11 Oct Five tips for parents of dyslexic children
Dyslexia and our family
I have a confession to make…. When I was at school in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, and even after that at university in the early 1980s, I’d never even heard of dyslexia. In my defence, neither had many other people – including my better half. It was very different for him, though, because while he may not have encountered the term per se, he knew precisely what it was like to be affected by this hidden disability. And it was no fun. No fun at all. Long after the years of school misery had ended, he was eventually diagnosed by The Dyslexia Institute in Glasgow. By this time, he was in his early 30s and we had three young children. Spurred on by his stories of an abjectly unhappy school experience and the demoralising frustration of ‘knowing that you weren’t stupid’ but not being able to demonstrate it by jumping through the requisite academic hoops, I spent hours and hours reading up about this neurological condition. I was determined that if any of our children turned out to be dyslexic (one in ten people in the UK are, and the odds rise if it runs in your family), I would be extremely well informed so I could support them as effectively as possible.
But before I do that, I’ll start by dispelling a common myth… Dyslexia doesn’t simply mean you ‘can’t spell’; the condition can affect people’s learning in a wide variety of other ways, too. Here’s what The British Dyslexia Association has to say on the subject:
“Dyslexia is a learning difference which primarily affects reading and writing skills. However, it does not only affect these skills. Dyslexia is actually about information processing. Dyslexic people may have difficulty processing and remembering information they see and hear, which can affect learning and the acquisition of literacy skills. Dyslexia can also impact on other areas such as organisational skills.”
Significantly, the BDA then adds: “It is important to remember that there are positives to thinking differently. Many dyslexic people show strengths in areas such as reasoning and in visual and creative fields.”
The key thing to remember here – and to keep reminding anyone among your family or friendship group who is affected – is that dyslexics are often highly intelligent and successful people. And if you are dyslexic, it’s really important to focus on the benefits of your dyslexic brain while accepting and working round the things that you may inevitably find harder.
Being a supportive parent from the moment you suspect your child might be dyslexic matters more than you may appreciate in those early days. If your own parents don’t believe in your ability to succeed, who will?
Five things I wish I’d understood sooner as a parent of a dyslexic child:
Being dyslexic makes school incredibly tiring. Dyslexic children may appear to the teacher to be ‘coping well’ in class, but the effort of finding and implementing strategies to help them do so means these young people are putting in far more effort each school day than their non-dyslexic peers. Studies have shown that dyslexics use five times the brain area of non-dyslexics to tackle tasks, and thus expend five times more mental energy.
So when your dyslexic child comes home from school, be sure to bear this in mind and allow them time to recover before they have to tackle homework, chores, etc. Also, as the academic workload rises through secondary school, even a high-functioning dyslexic child who has previously managed to keep on top of classwork, homework and tests by applying ‘strategies’ can begin to feel overwhelmed. If you suspect this is happening, contact the learning support department at your teenager’s school for advice.
2. Remembering things
As a non-dyslexic person, it’s hard to appreciate, but no matter how many times you remind a dyslexic child about something, e.g. everyday tasks such as remembering to take an essay/sports kit/trumpet to (or back from) school, there’s a high chance they may forget what you’ve said by the next day – or even within the next few hours. That’s why it pays to start early with helping your child develop memory strategies which will be useful for them at school and later at college/university/in the workplace. The chances of them remembering to do something later decrease if there is other sensory distraction going on at the time you discuss it (e.g. television on, others doing things in the same room, or they are carrying out another activity simultaneously).
Having a white board with a checklist, displayed in an obvious place on their desk or in the family kitchen, or making use of one of the many apps or mobile phone reminder functions can be really useful for anyone who struggles with personal organisation. The main thing to remember is that they DO NOT forget on purpose or because they don’t care. I really wish that I’d understood this more in my early days of parenting.
3. Different approaches to learning
Explore different ways of learning and digesting information. Encourage your dyslexic child to experiment with learning techniques when trying to absorb information. Granted, rote learning has all but disappeared from the curriculum, but there are still certain things that have to be learned ‘off pat’, and this can prove tricky if (like many dyslexics) they have working memory issues. Memorising can be made easier by tackling the task using a variety of approaches, and spending time working out the techniques that they’ve found effective: for example, recording and listening back to information; saying information out loud, possibly inserting odd cadences and/or creating rhymes and rhythms; drawing diagrams and mind maps, using different colours to make notes more visual.
Some types of dyslexia mean that the person affected takes longer to respond to a question you ask them. That doesn’t mean they don’t know the answer (quite the contrary, in fact, as dyslexic children often have an above-average or high IQ) – it’s simply that the dyslexic brain is neurodiverse (wired differently) and thus processes information in a different way. Whilst a neurotypical brain goes from A to B, a neurodiverse brain sees many possibilities between A and B – one of the skills that make dyslexics great lateral thinkers and creators. That means, however, that it may take longer for them to retrieve, organise and put their knowledge down on paper, particularly in a stressful setting. It’s also why many dyslexic teenagers are allowed extra time and/or to use a computer or have a scribe when sitting formal exams.
