28 May 1999

HOW DYSLEXIA IS MISTAKEN

FOR CHEEK AND STUPIDITY…

WHAT do Duncan Goodhew, Jackie Stewart, Richard Branson and Eddie Izzard have in common? What is it that one in 10 people suffer from? The answer is dyslexia.

This word is like a huge umbrella, covering how one persons difficulties can differ from another, dramatically affecting their lives, especially in childhood. All the difficulties are not shown by every dyslexic child or adult, and they may occur in a number of different combinations. The seriousness of the difficulties also varies greatly, but one thing is certain, it can be a recipe for misery.

How can you, as parents, know if your children come under this umbrella? Well, it can affect both boys and girls, so do not ignore your daughters! It can also affect them at different stages in their lives. Watching the London Mara-thon recently, I was struck by the expression "Hes hit the wall at 20 miles – hes out of the race". Dyslexics can "hit the wall" at any age. It could be at seven, when the pictures disappear, and the print gets smaller on the page, so there are no visual clues to help them out. It could be at 21, when the sheer volume of work to be learnt for the final degree exams overloads their methods of work, leading to unexpectedly poor results.

&#42 Common problem

So what are these "difficulties" likely to be? One of the most common difficulties dyslexics have to cope with is a weak short-term memory. If we look at children around seven/eight, and you ask them to go upstairs, put on their shoes, clean their face and teeth and to hurry up. Do you get a call from the top of the stairs asking: "What am I supposed to do, Mum?" Do you then snap back that you have only just told them?

At school, does your child get into trouble for not paying attention, always having to be told to do things at least twice? What often confuses the issue is that their long-term memory is excellent. They can remember what birthday presents they had last year, which can lead an exasperated parent to ask: "So why then cant you tell me where youve put your kit bag?"

Are seven and eight-year-olds still having difficulty with reading, spelling or writing? More importantly, does this surprise you? Does your bright chatty, informed son or daughter change into a reluctant squirming child when the dreaded reading book is produced, and find every excuse to try to escape?

&#42 Early signs

I remember boiling with frustration when reading the Janet and John books. I would tell our son "that says Janet", which was duly repeated. Turn the page, point to the same word – blank stare! I know now that this was early signs of a very weak visual memory. Other children find that they cannot remember the sound a letter-shape makes. You, as parents, know you should get your offspring to "sound out", but because they cannot remember what sound that letter shape makes, you can get what seem "bizarre" sounds, or usually, none at all. With our daughter this was an early sign of aural memory difficulties.

Sequencing too is a common difficulty for these children, which can show itself in many ways. It can range from trouble learning the sequence of tying shoe-laces, or the times tables; learning the days of the week, to following Lego instructions. Directional difficulties can make life very miserable for them. Right/left confusions in writing, for example – is it "b" or "d"? Or trying to follow directions can be a nightmare – just think of the sports where you need to be sure of your right and left. "Pass to your left, Sam – no I said your left, you stupid boy!"

At school, are they falling behind their friends in the basic skills? Do they find copying from the board difficult? Are they having problems catching a ball, so they hate games lessons? Are tummy aches becoming the norm before school starts? And worst of all, are they beginning to lose confidence in themselves, becoming frustrated, angry, depressed?

Are you getting the picture? Nobody realises because the difficulties are "hidden". Someone with a broken leg equals someone deserving sympathy, because we can see the problem and sympathise. Someone who continually forgets their homework, games kit, has difficulty copying from the board, equals someone lazy and careless. DONT simply brand them as lazy or careless.

So what can you do?

&#8226 Dont put pressure on them so that they become frightened of failing or letting you down.

&#8226 Dont expect them to learn the spelling of a mis-copied word by writing it out repeatedly in the hope that they will remember it, they most certainly wont!

&#8226 Dont be surprised if they tire easily or become discouraged.

&#8226 Dont be surprised if handwriting is untidy or irregular, it can be a hard task for them.

&#8226 Dont be surprised if their performance is erratic.

&#8226 Do have their hearing checked – they may have a hearing loss caused by "glue ear" for example – and mention why, since your doctor may not realise the possible educational repercussions.

&#8226 Do take them for an eye test. Once this has been checked, ask your child about how the print on the page looks to them. If they say there is any movement, blurring, in fact, any discomfort to their eyes, or lack of concentration when reading, you might like to find out more about Irlen Syndrome from Irlen Centre East.

&#8226 Do talk to their teachers, and ask for an educational assessment by the special needs teacher, or an educational psychologist. Dont be put off with comments like "I dont know why you are worried, we have far worse children than them".

&#8226 Do encourage your children in the things that they like and can do well, build up their self-confidence at every opportunity.

&#8226 Do praise them for their attempts at writing a story, for example, and for the words they have spelt correctly.

&#8226 Do discuss frankly with them the things they find difficult, and help them find ways round it.

PLEASE dont say, as I did, "Oh, hell grow out of it" – because they wont. Ask for help NOW.

Pip Macaulay

Where to ring for more help:

British Dyslexia Association Helpline (0118-966 8271)

The Dyslexia Institute

(01784-463851)

Irlen Centre East

(01284-724301)