When my daughter was first diagnosed with dyslexia, I was scared. My expectations immediately went from her being a doctor or lawyer to praying that she could just finish high school. I didn’t understand enough about what dyslexia was; I just heard that scary phrase “not curable” and immediately gained the doomsday mindset.
Dyslexia is one of the most misunderstood learning differences because so much misinformation has been shared about it. It seems like everywhere you look, someone is selling glasses or a diet or a pill that preys on fearful parents. The truth is that dyslexia is not something a child outgrows, but with proper intervention, it is very manageable.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia simply means that a person’s brain is wired differently. While I use one part of my brain for reading, writing and math, a person with dyslexia uses a different part. The common theory used to be that dyslexia was tied to a vision problem, but thanks to brain imaging software that shows what part of the brain is activated to perform different tasks, we now know dyslexia has nothing to do with the eyes.
Because of this brain difference, dyslexia not only affects a person’s ability to read, but it can also affect math, spelling and fine motor skills. Eventually, all of these obstacles can affect self-esteem.
To complicate this further, students with dyslexia are often very intelligent. So, not only are they struggling to keep up with their classmates, but they are also smart enough to see that they are falling behind.
Is there an upside to dyslexia?
Hearing people claim that dyslexia is a gift was frustrating for my daughter and me for a long time. I even read books about the “gift,” hoping to find something she could feel good about, but it all seemed like someone’s attempt to make lemonade from rotten lemons. Upon further research, however, I learned that there is an upside … eventually.
It comes back to those basic brain differences. While a dyslexic brain doesn’t naturally focus on the individual letters, words and numbers, it does more easily absorb what is called “big picture thinking.” In layman’s terms that means that individuals with dyslexia are better at spatial awareness and planning than the average person. They are also often better verbal communicators and faster problem solvers. Many people with dyslexia translate these skills to success in careers as physicists, artists, surgeons and architects.
While these differences are great in the long run, that doesn’t make my daughter feel any better about this week’s spelling test. These primary school years are much more tedious as the dyslexic brain has to be trained to work on the smaller scale of letters, numbers and reading before the “big picture thinking” ever shines through. That’s why resetting the parenting brain becomes mandatory.
How to adapt the parenting brain to a child’s needs
The more I learned, the more I realized that my brain needed to be retrained as much as my daughter’s. A solid Orton-Gillingham approach to learning can help a dyslexic brain learn to read and write, but I had to retrain my brain regarding what success looked like in my daughter. It couldn’t be about grades alone. Realistically, my daughter can work twice as hard as her brother, who doesn’t have dyslexia, and still not earn the same grades. With guidance from her teachers, I had to come up with another definition of success that looked at her overall work ethic and progress rather than just the grades on her report card.
The school connected my daughter with some online programs for reading and math. These lessons consume a lot of time, but they also help her learn. I have set up a reward system for completing these lessons, as well as a reward system for doing chores, completing homework assignments and finishing books. These incentives help to bridge the gap between the effort she is putting in and the grades that they appear on her report card. It’s all about motivation!
Furthermore, her teachers and I are in agreement that our goal is for her to learn what is taught. Sometimes that understanding comes before a test and sometimes it comes after. We correct papers on which she does poorly so we can see if the gap was in actually understanding the concept, reading the question or something else entirely. Given that it takes my daughter twice the time to complete her homework as it does for her classmates, incentives must be in place to maintain motivation, and we as parents have to understand that grades don’t always reflect the effort put forth. Realistically, which has more long-term benefit: straight A’s or solid study skills and work ethic? Reward accordingly.
Long-term success for children with dyslexia
Dyslexia does not destine a child to a limited future. In fact, a lot of famous people with dyslexia, including Whoopi Goldberg, Albert Einstein, Tommy Hilfiger and Hans Christian Anderson, have been incredibly successful. Any time my daughter feels down, we do some research together on one of these famous names, and they renew her hope. Every child needs a hero they can relate to. Walt Disney seems to be her go-to source for a self-esteem boost. As she tells her friends, “Walt Disney is Mickey Mouse’s dad and he had dyslexia. He grew up to be famous and one day I will be, too.”
Based on all that she has already dealt with and overcome in her first nine years of life, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.