Abigail Marshall always says that her son, Ethan, never suffered from dyslexia. Rather, he suffered from being misdiagnosed and misunderstood.
Ethan is in some pretty stellar company. At age 7, Thomas Edison was labeled "retarded" and taken out of public school because he couldn't read. His mother knew he was very bright, so she began home-schooling him, using strategies that played to his strengths. He grew up to become one of the most prolific and successful inventors of all time. Likewise, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Ansel Adams and a host of other extremely intelligent, creative people struggled with, and ultimately overcame, one or more of the various forms of dyslexia.
What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a term used to describe one type of language-based learning disability that causes difficulties in learning to read, write and spell. Most people with dyslexia are quite intelligent; they merely process information in a different area of the brain than non-dyslexics. It is estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the population have some form of dyslexia, which makes it the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties.
A common assumption about dyslexia is that it makes words look like they're reversed or mixed-up. This is partially correct, but the true problem with dyslexics is that they have difficulties making the basic connection between letters and their sounds. Because dyslexics process information differently than non-dyslexics, a multi-sensory teaching method is more effective for them than the traditional rote memorization that is standard practice in American schools. The flip side of this is that dyslexics tend to be extremely creative and innovative – perhaps because they have to be to keep up.
There are other learning disabilities that are related to dyslexia, but are non-language related. For example, dyscalculia affects a person's ability to solve arithmetic problems and understand math concepts. Dysgraphia affects the ability to form letters properly and write within a defined space. Albert Einstein suffered from both dysgraphia and dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a genetic disorder, not a disease, and often a parent or other relative has the condition as well. This can make it even more difficult for the dyslexic child when he's struggling with schoolwork at home, because the parent may not be able to help. Teresa Ankney is a co-founder of the Parent Advocacy Group for Educational Rights (PAGER), a sociologist, the mother of a dyslexic child and a dyslexic herself. During the course of our interview, she had to write down the last name of someone she works closely with in order to give the correct spelling – even though she's spelled the name a million times. She laughed at her little "trick" but also used it to point out the challenge for a dyslexic child. And that challenge can be even more daunting in school.
There are no hard and fast "symptoms" of dyslexia, but if an otherwise bright, creative, motivated, academically oriented child is obviously struggling in the language arts, such as reading, spelling and writing, dyslexia should be suspected. At this point, it is the responsibility of the public school to give a series of tests that cover cognitive, linguistic, social/emotional and academic abilities.
The drawbacks are that often the public school system can wait too long to diagnose the problem, and this may result in a lot of frustration for the child. In the case of Ethan, Marshall knew something was wrong as early as first grade, but she believed the school's assurances that he was just running a little behind. By second grade, there was no doubt in her mind, because Ethan was the only child in his class who couldn't read.
"I suggested several times that Ethan be tested for dyslexia, but people I talked to in the school assured me that was not his problem, and I assumed they knew what they were doing," Marshall says. "They told me, variously, that Ethan was lazy, unmotivated and not trying. Against my better judgment, I pushed him to try harder. By the time he was in fifth grade, he was really struggling. Then one day I heard one of his friends talking about how much writing they had to do in the sixth grade. I realized that Ethan would never make it. I decided to have him tested myself."
Marshall took Ethan to the Davis Center in San Francisco for testing and discovered he was a classic dyslexic. Instead of getting the school involved further, she decided to deal with it at home. Using strategies suggested in the book The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald Davis, founder of the center, Marshall was able to help Ethan adapt his learning style.
"I worked with him at home over a three-month period and couldn't believe the difference in his confidence level when he started school in the fall," Marshall says. "He ended up in the highest reading level and went from being an angry, moody child who hated school to one that qualified for the gifted program."
Eventually, when Ethan entered high school, Marshall was able to arrange for him to do much of his work on a word processor, but otherwise he never needed special accommodations. However, Marshall said if she had to do it over again, she would have done it much differently. She would have fought harder to have Ethan tested – and at a much younger age. She would have insisted on help through the public school system to figure out the best way for Ethan to learn. And she would have trusted her gut feeling and never believed that Ethan was lazy or unmotivated.
When Ronald Davis, author of The Gift of Dyslexia: Why Some of the Smartest People Can't Read and How They Can Learn (Perigee Books, 1997) by Ronald Davis, was a child, he had so much trouble learning that he was eventually tested, found to have an IQ of about 49 and was allowed to just slide through the school system. Nothing was ever expected of him, because it was felt he was incapable of learning. Left to his own devices, Davis began to teach himself, making models of letters, sculpting items from clay and asking his brothers to help him understand the shapes that puzzled him. He went on to become an engineer – and was re-tested to find he had an IQ of over 160 – even though he never really learned to read until he was in his late 30s.
Then two decades ago, while writing his life story, he realized that he was making a blueprint for helping dyslexics learn to read. This led him to open a center devoted to helping dyslexics. Although his focus initially was on adults, he was helping children as well. The success rate at his center, coupled with the realization that not everyone could afford outside private help, prompted him to write a book for dyslexics or parents of dyslexics, to use at home.
Davis argues that dyslexia is not diagnosed early enough in children and that strategies for coping with the condition are delayed until the child begins to fail. Teresa Ankney of PAGER agrees, as does Abigail Marshall. All three would like to see earlier testing and intervention – even as young as kindergarten. However, in most schools, the special education system is not set up to react that quickly.
So what can a parent do? The key is to know your child, trust your instincts, insist on early testing and then follow up with the school to be sure they are meeting the needs of your child. It's the law that they do so. There are also many programs available for helping a child at home that a parent can use to supplement the school's adaptations. Some cost next to nothing; some, like private schools for dyslexics, are something only a fortunate few can afford. However, regardless of income level, a parent who is knowledgeable and supportive on the subject of dyslexia is the most priceless resource for any child.