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The Dilemma of Dyslexia

When your child thinks CAT spells TAC or ACT...or just nothing, and is labelled ‘stupid' at school, don't despair or believe all you hear, because he or she could be suffering from dyslexia. Rola Lutfi examines a problem that is frequently ignored, unrecognised and mis-diagnosed worldwide, but is now making some headway in the Middle East.

A few years ago a little girl of nine was taken out of class by the Head Teacher of a U.K. Primary School, on the prompting of her worried mother, and directed to read a list of words. When she had done this successfully she was told, ‘You're not dyslexic,' and dismissed. Such was Sarah's ‘assessment' for dyslexia.

The above scenario is, unfortunately, not an unusual one, even today. Ignorance of dyslexia, or 'word blindness' is still widespread, not least in the teaching profession. Despite growing evidence that dyslexia has a neurological cause, it is still often thought of as ‘the middle class syndrome' - a label for middle class parents to hang on their less-than-bright children.

What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia means ‘difficulty with words'. Although it manifests itself most conspicuously in a difficulty with learning to read, there is a wide range of other symptoms. Most dyslexics will have a mixture of problems, mild or severe, which conspire to make the learning process difficult for them at school, lower their self-esteem, and make their peers and teachers regard them as ‘stupid', although dyslexia is, in no way, a reflection of a child's I.Q. Around 10 per cent of people are dyslexic, 4 per cent severely so, and it seems to be more prevalent in boys than girls.

Signs to look for in your child are:
All ages

  • Is he bright in some ways with a 'block' in others?
  • Is there anyone else in the family with similar difficulties?
  • Does he have difficulty carrying out three instructions in sequence?
  • Was he late in learning to talk, or in speaking clearly?
Ages 7-11
  • Does he have particular difficulty with reading or spelling?
  • Does he put figures or letters the wrong way, for example: 15 for 51, 6 for 9, b for d, was for saw?
  • Does he read a word then fail to recognise it further down the page?
  • Does he spell a word several different ways without recognising the correct version?
  • Does he have a poor concentration span for reading and writing?
  • Does he have difficulty understanding time and tense?
  • Does he confuse left and right?
  • Does he answer questions orally but have difficulty writing the answer?
  • Is he unusually clumsy?
  • Does he have trouble with sounds in words, for example: a poor sense of rhyme?
If the answer to some of these questions is yes, your child may have dyslexia. Although there are many other learning difficulties, dyslexia is the most common one. Most children and adults who struggle with reading, spelling or written expression have dyslexia.

Sarah's mother continues her story:
“We knew practically nothing of the condition, or even if Sarah had it, but what we did know was that there was something wrong. With the local education authority we came up against a brick wall. In order for our daughter to be assessed by an Educational Psychologist, paid for by the Local Authority, her school's head teacher had to recommend it, which he wouldn't. The crazy thing was that he knew nothing at all about dyslexia, and cared even less.

“We couldn't pay for a private assessment, because this was beyond our means at the time, as was the specialist tuition that would have had to follow - even had there been a dyslexia specialist available in our area. We felt totally helpless. In the private sector our daughter might have fared better, but even there, specialist dyslexia teachers were thin on the ground, and many people set themselves up as such with little or no training (but plenty of good will) because there was such a shortage.

“We arranged for Sarah to have lessons in Kumon*, and had her fitted with glasses with Irlen** lenses. We lacked the knowledge or resources to do more. Later we bought her a computer and enrolled her in a touch-typing class. I can honestly say this was the best thing we did for her. In one fell swoop we had done away with two of her major difficulties i.e. writing, and spelling (with spellcheck).

“Sarah was fortunate, in that she was not severely dyslexic, but enough so to suffer enormously at school from her inability to read well, spell properly, copy from the board or do Maths. Her sense of inferiority made her withdrawn, and she had a difficult adolescence. The fact that she has learnt to cope with her dyslexia to the point where she is studying for a degree in English and Media Studies, is a tribute to her own tenacity of purpose, and not to outside intervention.

“I feel sad when I think that her childhood could have been so different. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence where dyslexia and other learning difficulties are concerned, and I am afraid it can all be put down to one thing - money.”

What it feels like to be dyslexic
Liz Brooks, formerly Executive Director of the Dyslexia Institute gives some insight into the world of dyslexics: “On a visit to China I felt outside society. I couldn't understand the written codes around me. Then I understood what it felt like to be severely dyslexic.”

Susan Hampshire, famous British actress, and past president of the Dyslexia Institute has fought a life-long battle against the condition. She writes: “It is a lonely existence to be a child with a disability which no-one can see or understand. You exasperate your teachers, you disappoint your parents, and worst of all, you know that you are not just stupid.”