Unfortunately, but very understandably, some young people are concerned about being stigmatised if they receive extra time; however, if they have a dyslexia diagnosis, my advice is to take any extra time or other support they’re offered, or it may be hard for them to fulfil their potential in exams.
Be prepared, however, that even with extra time in exams, a dyslexic teenager may still feel frustrated and demoralised that their dyslexia means they didn’t achieve results that reflected the huge amount of time and effort they put in to prepare. Dealing with such disappointments is hard, but it’s one of the reasons dyslexics tend to become more resilient. As a parent, the key thing is to praise their hard work – whatever the result – without drawing comparisons between them and classmates. Encourage them to play to their strengths when choosing their exam subjects, too – since in areas of strength dyslexic individuals often perform above average due to the strong visual skills and ability to think creatively.
Also, help your teenager (and this applies whether they’re dyslexic or not!) to find extracurricular pursuits which they can enjoy during their school years that allow them to explore talents outside of the curriculum (and to build their self-esteem if school is not an area of strength), e.g. sport, volunteering, cookery, music, art, drama, setting up their own (online) business, etc.
4. Building confidence
Self-esteem is often low in dyslexic children, so it’s really important to keep providing reassurance and to explain to them (in rudimentary terms when they’re young) that their dyslexia does NOT need to hold them back in life (although it may feel that way at times) and that it is often billed by neuroscientists as a “superpower”. Indeed the very fact that the dyslexic brain is wired differently means that dyslexic people are in demand in many industries because of their ability to see things differently and come up with creative, innovative solutions to problems and challenges.
There are countless examples of well-known, successful dyslexics in all spheres of life – physicist Albert Einstein, polymath Leonardo da Vinci, writer Agatha Christie, serial entrepreneur Richard Branson and actress Keira Knightley, to name but a few. One article on dyslexia in The Guardian was titled “Dyslexic entrepreneurs – why they have a competitive edge”, and the journalist went on to write “People who have dyslexia are good at problem-solving and focusing on the wider picture – no wonder they make great business leaders.” Be sure to keep reinforcing positive messages like this to any dyslexic young person you talk to – whether your own children, pupils in the classroom, students at college or university, or colleagues at work. Their ‘learning difference’ may well be a valuable USP in professional life.
5. Resilience and self-belief
Nothing is impossible – it might simply take a little longer or involve more effort if you have dyslexia. As a parent, it’s natural to want to protect your child from failure. As the parent of a dyslexic child, it might be tempting to say “Don’t be a writer”, for example. Yet you only need to reflect on the fact that Agatha Christie, the queen of crime fiction worldwide, was dyslexic and that she struggled with spelling all her life, to appreciate that the creativeness and dogged resilience of dyslexic people equips them to overcome what might initially seem like insurmountable hurdles. And of course, self-belief, boosted by encouragement from parents, teachers, lecturers and employers, is essential in helping dyslexics thrive and flourish academically and professionally.
Moving forward – dyslexia today
The good news is that in the 21st century, while there is still much to be done to spread awareness of dyslexia, things have moved on significantly from the ignorance and lack of empathy encountered (endured…) by neurodiverse pupils in schools in the 1970s and previously – and this is due in no small part to the work of organisations such as the BDA, and charities such as Made by Dyslexia.
Schools and workplaces are now far better informed about what dyslexia is, the ways in which it affects dyslexics and how to support them. Moreover, many businesses and organisations are recognising the value of having dyslexic (and other diverse) employees because of the creativity they bring to the office and/or boardroom, because of their inventiveness at problem-solving, and because of the resilience they’ve almost without exception had to demonstrate time and time again to overcome the challenges they’ve faced along the way.
A report published in 2018 titled “The Value of Dyslexia”, carried out by a team from EY with the support of charity Made By Dyslexia, highlighted the valuable contribution that dyslexic employees can make in the workplace.
Find out more about dyslexia
The figures speak for themselves… While 20% of the UK population are dyslexic to some degree, a staggering 40% of self-made entrepreneurs are dyslexic. This statistic shows clearly why it is so vital for parents of dyslexic children to remain patient and supportive at all times, and to do our utmost to nurture and develop the myriad exciting talents that dyslexic children possess.
As a parent, whether you’re dyslexic or not, your attitude to dyslexia (and that of other family members) can have a profound impact on the way your dyslexic child deals with their neurodiversity. For parents, grandparents or guardians of a dyslexic young person, arming yourself with as much information as possible is a good start, so if you’re interested in finding out more, check out these books on dyslexia and/or get in touch with organisations such as Dyslexia Scotland or the British Dyslexia Association.
Equally importantly, encourage dyslexic children and teenagers to do the same – being able to identify how dyslexia affects you as an individual can be a stepping stone to embracing the strengths it brings and ‘going easier on yourself’ with regard to the aspects of study and work that you find harder.
Postscript: This blog post has been very much a joint effort, with input from several members of my family, and I want to thank them for allowing me to share their experiences in the hope that this article might help other families affected by dyslexia and raise awareness among those who aren’t.