Growing up as a child of the 70’s on a farm, on an island (off the coast of another island, off the coast of an even bigger island), in the middle of Bass Strait, reading was a huge part of my life. Let's face it, there wasn’t much on tele in those days. My family were all bookworms who would stay up all night or in bed all day reading if we could. I had never heard of dyslexia or come across anyone who couldn’t readily learn to read (or at least, it wasn't on my radar).
Fast forward to 2001 and the birth of my beautiful, baby boy. He was an only child until he turned six, so had the benefit of my undivided attention and first-time mothers’ zeal to do the absolute best for her little one. I read hundreds of books to him in his first four years. I loved snuggling together to read his favourites over and over again. Where is the Green Sheep?, The Bad Good Manners Book, To Give a Moose a Muffin and What do people do all day? still sit on our book shelf, ragged and well loved.
It was clear to me that I had a very bright little boy, full of imagination and it was inconceivable that he wouldn’t develop a love of reading, just as I had. Off he went to school, where he was give the 100 Magic Words to learn. And learn them he did, by wrote, in the order that they were listed on the page. But, presented with these same words in a book or asked to write them and he was lost. By Prep, we were concerned as he seemed to be behind his peers. We were assured that he would catch up and that all children learn at their own pace. Fortunately, my mother-in-law knew better. She suggested that we have a formal assessment. When the report was posted to me in the mail, I was devastated! My son had a learning difference. What did this mean? Was he going to be OK? Where could we get help? Was it my fault?
Most mothers experience guilt - a lot of guilt - this just added another layer to my personal hair shirt. Maybe I hadn’t tried hard enough? How could I have not known? This was followed by a strong feeling of fear and the need to protect my son from being teased at school and the pain of failure…but of course I couldn’t. He was very aware of his own struggles relative to his classmates and truly ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. Confusion, anxiety and poor self-esteem were a heart-breaking part of the journey.
For a number of years, we fumbled our way through a range of costly assessments, tutors and literacy programs, largely unsure of whether we were on the right track. The internet was full of information, much of it confusing, contradictory or misleading. We didn’t know who to trust. We felt very much on our own.
Eventually, I came into contact with other parents going through a similar experience and even found that there were a number at the same school - although each of us were unaware of the other and had felt equally isolated! This led to Square Pegs and the start of a network of people, including parents, psychologists, speech pathologists, educators and academics all of whom want to help children with learning differences reach their potential. Finally, some people who understood what we were going through!
This network has been a lifeline. It provided comfort and confidence that our son has a bright future. It also highlighted that our story is not an uncommon one. There are in fact many children and families going through the same challenging journey. There are also many teachers and professionals looking for ways to help children with dyslexia to learn to read, so that they can go on to read to learn.
My son has continued to strive to achieve in his learning. He has been through countless hours of small group sessions, one-on-one tutoring, assessments and more. But at the end of the day, it is his persistence and aspiration that have seen him achieve great results.
While as parents we have always focussed on attitude and effort and reinforced to our kids that grades aren’t everything, I know that our son had something to prove, to himself at least. And he has. He’s finished school with an ATAR that has allowed him to enrol at University. He’s studying Arts/Law and is achieving credits and distinctions, something that we always knew was possible - as long as the system didn’t break his hope and self-belief before he got the chance!
The evidence is in, the solutions are there…we just need to act together, with courage and kindness, to ensure that children no longer fall through the gaps.