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Let’s talk about Dyslexia in the UAE

Usually when people hear the word dyslexia they think only of reading, writing, spelling, and math problems a child is having in school. Some associate it only with word and letter reversals, some only with slow learners. I remember watching a television show about the "positive" side of dyslexia. The speaker listed the names of a dozen or so famous dyslexics. The hostess of the show then commented, "Isn't it amazing that all those people could be geniuses in spite of having dyslexia." She missed the point. Their genius didn't occur in spite of their dyslexia, but because of it!

Dyslexics don't all develop the same gifts, but they do have certain mental functions in common. Here are the basic abilities all dyslexics share:

1.         They can utilize the brain's ability to alter and create perceptions (the primary ability).

2.         They are highly aware of the environment.

3.         They are more curious than average.

4.         They think mainly in pictures instead of words.

5.         They are highly intuitive and insightful.

6.         They think and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all the senses).

7.         They can experience thought as reality.

8.         They have vivid imaginations.

These eight basic abilities, if not suppressed, invalidated or destroyed by parents or the educational process, will result in two characteristics: higher than normal intelligence, and extraordinary creative abilities.

To change our perspective of dyslexia, we must start with a clear, accurate understanding of what dyslexia really is, and what causes it. Doing this will bring out the positive as well as the negative aspects of the situation and allow us to see how dyslexia develops. Then the idea of correcting it won't seem far-fetched.

What is Dyslexia and what are the most common signs of it?

No single definition currently exists to adequately define dyslexia. Simple definition of dyslexia is 'Intelligent, bright or  even gifted individuals, that for no obvious reason, struggle to learn through the medium of written or spoken language'.

Many people think whether dyslexia is related to intelligence. Dyslexia is not due to low intelligence'. Children with learning disabilities are smart. They can do well. Unfortunately one or more of their information processing systems does not work efficiently. This makes it more difficult to acquire academic skills. Let us look at an example in reading. Many children with dyslexia struggle with reading.

They know the words when they are spoken to them. They can recognize pictures of the word, for example a picture of a dog, if it is matched with the spoken word. Yet when they are asked to match the letter representations that make up the word to the sound combination or the picture of the word they have difficulty. In the case of reading this may be because the auditory processing system, from the ear to the brain and back out again, is inefficient.

It does not work in the same way that it does for most children. This means the child who really wants to do well in school struggles because so much of the school work is based on the ability to read the written word. Even math, art and music classes often require reading. When teachers find different ways for the child to encode or store information in memory, the child is able to show what he or she knows. If the teacher does not adjust the teaching style school can be a very frustrating and emotionally troubling experience for a child.

The myth that dyslexics are just stupid can most effectively be laid to rest by mentioning some of history's famous dyslexics—all of them men of exceptional ability and intellect. I hope this will be reassuring if your child has recently been diagnosed. Albert Einstein is the name we most commonly associate with a genius. He did not begin to read until he was nine but by the age of 12 he was a brilliant mathematician and physicist despite having no gift for languages. Leonardo da Vinci the remarkable artist, architect, engineer and scientist was undoubtedly dyslexic. Examples of his mirror writing can still be seen in his notebooks at the British museum in London.

Thomas Edison the American inventor of the telephone, the microphone, the phonograph and the electric bulb among many other things was thought to be a dunce at school. He could never learn the alphabet or arithmetic tables by heart and his spelling and grammar remained appalling throughout his life. Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America didn't not learn his letters until he has 9 and could not read till he was 11 but turned out to be a marvellous debater who never needed any notes.

Who has dyslexia? Is it related to social background?

I would say that a recognizable form and degrees of dyslexia are present in about 10% of children in the UAE  and this may well be a conservative estimate. We do not have figures which show how many pupils in schools are likely to have dyslexia. Some have early problems which seem to be overcome later and others have continuing trouble. Dyslexia affects people from all backgrounds.

Those who work with dyslexic children on a day-to-day basis quickly learn to recognise the signs of dyslexia. Although no two dyslexics are the same, all dyslexics share enough common symptoms to make recognising the condition possible. Dyslexia varies in substance and severity from person to person. Yet whether mild or severe, all forms interfere with learning.  Those who say that dyslexia does not exist have never been closely associated with a person with symptoms of dyslexia.

What causes dyslexia? What aggravates it?

