The gift I would like to return

There is a big theme within the Dyslexia community to promote Dyslexia as a gift. Whether being dyslexic comes with strengths remains a controversial issue that is under researched. There is some limited research that supports improved visual spatial processing strengths in individuals with dyslexia. People with dyslexia are certainly overrepresented in the arts and the business world but it remains to be seen whether dyslexia confers any extra benefits. It may be that faced with difficulties at school forces the individual to develop a level of resilience to failure and other coping mechanisms that allow them to succeed in their chosen field. Children may also seek refuge in the arts and creativity when confronted with the stress of the classroom.

I think the Dyslexia as a gift approach has a number of issues. Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’ve lived the Dyslexia roller coaster for a number of years and I hear all the stories.

“Dyslexia comes with gifts” is not backed by a lot of research evidence. I do love my research and for me to jump on the Dyslexia is a gift bandwagon would make me look like a hypocrite.

The “Dyslexia is a gift” line is utilised as a marketing tool for non evidenced based treatments. As a parent it is easy to see how selling Dyslexia as a gift is easy to swallow. I would love to think that my child has a special gift because she has Dyslexia. Because it has been a hard road. It’s a roller coaster ride and I would really like that ride to be a little bit fun. I need to believe it is for a purpose. This thought allows parents to be easily manipulated and sold woo. Some of these alternative therapies with a “gift approach” show an initial boost due to self esteem but they don’t solve the child’s illiteracy. The reality is remediation of reading for most children takes a lot of hard work. This may take years. There is no quick fix.

Many children with Dyslexia will struggle their entire life, particularly if they don’t receive appropriate intervention. I’ve heard if children as young as 6 wanting to kill themselves because they were struggling at school. Tell me how that is a gift? Selling Dyslexia as a gift can send a confusing signal to a child who is already struggling. Because it is just another point of failure for them. “I’m suppose to have a gift but I’m good at nothing.”

It is hard to advocate for your child in the school system demanding your child’s disability be addressed if there is this storyline of it being a gift. The message that it is sending is confusing for children, parents and teachers.

The gift approach promotes the idea that they will be no good at reading but that’s ok because they can just become an artist, or a tradesmen or run their own business. Literacy is a necessity for so many aspects of life. It is essential for the great majority of professions. We should always have the highest expectations of children. We should always strive to teach kids to read. The evidence shows very few children are actually unable to learn to read. Literacy should always be the goal. Literacy opens doors and illiteracy slams those doors shut and throws away the key.

All children have strengths. The most important thing is that your child finds their strengths and utilises those strengths to help overcome their weaknesses. It is also important for strengths and interests to be nurtured to allow the child to have something that they can be good at. This is extremely important to maintain self-esteem. This is important for both my children. For my struggling child this is 100 times more important!

My daughter just turned 14. She got a green screen and studio lights for her birthday as she has shown an interest and talent in film making and acting. She has repeatedly expressed appreciation for us supporting her passion. She is lucky enough to also have the support of extended family and friends. A friend’s mum who is also Dyslexic has offered to take her into her workplace and show her how green screens work.

She has been off sick for a few days since her birthday. She has spent her time reading the book I bought her for her birthday “Film making for teens.” This book has a significant amount of terminology. She can read it because she has received appropriate remediation. Being literate is helping her follow her passion and achieve her dreams.

All children need role models and that is even more important on the days when their difficulties seem insurmountable. Children need to know that they can be successful with determination and hard work. There are many successful adults with dyslexia who have overcome the odds and not only survived schooling but thrived.

Unlike some professionals I don’t see a problem with this. I don’t see a problem with a famous person saying “I’m Dyslexic and struggled at school and look what I have achieved.” Kiera Knightly is one of my daughter’s favourite famous Dyslexics. We have a routine in our house when things get hard. We ask my daughter “What did Kiera do to succeed?” My daughter has a standard answer. “She worked really hard, practised a lot and learnt how to read!”

I do see a problem when we label every creative thinker, like Einstein , as Dyslexic when there is no evidence for it. But a child looking up to successful adults is what all children do. My daughter sees being an author as a possible career for her because of all the wonderful books she has read written by Dyslexic authors like Jackie French. This is no different to the interview I saw yesterday with Ashleigh Barty. She talked about being an Aboriginal child and the importance of Evonne Cawley as an Aboriginal role model. Nit every Aboriginal kid is going to be number 1 in something and neither is every dyslexic child. But it is important to see that it is possible despite hardships.

