Learning the Dyslexic Way

I won't tell her she is dyslexic. She’ll think she is not worthy or she may think she's sick!

Is this mother trying to protect her child's self-esteem? Does a parent’s reassurance fall on deaf ears? Could the child’s school experience be telling her directly and subtly she’s ‘dumb’, ‘lazy’ or ‘not quite right’? How can we find ways to strengthen such a child’s self-esteem?

One way is to acknowledge that dyslexia exists. Australia wide, educational policies don’t use the ‘D’ word. Does this mean there is a void in knowledge and no common direction on how to help dyslexia? Is it possible to perceive it as a different learning style? And it may even be a potential strength! Parents can’t do it on their own without community acknowledgement.

We could reframe for all learning difficulties as learning differences and a talent. Wouldn’t this immediately increase educational possibilities? Good teaching practices including communication skills, using multi-sensory approaches, multiple intelligence, mind mapping can make a world of difference when introduced in an environment of empowerment for all students and include learning different children.

With limited knowledge of the various labels for learning differences, it’s natural for a teacher to feel unsure and resort to community myths about a label and try to control the classroom situation. However, I think most behaviors in the classroom could be boiled down to a common factor found in many of these ‘labels’ - sensory stress and confusion!

This being so teachers can easily reduce the amount of confusion. For example, if instructions are only given verbally, students with a strong visual preference (including dyslexics) may misinterpret instructions and may be unwilling to do set homework, as they can’t make sense of it.

Strengthening self-esteem could also be achieved by strengthening the school to home link. What if teachers had a way of introducing parents to any new innovative methods they’re exploring? For example, if a school is taking on a new approach to reading, parents may find it daunting to be able to help without ‘hands on’ experience. A project that addressed such issues employed an outside organization to conduct meetings with parents and one staff member as a school representative. Over time the results were outstanding. Literacy rates decreased dramatically over the entire school. Parents felt involved, teachers felt acknowledged and the kids were happy to have parents going to school! Further education among attending parents also significantly increased.

Another suggestion is to have pupil free days where teachers learn:

• Practical hands-on techniques to reduce sensory stress
• How to increase listening and communication in the classroom
• The benefits of creativity- teaching to all intelligences
• Knowledge about how to easily include non-preferred learning styles.

When linked to good teaching practices, and given opportunity to strengthen the school/home linkage, the classroom becomes a place where everyone feels safe to learn at their own pace and style and self-esteem soars!

My special interest in dyslexia came twenty years ago when I had a therapy client who taught me to re-think my theories of personal development. Then, as now, this person thinks and acts ‘outside the square’, is quite a genius, is ever curious, and always willing to take responsible risks. As a business entrepreneur he was successful but was having relationship problems. During therapy I found out he had been labeled dyslexic and ADHD as a child.
During University studies, he attended a listening training which resulted in him passing his course after three previous failures. What struck me was the elegance of using music therapeutically to make such deep changes. I was curious to know what the deeper connection was to personal development. I followed up by training in the original Tomatis Method of Listening Integration Training.

The quest of my work is how to ‘balance’ and change the perceptual system and enhance efficient functioning. When the senses get overloaded, perceptions become inconsistent. This inconsistent perception can be through speaking/listening, or feeling or visual. Whichever perception, the result is learning is compromised despite intelligence. How often I hear parents complaining how there instructions go ‘in one ear and out the other’ – they hear but their auditory perception (listening) is switched off.

Many adults in the community have signs of sensory overload: limited reading is just one factor. Other perceptual ‘symptoms’ like: mixing up dates, times and miss appointments, dialing wrong numbers, have trouble orientating in space, hate filling out forms, take scrappy phone messages- all effect work efficiency.
Just recognizing and reducing stress build-up can change a presenting issue. The result is a person is empowered; feels more understood, manages and self- corrects their perceptual distortions more naturally as they occur.

Everyone can at some point in their life have sensory overload or confused perceptions. Have you ever walked towards a door and looked at the push/pull sign and felt confused?
Do your stress levels and self-regulation affect your life? Generally, if a child isn’t coping at school, an overload may happen on just reading a text. If the person can’t ‘stem the tide’ to prevent further overload, they may display behaviors like avoidance, intolerance, or frustration. Overload issues can also accompany day-dreaming, or ‘spacing out’. It is a double-edged sword. At school it may be deemed inappropriate, yet daydreaming is a valued skill for creative thinking as an adult!

Self-esteem issues and psychosomatic conditions are often present in adults despite having successful creative careers, can lead to a lifetime of self-doubt despite obvious success. It goes without saying that those who develop anti-social behaviors are equally plagued with poor self concept.

It is estimated that as much as a third of the population are born with the talent of dyslexia, yet only half of them will experience reading and writing problems during the first years of school. A dyslexic pre-school child may seem very advanced in the home environment,
bordering on ‘gifted, then after starting school they experience unexpected difficulties. Teachers may mislabel these children as ‘lazy’ or ‘slow’ and parents are told not to expect too much from their child. Parents who pursue help for their children are often described as pushy and having unrealistic expectations and are told "leave it to us, we know what is best for your child!" But in Australia we generally don’t diagnose dyslexia and there are no programs in the schools!

