I knew very little about dyslexia when our daughter was diagnosed. I was guilty of believing dyslexics simply transposed letters, and often saw them backwards, but dyslexia is more complex than that. It's true that many dyslexics see b's and p's in mirror form; however, they may also find themselves struggling to recall words, remember tasks, and people's names. Often dyslexia is accompanied by other conditions, like ADD/ADHD, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and/or dyspraxia.
Dyspraxia deals with the ability to make coordinated movements. Anytime you get dressed, feed yourself, brush your teeth, write, or thread a needle, you are using coordinated movements. These are difficult for most toddlers, but by elementary school, children have all but mastered these small tasks. Yet, Aleah struggled well beyond third grade to button her shirt, or zip her jacket, or even hold a fork. I recall many evenings at the dinner table watching her grab her fork and stab her meat, or ignore her utensils altogether. Night after night we'd place the fork in her hand correctly only to have her forget seconds later. We'd watch her flip the fork over and nestle it between different fingers never quite getting the typical placement we all learn to use.
Dysgraphia is the inability to write legibly, and or taking an inordinate amount of time to write. This was one of the first alarm bells that I noticed. In Kindergarten, when she was to practice writing her alphabet and numbers, most were illegible, and the effort it took her to form one letter made my heart ache. Even today, at 17, she makes a great effort to ensure her handwriting is readable.
Dyscalculia revolves around numbers and math. Those suffering from Dyscalculia may reverse their numbers like dyslexics reverse letters. Copying math problems correctly, recalling phone numbers, or learning to count may challenge those with this affliction. Of all the conditions, this one hit her the least. While she occasionally reverses her sixes or nines, or has trouble remembering our home address, it hasn't affected her ability to understand math or do well in class.
Pushed to Breaking
One of my biggest regrets is forcing my daughter to do her reading, reading logs, and journals the way, and in the timeframe, her elementary school demanded. If I had known then what I know now, my fight would have been with the school, and not my daughter. Night after night, I coaxed, offered rewards, dished out punishment, and sometimes caved in when trying to get Aleah to do her required homework. I simply wasn't sure whether my girl was being obstinate, or truly couldn't read a page or two from a Dick and Jane equivalent.
From my point of view, I was being a good parent, trying to get my child to complete her homework, but more often than not, these battles ended in tantrums and tears. It ripped me apart to watch her sob and curl into a ball when I said it was time to do her reading. I couldn't understand how reading one page, or writing one small paragraph in her journal could cause such distress. The fact that I read voraciously, and love to write blinded me to the validity of her outrage and frustration.
It wasn't until a trip to our family doctor finally shed light on a possible rationale for all her struggles. Luckily, our doctor had another patient who had dyslexia, and he recognized the symptoms in Aleah. The moment he explained, and mentioned the condition it was as if a light turned on in a dark room. We had a direction to go and a place to start. No longer were we fumbling around a lightless room looking for a switch. Now, we could get her tested, and find ways to help our girl.
Tools for Success
Once we received an official diagnosis from a Child Neuropsychologist, we tried to work with the public school, the teachers, and the administration. What became painfully obvious is, while the teachers were willing, they were not capable of helping Aleah learn. In conjunction with her teachers, the school psychologist, and the principal, we crafted Aleah's IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Even with the assistance and extra time allotted her, the school couldn't provide her with the tools or support she needed. It was time to look for a school that could.
My husband took on that task with vigor and found, the only option, a school that was over an hour away, and incredibly expensive. We felt we had no choice. For five years, we scrimped and scraped to pay for the private school's tuition, but we saw remarkable improvement in Aleah. When she began at the private school, she believed she was stupid; her self esteem was nearly nonexistent, and her social skills were lacking.
The small, specialized environment allowed the teachers to aid the students in their interactions with their peers, and provide them with individualized attention. Some students had only dyslexia or only ADHD, while others dealt with a multitude of challenges like my daughter did. Class sizes were ten students or fewer with minor exceptions. This minimized setting reduced distractions for those with attention deficits, and helped others to concentrate more fully on tasks that took great effort. In addition to academic concerns, the teachers were geared to work with students on organizational skills, social skills, language skills, and other coping mechanisms. The staff worked hard to bring up the confidence and self-esteem of the sometimes distressed students.
In the absence of this specialized school, and our ability to send her there, she might not be graduating high school next year, or attending college. She might have been one of those statistics. But many students who don't have specialized schools nearby, or can't afford them, do indeed become a statistic. Public schools serve a great need and do admirable work; however, they cannot be all things to all people. Without a way for financially less fortunate families to enroll their child(ren) in a school that best helps the individual, we will continue to have many children that fall through the cracks.
I am grateful for those teachers who tried to help Aleah, and to those teachers who succeeded in teaching her. Being dyslexic isn't easy, but neither should it be a curse. With a change in our social thinking, we could enable families to find schools that best suit their child's needs. My daughter is most fortunate. I wish the same for other parents and families struggling with such an unnecessarily frustrating condition.