As a child, I was called stupid and lazy. On the SAT I got 159 out of 800 in math. My parents had no idea that I had a learning disability.” Henry Winkler (Actor, producer, writer)

“I was one of the ‘puzzle children’ myself — a dyslexic . . . And I still have a hard time reading today. Accept the fact that you have a problem. Refuse to feel sorry for yourself. You have a challenge; never quit! ‘ Nelson Rockefeller

“I barely made it through school. I read real slow. But I like to find things that nobody else has found, like a dinosaur egg that has an embryo inside. Well, there are 36 of them in the world, and I found 35. ”Dr. John R. Horner (American paleontologist)

“My learning disabilities pushed me to discover talents that I wasn’t aware of having. It has also led me to develop products to help others who struggled through school as I did.” – Reyn Geyer, inventor of Nerf balls & Twister

Before my daughter’s assessment for dyslexia she thought she was stupid and dumb. She used to verbalise these thoughts frequently and had been called such by bullies and unfortunately by teachers. She was frequently told she could do a better job, try harder and put more effort into her reading and writing. She logically blamed herself. Dyslexia gave the problem a name. She could externalise the blame and was able to identify with role models in the community. Today she says school is hard but being dyslexic makes her feel special and unique. She describes it in one word as awesome!

She has moved towards a thought process that it is ok and a little bit special being different. She has also been empowered by joining in activities with the dyslexic community and finding kids who think the same way and have school struggles. She is lucky enough to have some wonderful friends who enjoy listening to her creative stories at lunch time. One friend said that she has had an interesting life and should write a book! High School saw her make some very special friends with learning difficulties and she said that for the first time ever she feels like she belongs. Her friends agree having a friend who also has Dyslexia is the biggest thing that helps.

“The single most important implication of research in dyslexia is not ensuring that we don’t derail the development of a future Leonardo or Edison; it is making sure that we do not miss the potential of any child. Not all children with dyslexia have extraordinary talents, but every one of them has a unique potential that all too often goes unrealized because we don’t know how to tap it.” Maryanne Wolf (2005)

I love my daughter and have been there for her every step of the way.

Would I prefer she didn’t struggle with many aspects of school? Yes.

Would I prefer she didn’t vomit before school from anxiety? Yes.

Would I prefer I didn’t have to fight for her to get the best possible outcome? Yes.

Has it broken my heart to see her struggle? Absolutely.

Would I like to return the gift of Dyslexia and get a refund? You bet I would!

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Finding your Dyslexic Tribe is priceless

And Yet again I find myself in social media defending the usefulness of identification of Dyslexia. Also this week I have had to counteract a teacher saying learning difficulties don’t exist but that is another story. This has come at a time in my daughter’s life when she has finally found her tribe. As my daughter has just become a teenager and suffers from anxiety fuelled by multiple learning difficulties it has become so important that she feels like she belongs in this world. That she feels she is valued for who she is and what she can do. That there are other kids like her. Teens need to feel they belong as they navigate a difficult time in their life. As a high school teacher I have seen many times the sheer pain of the kids who don’t find their tribe.

My daughter attended a high achieving primary school where many kids are heavily tutored from preschool age and academic success was the number one priority for most of the parents. She had some lovely friends who valued her for her storytelling at lunchtime, her quirkiness and her kind heart. They would defend her endlessly when casual teachers had a go at her and make sure she understood her work. But one thing her friends could not do is understand what it is like to walk into a classroom everyday and struggle surrounded by children who seem to learn effortlessly.

Having me as a parent has given her access to a strong Dyslexic community and she has met many kids with Dyslexia which helped putty some of the holes in her self esteem battered by years of failure. She has the great privilege of having a tutor who has Dyslexia and is friends with her Dyslexic daughter. Her tutor says that her greatest qualification as a tutor is her Dyslexia and her ability to understand her student’s struggles. Not being able to read in year 5 and going on to get a Masters from Cambridge shows her students anything can be achieved if you work hard enough! Having adult and older teen Dyslexics to look up too is so important.

High school this year has brought many challenges, especially leaving friends who she has relied on for so long. But thanks to a school, who has a brilliant transition program for kids with difficulties, my daughter made some friends who get her before the start of the school year.

