My son Ed was in infant school when I first noticed that he wasn’t learning to read as quickly as his twin. It was, at that early stage, put down to the fact that he is a boy and will naturally acquire the skills later than his sister. He was in grade two and still struggling when I decided it was time I listen to my gut and seek expert advice. An assessment by a psychologist led to a diagnosis of dyslexia (moral of this part of the story – mother’s gut feelings are superpowers, heed them well).
The diagnosis was in some ways a relief, in other ways a burden. It meant more work, more appointments, and a lot more of me poking my nose into Ed’s school life. It meant learning a whole lot about the human brain.
Every child with dyslexia is different, but from what I have learnt, and witnessed in Ed, the dyslexic brain just won’t readily accept that a single letter or a combination of letters represents a sound. Nor can it simply take a visual image of whole words to retain for future use. It demands a more pragmatic explanation of the code. For instance, Ed might ask the question, “Why does ‘ea’ makes the same sound as ‘ee’ but you don’t put shoes on your feat?”
The English language contains 26 letters and 44 (freaking) sounds. It has varied, obscure origins, erratic rules and many quirks. So, the resistance of Ed’s brain, and his many questions are perfectly reasonable.
But many teaching practices don’t give the right answers. Just as often, there is no time to give a dyslexic child these answers, nor is there always the self-esteem for kids to keep piping up in front of their peers. Before long they will simply stop asking, meaning that they are unable to move on to the comprehension stage, which is the fun part of reading, where entertainment and emotion happens.
Ed is fourteen now and I am counting my blessings. He and I have found a host of parents, practitioners and teachers who have delivered support, advice and most importantly, access to explicit, evidence-based teaching of phonics that actually address those questions that trip up his brain. We have Hobart’s Square Pegs, dedicated to raising awareness of dyslexia and giving support, and he is tremendously lucky to have his wonderful Speech Pathologist Linda McKillop in his corner. He still hasn’t found particular joy in reading, but he is making great progress. He is happy. He is not ashamed. When I asked him whether he’d mind me writing about him for this article, he replied, ‘Yeah, all good’ in his affable way.
In Ed I see first-hand the other (shiny) side to the dyslexia coin. Dyslexic brains, while not lighting up their reading parts as well as they might, light up like proper beacons when it comes to tasks that require spatial awareness and practical problem solving. They have a wonderful ability to see the bigger picture – in three dimensions. This is not just braggy, lofty mum talk, they actually do. Non-dyslexics summon around 150 images per second while dyslexics can process 1500 to 4000 images, often in three dimensions. Their powers of observation are advanced. Ed constantly amazes us with what he sees and retains in the real world.
There are times when I cry for Ed, when I lament the hours I spend repeating myself and when he’s distressed and feels that life is unfair. There are heart sinking moments when it looks as though he’ll never catch up with his friends, when we’re reminded just how effortful it all is. Being a dyslexic child (and having one) is HARD WORK. The world, especially the world of mainstream education, just isn’t set up for them.
But Ed is thoughtful and warm. He is open and articulate with his feelings. And once he’s battled through these challenges, he will know all about determination and hard work, to the point of it being the norm. And that will be his superpower!