Dealing with dyslexia
Many people with high IQs potentially face a life sentence of underachievement, lowered self-esteem, frustration, embarrassment and emotional difficulties because the cause of their learning problems — dyslexia — is not recognised.
Dyslexia affects five to 10 per cent of Australians. The incidence is higher in some countries and lower in others. It’s interesting that in pictographic languages like Chinese, where a different process and perhaps a different part of the brain is used in reading, dyslexia is much rarer.
Even when a student with dyslectic learning difficulties is diagnosed, schools are seldom given enough specialised support to help the student learn effectively. And too often where schools do provide support to dyslectic learners, it’s in remedial-type groups, which for very bright dyslectic students can be a crushing strategy.
Because of their high IQ, many people with dyslexia manage to establish a reasonable place for themselves in the workplace, but in our highly technical world this is becoming more difficult. I personally know people with dyslexia who, despite the difficulties, have had very successful business careers. And, of course, some very famous and successful people were and are dyslectic, among them Albert Einstein, Agatha Christie, Thomas Edison — and Tom Cruise. However, unlike these exceptions, most people with dyslexia face a life of underperformance.
Causes and indicators
Dyslexia has many causes, including missed developmental stages as a baby. It seems heredity plays a significant part, with dyslexia often skipping a generation and presenting, for example, in grandparent and grandchild. Premature birth and emotional issues in childhood also seem to be implicated.
The most common indicator of a dyslectic learning difficulty is a strong mismatch between oral skills and literacy, however there are at least 60 other indicators that can be used towards a diagnosis of dyslexia. Rarely does any individual show all 60 indicators and most people with dyslexia seem to have a unique mix of them. Most share at least some of these indicators. Dyslexia is obvious in the following two recent cases.
Kylie, despite having a quick, lively mind, finds that when she is attempting to read she sees a jumble of moving black shapes rather than letters. She also has poor coordination, which makes handwriting and sports participation difficult. Her frustration is palpable and her academic school life is one of high stress and failure. She has covered up the problem fairly well by using her strong network of friends to provide written work for her.
Robert, a high school student, has to point to each word or use a ruler to keep his eyes on the words. He can read, but it’s such hard work that he has to repeat much of what he reads many times over to understand it. Copying from a whiteboard is a long, slow and arduous task. He mostly gives up and hates reading where others can see him. He has preferred to use his high IQ to build himself a reputation with his peers and his school for clever anti-school stunts.
Dyslexia affects the ability of otherwise bright people to process print. At its worst, some people with dyslexia will never be able to read, despite massive effort. At the lower end of the dyslectic spectrum, reading and writing will always be much harder than normal. Even when someone with dyslexia is able to read, it will be hard physical and mental effort, with 20 minutes of reading being like several hours of stressful, hard physical work. It’s little wonder people with dyslexia seldom get any pleasure from reading.
Dyslexia is not an intellectual disability, although many people with dyslexia feel they are disabled in some way. Many, in fact, have an IQ that is well above average, and huge potential, so it’s all the more frustrating for them if their dyslectic learning patterns cannot be changed.
Dyslexia is, rather, a breakdown in processing language. It’s a bit like having a BMW car with dirty plugs; the car runs very badly. Yet once the plugs are changed, the car can perform up to expectations. There is nothing wrong with the dyslectic learner’s brain, only with some internal processes that can, in most cases, be changed.
Too often in school, children with dyslexia face the added hurdle of appearing lazy, for they show every sign orally of being skilled learners, are often very knowledgeable and can learn quickly and in depth, yet they produce very little, if any, formal written work. I can personally attest to this, for at school I was used by other students for information and ideas, yet I was always bottom of my class, unable to read and write very well, being obviously dyslectic.
A large number of bright children with dyslexia, especially boys, act up in school out of sheer frustration and are often misdiagnosed as having ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Dyslexia seems to affect a much higher number of boys than girls, although many girls, because of their networking and social abilities, are better able to hide the problem from parents and teachers until the senior years of school. Until recently, many school-age dyslectic learners were treated with ADHD drugs. It’s heartening to see that most medical research is now focusing on non-drug strategies, including cognitive training.