In her fascinating and beautifully written autobiography Susan's Story she talks of the difficulties she experienced with learning to read, when, as a child, she attended the small school run by her mother.

“My mother would say: ‘CAT spells cat. ‘Susan what does CAT spell?'‘I don't know. I don't know, Mrs. Hampshire (as I called her at school), I don't know what it spells.'

“Something inside my head stopped me from answering. I felt as though my skull housed a whole ball of string, with an end sticking out of my crown. I thought that if I pulled at this, I could get it out, empty my head of it, and unravel the tangle in my brain. I tried to pull it out inch by inch. Every day, I could feel the string coming out, and I would think to myself, ‘Soon it'll be gone'.”

What causes dyslexia?
The first thing that needs to be said is that dyslexia is not brought about by poor parenting. In fact, it is the concern of conscientious parents, which has brought dyslexia to the forefront as a genuine learning difficulty that should be provided for as a right.

Nobody yet knows what causes dyslexia, although there are some pointers and a lot of research is being done. Theories abound, but currently it is thought that it could be caused by one or both of the following things:

  • hearing problems at an early age;
  • inherited factors.

Hearing problems
These can result from frequent colds and throat infections. The ears of young children may become blocked with the result that hearing is impaired. This condition is know as ‘glue ear' or ‘conductive hearing loss,' and if it goes undetected, the developing brain cannot make the links between the sounds it hears. The modern treatment for this is for grommets to be inserted in the ears. Another treatment is the removal of the tonsils, which are sometimes the cause of repeated infections.

Inherited factors
Dyslexia seems to run in families. It is also often accompanied by left-handedness somewhere in the family. Eighty per cent of dyslexics have a history of learning difficulties within the family, and 60 per cent have a family member who is left-handed. A severely dyslexic child is sometimes found to have a combination of inherited factors and hearing problems.

Is Dyslexia a new phenomenon?
Dyslexia has always existed, but only in modern times have social and economic pressures for 100 per cent literacy worldwide, brought it to our notice as a specific condition. When the majority of people earned ‘ their living ‘in the sweat of their brow' on the land, or by manual skills, ability to read was not a priority - and amongst those who had the opportunity to learn, anyone who didn't was labelled ‘slow' or ‘dull'.

However, we know this supposition to be false since many mentally challenged people learn to read with comparative ease. In fact, dyslexics often have a high I.Q. and can be exceptionally creative and artistic.

First recorded case
An article which appeared in The British Medical Journal of 7th November 1896 - “A Case of Congenital Word Blindness” gives an account of a 14-year-old boy called Percy:

“ spite of this laborious and persistent training, he can only with difficulty spell out words of one syllable.”
“The schoolmaster who taught him for some years says that he would be the smartest child in the school if the instruction were entirely oral.”

Medical Evidence
The first significant investigation of the disorder was carried out in 1925, by a neuropsychiatrist called Dr Samuel Torrey Orton. He named it ‘Strephosymbolia' or ‘twisted symbols'. In normal people, the left side of the brain is dominant and controls verbal skills and the right side governs visual spatial aptitude. According to Orton, in dyslexics, the left side of the brain fails to assert its dominance and the right side interferes with the sequential processing of verbal stimuli. The left and right sides of the brain compete for language function and chaos results.

Orton's theory seemed to be borne out when, in 1979 the brain of a 20-year-old dyslexic who had died in an accident, was donated for analysis. There were abnormalities in the arrangement of nerve cells, and the cell layers of the cortex were strewn about haphazardly instead of being arranged in a normally organised pattern. There were also abnormalities in the thalamus, an area crucial to language development.

If we are to believe the evidence, Susan Hampshire's description - “I felt as though my skull housed a whole ball of string” sounds remarkably like the truth, in layman's terms. How could a child with such imagery be lacking in intelligence?

Dyslexia is a gift
Dyslexic people are visual, multi-dimensional thinkers. They think in pictures, so it is sometimes hard for them to understand letters, numbers, symbols, and written words. That is the downside.

The upside is that, because of their different way of thinking, they are intuitive and highly creative, and excel at hands-on learning. They can learn to read, write and study efficiently when methods geared to their unique way of learning are used.

If I suspect dyslexia, what do I do about it?
Talk to your child's teacher. Find out how your child performs at school, how he interacts with others, and, most important of all, if he is happy. One thing you should bear in mind, however, is that the teacher may know less than you do about dyslexia (you have a vested interest in knowing about it), so don't assume he or she is right in his or her judgment of your child. Parents have a sixth sense where their children are concerned, and if you feel that something is wrong, you are probably right.

