by Henrylito D. Tacio
Michael was like many other kids. He enjoyed playing, talking, and singing. But there’s one problem about him: He didn’t like writing and reading.
“When my son first started school at the age of five his writing was appalling,” the mother recalled. “You could hardly read a thing he wrote. He went from being a happy child to being very unhappy, miserable, tearful, because he just couldn’t understand why all those children around him could pick up this business of reading and writing.”
Michael’s teachers simply thought he was taking a little longer than the other children and that he could catch up with them later on. Unfortunately, he didn’t. It wasn’t until three years later that they realized Michael is dyslexic. Now, the 18-year-old Michael has the reading age of a 12-year-old and the spelling ability of a 10-year-old.
“Dyslexia often saps a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem,” explains Dr. Allan R. Magie, an American doctor who specializes on children’s behavior. “It can add stress to family relationships and even lead to antisocial behavior and juvenile delinquency.”
Difficulty with words
Dyslexia comes from the Greek word which means “difficulty with words.” It was first suspected in 1896, when Dr. Pringle Morgan published an article in the British Medical Journal on “A Case of Congenital Word Blindness.” But the word “dyslexia” didn’t become commonly used in the United States for more than five decades.
In Asia, it has taken even longer, although the learning disability’s effects were hardly unknown. “There was always some uncle or aunt in the family who was normal and intelligent in every other way except academics,” Jonathan recalls. “Uncle or Aunt was branded as a little stupid or absent minded. I had one in my family.”
In the United States, dyslexia is known to affect around 10% of people and nearly half of those have serious difficulties with reading and writing. Although dyslexia may be less prevalent in Asia, the number of sufferers is still huge—and at this point, they have to cope largely on their own. In Malaysia, relatively affluent families can send their children to private doctors to see if they have a learning disability. But if they’re diagnosed as dyslexic, schools place them in classes with other “special-needs” students, such as the autistic or children with Down syndrome.
As stated earlier, dyslexics are oftentimes treated as dullards because they don’t learn as fast. Thomas Alva Edison, an American scientist with over 1,000 patents, once admitted, “My teachers say I’m addled . . . my father thought I was stupid, and I almost decided I must be a dunce.”
Medical scientists argue that dyslexia is not a sign of mental handicap. As a matter of fact, dyslexics possess above-average intelligence. Some of history’s greatest brains are dyslexics: Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Faraday and Winston Churchill. Albert Einstein, the person who formulated the theories of relativity, could not read till he was nine and as a young man lost three teaching jobs because of his dyslexia.
In a Reader’s Digest article, Anne Pallard gives us an insight about this learning disability: “Dyslexics inhabit a world where written words slide about as if on shifting sands, leading to back-to-front substitutions such as ‘lemon’ for ‘melon’ and compacted syllables that produce ‘conversion’ instead of ‘conversation.’ Often dyslexics will carry their written errors into speech, so that ‘human beings’ becomes ‘human beans,’ or ‘spaghetti,’ ‘pasghetti.’ On a bad day, a severe dyslexic will confidently tell you that World War I began in 1419.”
Because there is so much natural variability in how fast children learn to read and write, the condition is often not properly diagnosed. Some people still consider dyslexia an excuse for not learning or being taught well, and there are many children who have been unfairly labeled as slow learners. “I, myself, was always recognized – as the ‘slow one’ in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it,” Agatha Christie once revealed.
Dyslexia may manifest itself in a variety of ways. One manifestation is a child’s discrepancy between academic achievement and real-life performance in practical problem-solving and verbal skills. It may take him years to read a book and understand it. He misses off endings of words in reading and spelling.
A dyslexic child is not able to think what to write, reluctant to write things down, and having difficulty with note-taking and following what others are saying. Oftentimes, he has a poor grasp of written work, spells poorly and having a hard time using punctuation marks. He has difficulty with sequences and reverses figures or letter or leaving words out.
Dyslexics confuse telephone messages and have trouble with remembering tables. Some may have problems with time-management and difficulty in learning the days of the week or months of the year in order.
Too most dyslexics, going to school is not a pleasant experience. “I never read in school. I got really bad grades–D’s and F’s and C’s in some classes, and A’s and B’s in other classes,” recalls the Oscar-winning singer-actress Cher. “In the second week of the 11th grade, I just quit. When I was in school, it was really difficult. Almost everything I learned, I had to learn by listening. My report cards always said that I was not living up to my potential.”
The gap between scientific knowledge about dyslexia and the public’s understanding of the condition is what led Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a Yale University neuroscientist and one of the world’s leading authorities on dyslexia, to write her book ‘Overcoming Dyslexia.’ “We now have a scientific basis for diagnosing and remediating dyslexia,” she says. “Today, every child can become a better reader.”
As to why more boys receive a diagnosis of dyslexia far more than girls, Dr. Shaywitz traced this to the “bored and restless” syndrome. She explains: “Boys tend to be more impulsive and overly active in the classroom than girls, so they are more likely to be referred for assessment, which is when reading problems are often identified,” she says. “But rigorous studies of reading difficulties show that the genders do not differ significantly.”
Dyslexia is believed to be hereditary. “Dyslexia tends to run in families,” says ‘The Merck Manual of Medical Information. Studies done in Canada showed more than 80% of people surveyed with dyslexia have a history of learning difficulties in their family. Chastity, the daughter of Cher, also has dyslexia.
In most cases, dyslexia stems from a weakness in processing sounds and sound combinations (called “phonological processing”). “Kids with dyslexia take longer to understand that words come apart into individual sounds and to manipulate these sounds,” says Rauno Parrila, an educational psychology professor at the University of Alberta. An instruction to “say the word ‘sink’ without the s,” for example, could be a real stumper for a dyslexic child.
Not everything about dyslexia is bad news. Many dyslexics, as if to compensate for their literacy difficulties, are strong on spatial sense with an outstanding grasp of shapes and patterns. Some of the world’s famous entertainers are dyslexics. Consider this list: Fred Astaire, Harry Belafonte, George Burns, Harrison Ford, Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, River Phoenix, Edward James Olmos, Oliver Reed, Robin Williams, Henry Winkler, and Loretta Young.
Dyslexics also excel in sports. Consider this list: boxing phenomenon Muhammad Ali, Olympic swimmer Duncan Goodhew, basketball champion Magic Johnson, golfer Bob May, wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, and race car driver Jackie Stewart. Classmates teased Greg Louganis about his reading disability, so he spent his leisure time working out at a gym and a dance studio. There, he learned some of the techniques that helped his development as an Olympic diver.
No known cure
Ronald Davis, author of The Gift of Dyslexia, writes: “The genius in these individuals (referring to those famous dyslexics) occurred not in spite of it (dyslexia) but because of it!” How? Given the proper intervention and support, the dyslexics can utilize the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions. They become highly aware of the environment, as they would need to experience things more concretely rather than symbolically.
Here are more reasons: dyslexics are more curious than average persons, think mainly in pictures than in words, are highly intuitive and insightful, think and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all senses), and have vivid imaginations.
“Parents, who recognize their child as a dyslexic, should find a skill the child does well and build on it, encourage it – whether it’s art or athletics. That will help the child to believe in himself, the most important element in helping a dyslexic to become successful in society,” says Dr. Magie. – ***