In about 10 per cent of the cases of potential dyslexia presented, undetected hearing and/or visual problems are the real issue. Once these are assessed and remediated by the appropriate professionals, the dyslectic-like learning problems often disappear.
In the past, and still to a large extent, teachers were not trained to recognise dyslectic learners, nor did most education systems see it as a real issue. Those teachers who have been given the information and techniques are keen to improve the outcomes of dyslectic students.
Natural self-help strategies
The good news is that as we have learnt more about the way the brain works, a number of self-help, easy-to-learn strategies have proven very helpful in moving people with dyslexia into new, successful learning patterns. They include the following:
Educational Kinesiology Brain Gym
These are fun and easy-to-use physical exercises and balances that have had success for at least 20 years in moving thousands of dyslectic learners worldwide towards being successful learners. With initial instruction from a practitioner, they are easy to learn and use, taking only a few minutes each day. The results are often seen very quickly.
Brain Gym works by de-stressing the body’s acupoint system (energy system), thereby promoting balance, which in turn frees the brain for new learning pathways. Brain Gym can also improve the poor coordination so often seen in people with dyslexia as well as being helpful in reducing their stress.
The techniques of cognitive reprogramming have been used for a long time by sports trainers to boost performance. They’re easy to use and also very effective for people with dyslexia. Cognitive reprogramming is a way of quickly giving the negative feedback received each day a more positive slant. The idea is that by visualisation and constant repetition of positive internal feedback, the brain’s “software” can be reprogrammed towards positive thinking, success and more efficient ways of learning.
It’s also especially important to change the feedback dyslectic learners constantly give themselves, in their inner voice, to refocus negatives to positives. I recommend having children say 20 really good things about themselves each day and the keeping of a Positive Change Diary to boost the process. It is, of course, useful for anyone to learn to change negative thoughts to positive ones.
Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
EFT is a more recently developed kinesiology-linked technique. It uses a series of acupoint tapping on each meridian (energy pathway) in the body and cognitive feedback to remove the impending and already established emotional issues that develop in most people with dyslexia. Where other techniques have failed, EFT is seeing stunning results across the wide spectrum of emotionally linked difficulties, boosting the reduction or removal of the powerful stored emotions that can hold the dyslectic learner back.
Using a combination of these strategies, the majority of dyslectic learners can become more successful learners. The twofold effect is such that, once learnt, they are self-help strategies that are not reliant on medicines or constant visits to a practitioner. Rather, the learner is given the skills to be in charge of the process of growth. I have taught all three strategies to children as young as five and adults of all ages.
It’s best to involve all members of the family in the exercises, as modelling by others is a huge boost to the dyslectic learner in moving towards more efficient learning. These strategies seem to help most people — not only those with dyslexia — learn better, reduce stress and deal with emotional issues. They can boost personal sports performance as well as learning.
Some cases from my practice show that once these self-help skills are mastered, progress becomes possible for many people with dyslexia.
30-year-old Jane, who found reading really difficult, had held a number of unsatisfying jobs where she found it hard to be working far below her intellectual level. She joined an adult education re-entry program but found she had no more success than when she was at school. On the point of dropping out, she discovered a dyslexia support program being offered by the re-entry program.
Using the skills built in this short course and boosting it with three or four consultations, she was able to make the breakthrough in reading. She diligently used the exercises daily and found her literacy improved so much that within the year she was able to pass the mature-age entry to university. Last year she graduated with a degree in social work.
Mike was a carpenter who desperately wanted to teach but couldn’t read well enough to matriculate. He joined a dyslexia support program, had five private consultations and is now in his fifth year as a Technical Studies teacher. At age 11, Marisa wanted desperately to do well at school. A very bright young person, she couldn’t master reading and had been placed in the remedial class, which she found unhelpful and stressful. She attended three sessions to learn the self-help skills and within six months was in the top three of her class. She matriculated with two perfect scores. Now at university, she finds the self-help exercises allow her to study more effectively.
Living in a country town, John, aged nine, was the bane of his teachers. In class he demonstrated many ADHD symptoms, had temper tantrums and would refuse to pick up a pen or read. However, when I observed him in the schoolyard and at home, his behaviour was cooperative — except when asked to do his homework — and he was obviously liked by many of his peers, especially as his play ideas were so creative. His coordination was poor — a trait shared by many dyslectic learners — so he couldn’t join in ballgames, which he really wanted to do.