With or without the school's support, have your child assessed by an Educational Psychologist (contact the BDA, IDA, or the DI - see Helpful Organisations). He or she will be able to determine whether or not your child has dyslexia or some other learning disability. The assessment takes between two and three hours and consists of a number of tests to analyse your child's strengths and weaknesses in several areas. Once these strengths and weaknesses are known, specialist help can be tailored to your child's particular needs.

Dyslexia Support in the Middle East
As in most parts of the world, dyslexia support in the Middle East is mainly available in the Private Sector of education. Growing awareness of the condition is contributing to the increase in schools which now provide facilities, and hopefully, in the future this will extend to the State Sector.

Mrs Anita Singhal has been the Special Educational Needs Co-Ordinator at Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) in Dubai for the last six years. “There has been a great improvement in recent years,” says Anita. “Most English Curriculum schools now have Dyslexia Support Units.”

She is also a tutor for the Hornsby Distance Learning Course in Specific Learning Difficulties. During her time as a tutor she has seen fifteen teachers under her guidance gain the Diploma and many of these are now giving dyslexia support in Dubai schools. Others give private lessons to children attending schools where no specialist help is available. Another six teachers are currently studying for the qualification.

Anita also runs a Dyslexia Support Group for parents, which meets once a month at JESS, whenever possible. Apart from the benefits parents derive from mutual support and the exchange of ideas and information, they have group discussions and, on occasions, talks by visiting specialists.

Jumeirah Primary School is a British Curriculum expatriate school in Dubai, U.A.E. which has given support to dyslexic students since 1998. Qualified dyslexia teachers tutor over 60 children on a one-to-one basis, and each child has one 40-minute lesson per week. The child's parent (usually the mother) is present at the lessons as parents are considered to be equal partners with the teacher in the intervention.

The parent observes the lesson and contributes if invited to by the teacher. The parent soon learns the importance of over-learning, eliciting information, allowing the child to process at his or her own speed, positive reinforcement and so on.

“We aim to build confidence and self-esteem, raise literacy attainment levels in reading, vocabulary, comprehension, spelling, handwriting and writing of text, and to encourage the development of IT skills, touch-typing and study skills,” says Philippa Bodien, Head of Dyslexia.

Comments one satisfied parent, “Within six weeks of attending remedial dyslexia teaching classes we saw a remarkable change in our son's behaviour. Gone was the ‘I am stupid' mindset, to be replaced with ‘I am not stupid. ‘I am dyslexic.' It has been a great relief for me and my husband to witness our son grow in confidence, become an extrovert, and knowingly put himself in situations where his lack of mastery of reading would be uncovered. Coupled with the growth in his self-confidence has been his acquired determination that dyslexia will not hold him back.”

The Princess Sarvath Community College, Amman, Jordan was founded in 1980. It opened a National Centre for Learning Difficulties in 1993. It is hoped that the centre will eventually serve as a regional facility. In June 2001, Her Royal Highness became the Honorary President of the Arab Society for Learning Difficulties, which was formed in Amman.

What of the future?
It will be some time before every dyslexic individual receives the help required to ensure that they are not disadvantaged within the educational system. A number of factors are involved, such as awareness, recognition, training and resources, but the biggest stumbling block in most countries is resources.

Great progress has been made, in research and in the setting up of organisations, some charitable and some commercial, in the last 50 or so years. These continue to thrive and grow, and to give advice and support to dyslexics worldwide.

The Dyslexia Institute offers teaching sessions, training of teachers, and assessment by specialists. The Hornsby Institute trains teachers through distance learning. All organisations have websites, with information on just about every aspect of dyslexia. Some offer assessments which can be done at home and returned for marking. There is a plethora of teaching aids available via the Internet - CD-ROM's, tapes, books and other material, for those who can afford them. Most organisations can be contacted by email.

An International Dyslexia Test is being devised by Ian Smythe of the World Dyslexia Network Foundation, which can be translated successfully into any language. The aim for the future is to have screening for dyslexia worldwide for all children of school age. The test will be ready for use in England and Wales in about two years' time.

Hopeful change in attitude
The new focus of attention on dyslexia reflects a change in attitude by the scientific community. There is a growing realisation that a highly literate society cannot afford to waste the human potential of those plagued by this condition. However, we have a long way to go before the vast majority of dyslexics in the world have access to specialist help i.e to be educated according to their needs. This should be a basic right of every human being in the twenty first century.