My daughter spent the holidays bonding with her new Dyslexic friends. She said to me E has a brilliant mind and she is even more awesome when she is not taking her ADHD meds. I said that must be lovely for her to hear that someone appreciates her for who she is. Her reply was that I know you tell me all the time how creative I am and how good my mind is but you are my Mum and you have to say that. For kids the same age to appreciate me for who I am it makes me feel good about myself. If she fumbles over her words she knows her friends will not judge her.

On the way home from an awesome time with one of her Dyslexic friends I said to her “You have found your tribe haven’t you?” Her reply was the biggest smile I have seen in a long time.

Her new friends all forget things. They all actually forgot that they had memory issues and laughed hysterically at that. They struggle through their work together in class. They go to learning support together. They complain about the teachers who don’t get it and praise the awesome ones that make school bearable by actually implementing their adjustments. They giggle when they can’t add up while playing games rather than hiding their weaknesses. While other kids in class are calling them dumb their friends are telling them the opposite and appreciating them for exactly who they are.

Through our support group my daughter also writes to another year 7 kid with Dyslexia who was feeling alone. They use snail mail. Her pen pal has lovely writing and she told her. She also told her she types because she has dysgraphia and her handwriting is not so good. They share struggles but also write about normal stuff. They both know no one is going to judge them for their spelling or grammar. My daughter actually smiles when she sees a spelling mistake in her pen pals letters.

The word Dyslexia has also as a parent allowed me to find my parent tribe. I have met some of the most brilliant Dyslexia advocates through my volunteer work. Determined mums mostly who are fighting to get the system to change after watching the horrible toll illiteracy has on our children. My daughter’s tutor has become a firm friend. She is one of the few people who get it when the days are hard and simple things go really wrong. We listen to the daily struggles of our kids without judgement and we know the other gets it!

It is quite lovely (I’m not sure how to describe it) to be around school mums who get your child’s struggles. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to sometimes be able to give advice and help to my new parent friends. Funnily enough last year I chatted online through our support group to one of the mums. Giving her advice about tutors in the local area. Then our daughter’s went to the same school and became friends and neither of us realised we had talked online and by then we had met in person. I know I’m not going to have to get embarrassed about grades. I know I can complain about my child’s resistance to getting her assignment done. I know I can talk about having to help my child structure her essays, research and edit without judgement. We were all feeling a little sick at the idea of an end to school holidays.

With these school Mum’s I don’t have to listen to what they think are their parent struggles when having just those struggles would make my week awesome. Like  parents endless turmoil choosing between schools with the greatest academic rigour. Oh the pure joy of a decision like that. Whilst at the same time I am meeting with learning support at the local High School grilling them with questions. Trying to find a high school that my daughter would be able to survive was my main goal. A high school where she didn’t come out with worse mental health and some of her self esteem still intact.

Other parents don’t really understand what it is like and nor do most of the relatives. Don’t get me wrong other parents have been supportive in the past but you can never understand the constant battles or the daily management needed with a child with Learning Difficulties particularly mixed in with the inevitable mental health issues. I know because I have another child who passes through life with a smile on her face and is absolutely adored by every teacher who has ever had her. She does not approach task with trepidation and the scars that constant failure bring. She approaches everything with determination and persistence.

Talking to my daughter’s new friends parents the other day I mentioned that one of her best friends dumped her and joined the “popular group”. They asked why and I said its because she is a little odd and quirky. She also couldn’t cope with the anxiety which turns her sometimes into silent and no fun. Their reply was to them she was normal and she should fit right in. They also get the anxiety thing. One friend was reluctant to sleep over as she doesn’t know me well. My daughter and I made sure she didn’t remain anxious. Because we can see it, manage it and understand it. Whereas at times I’ve felt embarrassed when my daughters anxious behaviours make her look like a brat child or an unfriendly one.

My daughter’s friends are the only reason that today on Day 1 of Term 3 going back to school is bearable. Last night and this morning the hand wringing and crankiness started with the rise of school anxiety. Better than it used to be. Doesn’t happen for a week and no longer any vomiting. So when she goes to school today she knows her Dyslexic friends are probably feeling the same. So don’t tell me we shouldn’t identify kids with Dyslexia or use the label. In my other blog “The Dirty D word” I have addressed all the issues. But this blog is from the heart. So don’t lecture me until you have walked in my shoes. You will never be able to understand the positives the Dyslexic community brings to these kids or families