John’s school decided to hold a training and development course with staff training in assessment and strategies to support dyslectic and other learning difficulties. John also had two individual sessions during the three-day staff training program and three follow-up sessions over the next three months. John’s parents joined him in his exercises. His teachers used them themselves and introduced them to the whole class. John’s behaviour improved within days. His reading was found to be minimal, but he now worked happily with a teacher’s aid who, within weeks, helped him build his reading to just below grade level. He was also playing cricket for the first time and doing quite well. As a further benefit, the teachers at John’s school using these techniques noted personal gains in reduced stress levels and increased energy levels. In the classes using these techniques, improvements were noted in most students’ behaviour and learning after using the exercises for a few weeks.
The key role of parents
Parents play a key role in moving the younger dyslectic learner into new, successful learning strategies. A key barrier for most dyslectic learners is the emotional baggage built up by years of failure and its resultant effects on self-esteem and self-belief. Parents can ensure their child’s strong emotional health and build their self-esteem despite the child’s difficulties in the area of literacy.
As a parent you can help a child with dyslectic learning difficulties in the following ways:
- Keep a Positive Change Diary in which every positive change, however small, is listed and at the end of each week celebrated. This is an effective way of programming the subconscious to work towards positive change.
- Show your unconditional love for your child at all times.
- Set up situations where your child can demonstrate what they know, what they think and how they problem-solve in non-reading/writing forms.
- Talk positively to your child’s teachers and see if they too can set up situations where your child can show what they know in ways other than reading and writing. Teaming with peers who act as scribes for your child’s ideas (often used by girls) is a good class strategy, as is using taped responses.
- Avoid negative comments. Never make statements about how poor your child is at reading or other skills.
- Give as many positive comments as you can. Your aim should be to give at least 20 positives for every negative.
- Teach your child to take charge of their inner voice, for this is often the most negative influence on dyslectic and other failing learners. Have them stop when any internal negative thought occurs and reprocess it into a positive one.
- Help your child build good knowledge and a rich oral language by reading often to them from rich language and knowledge sources. Include them in adult conversations. Watching good educational television programs and learning with computers is helpful.
- Find out all you can about the different approaches to helping a child with dyslexia. Attend a course yourself and build the skills you need to provide even more support. You are key to your child’s move towards success.
- Arrange an assessment and support program consultation in your area.
- Have your school arrange a training and development course for staff and parents.
- Model good learning by reading and studying yourself.
Of course, as in any human endeavour, no single approach suits all individuals. If one approach fails, you need to seek another elsewhere. A number of other strategies are used by various practitioners in this field. Coloured lenses, for example, seem to produce very noticeable progress in some dyslectic learners. However, my experience shows that children are reluctant to wear them in school; parents support this, finding non-compliance hard to overcome.
Teaching phonic skills intensively is a strategy used by some practitioners, as many dyslectic learners show difficulties in processing information in this important way and this strategy can be helpful for them.
The Specific Learning Difficulties Association (SPELD) is a not-for-profit organisation in Australia that has been working in the area of dyslexia for many years with much success. Although SPELD uses techniques that are very different from those discussed here, it has gained respect and positive results from its approach. SPELD’s long-term commitment to educating the community about dyslexia has allowed the problem to be recognised and researched. The SPELD websites contain useful resources and links.
It’s a truism that no one magic strategy exists, but for most dyslectic learners there are ways to boost learning. Also, it goes without saying that good diet provides strong support in any successful strategy to boost learning, as it gives optimum nutrition to the brain, so seek information from dietary experts. Don’t let dyslexia be a life sentence for your child, yourself or others you care about. Find out more about the strategies that can offer real and lasting results.
All clients’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.
- Specific Learning Difficulties Association of South Australia www.speld-sa.org.au (includes links to SPELD in other states)
- Practitioners www.naturaltherapypages.com.au
- Emotional Freedom Techniques www.emofree.com
- Kinesiology www.aka-oz.org (Australian Kinesiology Association) www.kindirect.com (Australian Kinesiology Directory)