self help

The Big Picture: Understanding Dyslexia

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Percy Jackson: “A half-blood of the eldest dogs…”
Annabeth : “Er, Percy? That’s gods, not dogs”
– Rick Riordan in The Lightning Thief

When our dear son was 3 years old, I noticed that as kind, creative, and intelligent as he was, he did not gravitate with curiosity towards decoding words written on paper in two dimensions. He liked listening to stories like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber, narrated to him by his grandmother. We read him Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Bookthe long versions with no pictures. He memorized a lot of it, and was able to point out the differences in the movie version. Whereas he absolutely loved being read to and began using big words rather early on, he resisted the “putting pen to paper” things that other kids his age did with ease. My husband and I have 45 years of formal education between us. We have had a lifelong affair with words and reading. The thought did occur to us, “How could our son have fallen so far from the tree?” More about how the diagnosis happened in later posts. For now :

What is dyslexia or reading disability?

Written works are meant to function as a means of communication. For them to be effective, we must be able to (1) decode and (2) comprehend text. Dyslexics have difficulties with decoding written matter. Comprehension is not an issue/ Sensory abilities are intact/ Intelligence is intact.

Under the CC license by Brandi-Redd at Unsplash

Is dyslexia the same as dysgraphia or language processing disorder?

Nope. The larger category of Learning disabilities under which dyslexia falls, can be of many types. More on that in later posts.

How do you diagnose dyslexia?

The diagnosis of dyslexia is tricky. Unlike categorical disorders which you can either have or not have, dyslexia lies on a continuum. This continuum is a distribution of age-appropriate word reading ability. Ideally in India, a clinical psychologist with an Mphil degree (an M.A/M.Sc or a Ph.D is not enough) and an Occupational therapist, together, can be trusted to not miss out on a learning disability.

Our son with the Ladybird series

How many children in the normal population are diagnosed with dyslexia?

Epidemiological studies have put the number at a very high 7%.

Can happy children from well-to-do families, exposed to rich language, surrounded by doting parents/ grandparents/ caregivers still suffer from dyslexia?

Absolutely. There is very strong evidence of genetic influences in the disorder. Neuropsychological studies show that some deficits are often present in family members of dyslexics who have not necessarily met with the entire diagnostic criteria or who have coped due to fewer pressures at school or tricks that they used to get by (and a LOT of hard work).

Has there been any change in intelligence or reading ability over the years?

Probably. In psychology, the (debated) Flynn effect is the sustained increase in intelligence test scores from the 1930’s to the present-day. This effect has also been seen for reading ability. This means that 5-year olds in 1930 were required to read at a lower level than 5-year olds in 1945, and so on, to date. So, it assumes that my son reads more at first grade in 2018 than I did in 1986.

At what age can I diagnose my child as dyslexic?

It is a regular practice to either not diagnose or to delay diagnosis of dyslexia until a child turns 8 or 9 years old. This is known as the “wait to fail” model. Children are referred to Special education only after “normal instruction” doesn’t work. By this time, a child who is obviously intelligent and working very hard is told “you are not working hard enough.” Damage to his self-esteem is apparent. It is very important to refer children who are “struggling readers” compared to their classmates by age 4 or 5. Don’t “wait for them to grow out of it” – Early interventions have the best results.

Woodrow Wilson’s personal typewriter (Wilson suffered from dyslexia, and did not learn to read until he was 10 years old)

How can I help my child who is dyslexic, cope?

The challenge for a parent of a young (6 year old) dyslexic is to schedule 30-minute intensive and structured, yet enjoyable interventions daily.

1. Children with dyslexia benefit from individual sessions and small group settings. They do much worse in larger classroom settings.

2. Dyslexics benefit from explicit instructions :
(a) These instructions include training in phoneme awareness, word analysis, reading fluency and reading comprehension. A list of good (and licensed) special educators in poona follows in another blogpost.
(b) Such children should be given reading of increasingly difficult connected text along with writing exercises and comprehension strategies. My personal favourite is the “Key words with Peter and Jane” by W. Murray book series (36 books) published by Ladybird.
(c) In order to maintain the gains from treatment, consistency is the key.
Neuro-imaging studies show that such remediation, especially early on, in children with reading difficulties alters their brain activity.

What are the evidence based treatments/ intervention programs for struggling readers?

Training in rapid auditory processing and exercise/movement-based treatments (e.g.,vestibular training) by licensed Special educators and Occupational therapists (respectively) along-with Visual treatments (e.g.,coloured lenses, vision therapy) are scientifically proven to help dyslexics. I am currently in the process of evaluating which one’s are the best (online and in poona).

English versus Marathi/Hindi – my opinion?

In dyslexia, one measures (1) reading accuracy and (2) speed of reading.
In some European languages such as Italian or Finnish, and Indian languages such as Marathi and Hindi – problems exist more with speed of reading than with reading accuracy. This is because Marathi or Hindi are highly phonetic i.e their written form (Devanagari Script) can predict how words are pronounced. As a neuropsychologist, I always encourage exposing a child to several languages. However, when it comes to reading, especially for a child with dyslexia, I go with the language most used at home. In our case, unfortunately, this is English. The English-language does not have such letter-sound correspondence and so our son and we, struggle with both accuracy and speed of reading.

Reference :

Peterson, R. L., & Pennington, B. F. (2015). Developmental Dyslexia. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 11, 283- 307.

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