen as the ‘naughty kids’ because they don’t concentrate in class or they’re disruptive. My daughter certainly was. You might see them as masters of procrastination, as they will do almost anything to avoid certain situations, like testing or book work.
As she gets older, some aspects of her dyslexia will get better as she learns how to manage it, and others will get harder. I have no doubt that this is a lifetime journey that she’s on, and for the next decade at least, I will be right there alongside her.