Dyslexic? You're in good company!
reat Achievers
Some of the world's greatest achievers have been dyslexic - Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Winston Churchill, to name but a few. Victor Villasenor (award-winning author) put it this way - “Once the fog lifts, dyslexics are prone to genius because theirs is such a unique way of looking at reality.”

Jackie Stewart OBE Racing Driver
“My school years were unquestionably the unhappiest of my life. Like many others, I was humiliated and embarrassed by my apparent inadequacies. To this day, I can't read, spell or write very well. I even dictated these words you are reading now on to tape. But, while dyslexia caused me great pain, it is also a driving force behind my success. For $10,000 I would not be able to recite to you the alphabet. If somebody receives a handwritten thank-you note from me they know it means I went through a lot of hard work to do it.”

Albert Einstein: Greatest Physicist of 20th century

He formulated the Theory of Relativity and was a genius, but, by all accounts, was dyslexic. Depending on your source of information, he didn't speak until he was three, or maybe five or (and this defies credibility) seven! His performance in school was mediocre, except in Maths and Physics. He couldn't remember the time's tables, couldn't read very well, and spelling defeated him. He couldn't tie his shoelaces (reputedly) until he was nine, and was totally disorganised.

Thomas Alva Edison: Prolific Inventor, born in 1847
He was most famous for inventing the light bulb and the phonograph, but didn't leanr to read until he was 12. He was a most prolific inventor, applying for 1,093 patents in his life. In one year he applied for 400 patents. He is remembered as, perhaps, America's greatest inventor. People used to come from miles around to see his “invention factory”. He died a rich man.

Whoopi Goldberg: Actress and Comedienne.
Born Caryn Johnson in 1950, she adopted her stage name in 1974 when she joined Spontaneous Combustion, an improvisationational theatre group. She always wanted to be an actress. She got her big break on Broadway in 1983 with a one-woman-show which was a great success. She came to the attention of Stephen Spielberg and in 1984 was cast in the leading role in his film of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Since then she's gone from strength to strength with roles in The Player, Made in America, Star Trek and others.

Cher: Singer and actress
Born in California, in 1946 as Cherylin Sarkisian Lapiere, her mother, was married 8 times, eked out a living as a bit-part actress. Cher loved to watch her mother on stage. At 16, she gave up her struggle with dyslexia, quit education and took acting lessons in Los Angeles. She met Sonny Bono at 17 and they soon became the legendary duo Sonny and Cher. They married and had a daughter in 1969, and although they ultimately parted, remained close. Cher's success as a singer and song-writer has endured despite the ups and downs of her private life.

Tom Cruise: Actor
Born in 1962 in Syracuse, New York, he is the third of four children. Because of having dyslexia he needed to switch schools constantly, which, unfortunately, led to bad grades. He tried to compensate for this handicap by being active in sports, until a knee injury ended his career in wrestling. He discovered a love of acting while taking part in a student production of Guys and Dolls. He was discovered by Frank Zefirelli who cast him in two productions, and the rest is history.

Where to get help:
The Maharat Center, Jeddah
009662 665-6218
This is one of 10 centers that offers help with Dyslexia in Saudi Arabia

The Dyslexia Institute
Head Office: 133 Gresham Road
STAINES, Middlesex, TW18 2A, U.K.
Tel: 01784 463851
Fax 01784 460747

The British Dyslexia Association
98 London Road
Admin Tel: 0118 966 2677.
Fax: 0118 935 1927.

The International Dyslexia Association, International Office
8600 LaSalle Road, Chester Building, Suite 382,
Baltimore, MD 21286-2044 USA
Messages (800) ABCD123,
Voice (410) 296-0232
Fax (410) 321-5069

A small mail-order company based in Cambridge, UK, specialising in IT solutions for people with dyslexia. They sell an extensive range of IT products through worldwide mail-order.

The Dyslexia Testing Service
Comprehensive easy to use dyslexia assessment package.
The Dyslexia Testing Service was established in 1999 by the Head of Learning Support at a large secondary school. The Assessment Team specialise in the diagnosis, teaching and support of pupils with dyslexia. This service therefore is based on many years of practical experience by teaching professionals.

The Dyslexia Center
Phone (707) 546-8768 (USA)
Toll Free (888) 446-6389
Fax (707) 526-9011

A Japanese method of teaching Maths, which relies on repetition.
TEL : 81-6-4797-8782
FAX : 81-6-4797-8785

Irlen Syndrome (a perceptual disorder)
Often accompanies dyslexia - Head Office: Irlen Institute,
5380 Village Rd.,Long Beach, CA 90808
Tel: Office:562-496-2550

Source: Arabian Woman

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