A great program for reframing dyslexia from the US is designed to teach people how to correct their dyslexia and not just deal with the effects of it. This is somewhat of a breakthrough as it uses a facilitative approach, accepts and works with the learning style of dyslexia and empowers the student.

Although dyslexics aren’t all the same, they can share certain traits: such as using the brain to alter and create perceptions, being highly aware of their environment, curious about how things work, are highly intuitive and think in pictures. So if a symbol/word/numeral lacks a picture the dyslexic may not be able to think with it, and this causes confusion.
When confusion is laid on confusion this causes disorientation. When disorientated, the person may be unaware of his surroundings. Daydreaming could be seen as an imaginative use of disorientation. When dyslexics become disorientated during reading or writing, their perceptions alter. They are able to see, hear, feel and sense what they imagine as though it were real. For the artist or sports person this in itself helps them.

A recent British TV program discussed 'The Dyslexia Myth' and aimed to publicize a reading program that supported all students. Internet discussions following the program were heated and it became obvious the producers used the dyslexia phrase to sensationalize the program and seek viewers. They acknowledged the response of Professor Maggie Snowling of York University Centre for Reading & Language:

No one in the field of education would deny that there are myths surrounding dyslexia. In the past dyslexia has been linked erroneously to left-handedness, balance deficits, persistence of infant reflexes, visual perceptual abnormalities and nutritional deficiencies. Similarly, it is not in doubt that the term ‘dyslexia’ is over-used.
BUT this does not mean that dyslexia is a myth.

There is strong scientific evidence concerning the nature, causes and consequences of dyslexia, meaning that it can be readily identified by educated professionals and its potentially negative effects can be ameliorated.
…the skills underlying the acquisition of reading are continuously distributed in the population, such that some people find learning to read and write a trivial matter whereas others, notably children with dyslexia, have extreme difficulty.

Whether or not a child is diagnosed ‘dyslexic’ depends on their age and stage of development, the context and language in which they are learning and the criteria adopted by the educational system in which they are schooled.

This does not mean that professionals should doubt their confidence to make a ‘diagnosis’. A reading of the scientific literature can guide them and more importantly, ensure that the ‘at-risk’ child gets the help they require, when they need it, so that the cruel reality of living with unrecognized dyslexia can be avoided.

There is now a massive consensus that learning to read depends upon phonological (speech) processing skills. (You can’t process speech if you can’t perceive the sounds of speech.) Children who come to the task of learning to read with poor phonology are at high risk of dyslexia. Such children have difficulty learning letter sounds, in developing phoneme awareness and therefore in acquiring the alphabetic principle (phonics). If they do not receive intervention, they try to compensate by relying on visual skills, their reading and spelling development proceeds on the wrong trajectory and subsequently goes awry.

… A child’s genetic endowment plays an important role in determining how easily they will learn to read, all other things being equal. … phonological abilities do not depend on IQ - the genetic risk can affect learning to read in children of high and of low IQ equally though the problem is easier to detect in those of higher ability who do not show other learning problems. This does not mean however, that it will be easy to differentiate at school entry between children with dyslexia and children at risk of failure because they come to school from socio-economically or linguistically disadvantaged backgrounds.

… intervention programs can make a difference. Those that target the development of phoneme awareness and letter-sound knowledge, in conjunction with reading practice from texts pitched at the appropriate level of difficulty, are effective in preventing the downward spiral of reading problems. Some authors suggest 75% of children identified at risk of reading problems in Year 1 respond positively to such programs. The remaining 25% continue to give cause for concern, and will include those with dyslexia whose problems are likely to persist These must have listening integration training.

…Good teaching delivered at the right time will not eradicate the condition but it will greatly help these children learn to read and write and cope with the demands of our educational system. An analogy might be made with diabetes. An appropriate diet and the use of insulin undoubtedly helps people with this serious disease, but it will not cure it.

In Australia we haven’t even acknowledged yet that dyslexia exists in education policies and our children are suffering. Sometimes the local press produces good news stories of dyslexics who have contributed to the society and made lots of money, for example Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver. Yet for those not sufficiently resilient to get through the educational system, it is cold comfort to hear these success stories. Our jails have a large proportion of illiterate people and it would be interesting to know how many mental health clients have lived a life of confusion stemming from early learning difficulties or trauma.

Clearly we must reframe dyslexia as a talent and get policies in education that acknowledge it’s existence, develop programs so that children get a fair deal at school and adult dyslexics don’t have to become ‘disabled’ in order to get some services. When something is hidden it doesn’t go away it gets worse!

Tomatis AA, The Conscious Ear Station Hill Press
Tomatis AA, The Ear and Language
Madaule P, When Listening Comes Alive Moulin Press
Davis Ron, The Gift of Dyslexia Ability Press

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