As far as we know there is no single simple cause of dyslexia. It is suspected that the root of the problem is thought to be an inefficient connection between the left and right halves of the brain. This might sound alarming stated in such medical terms. But to put it in perspective remember that I am talking about very subtle variations in the arrangement of cells, not the severe brain abnormalities that result in more serious conditions than dyslexia.

There are different aggravating factors like poor schooling or poor health. Constant changes of school particularly if this also involves drastic changes of teaching methods may well retard a child's ability to acquire the basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. The extent to which school, teachers and child are compatible are important features in a child's life specially in his early years. Children flourish in a rewarding experience. Open-plan education where children do not sit in rows of desks but all do different tasks at little tables dotted about large rooms may be more fun and suits some children very well. But the dyslexic child who finds it hard to concentrate will be totally lost. He needs a much more structured system of instruction. A change of environment may be all that is needed.

What are the signs and symptoms of dyslexia? How can you tell that a child could be dyslexic?

Some of the early signs in the preschool child are: difficulty in learning to talk, in listening and following directions, in remembering, in pronouncing words or in expressing ideas.

Once the child starts school, other signs are: difficulty in learning the alphabet, in sequencing letters or numbers ("saw" for "was" or "no" for "on"), difficulty rhyming, difficulty with sequence and memory for words, and in learning to read, write and spell. In addition, the dyslexic child may have a short attention span and be easily distracted or seem to daydream. Or he or she may be hyperactive, in constant motion or restless, clumsy and awkward, or unable to coordinate several things at once.

The only sure way to determine if a child is dyslexic is through professional assessment.  Many parents are concerned at the prospect of their child being given an official label that proclaims his disability for the entire world to see. You may be worried about your child being made to feel different or about the unwarranted social stigma that some people attach to dyslexia, mistakenly believing it to be a type of mental deficiency. If your child's problem is not identified, there is the risk of his being placed in a remedial class for backward children. This will not only destroy a bright child's self-confidence but starve him of the intellectual stimulation he so badly needs. It will also help you to get allowances made for them in examinations.

What kinds of accommodations can be given to dyslexic students studying and taking exams?

Some common accommodations for dyslexic students are oral testing, untimed tests, eliminate or reduce spelling tests, don't force oral reading, accept dictated work, reduce homework load, grade on content, not spelling nor handwriting. Reduce copying tasks.

What ails our educational system?

Let's work on the solution and stop pointing fingers. The solution is not to blame teachers, parents or students, but to take all the resources we have and direct them into intensive teacher training. No one program works for all students with a reading disability. A teacher should be trained in two or three reading methods specific for students for dyslexia. Not all teachers want to be trained but for those who do, the school should fund the training. The schools should have testing facilities which can identify dyslexia and many multi-sensory reading programs that are effective in teaching students with symptoms of dyslexia.

Many school children with dyslexia in Dubai and the UAE endure frustration and demoralization on a daily basis as they struggle to acquire skills that many of us take for granted. If your child is struggling how do you know if dyslexia is the cause? Where can you go for help? There is a need for a Learning centre that provides one-to-one instruction goes that beyond traditional tutoring and  develops the underlying sensory skills necessary for reading, spelling, comprehension, critical thinking, and math and is based on the individual's learning needs. A centre where students learn to integrate sensory information to become self-correcting and independent in all learning tasks. Many students need intensive instruction to rapidly close the gap between their potential and their performance. A Learning Center on a one-to-one with students in a positive, patient and caring environment in a structured, systematic, and cumulative approach could tap into each child's individual learning style by incorporating touch, vision and auditory elements

Can dyslexia be cured?

Dyslexia is not a disease. It has no cure. But it is no longer necessary to be distressed if your child is dyslexic because there are well-tried methods of teaching which greatly improve the condition in the vast majority of cases. There are innumerable ways in which dyslexics can be helped by teachers, psychologists, speech therapists, family doctors and of course by their parents. Before examining the techniques for coping with dyslexia, let us talk about the common problems that arise for dyslexics and their parents and teachers and how they might be avoided.

Despite the bright prospects of a normal life for dyslexics offered by today's teaching and other remedial methods, it cannot be denied that in reality dyslexics, their families and teachers often encounter daunting problems, most of which I believe are based largely on a lack of understanding.

This lack of understanding begins with the child himself who cannot grasp why other children often less bright than him seem to be able to acquire skills in reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic which he finds so difficult or even totally incomprehensible. Being a dyslexic can cause a lot of pain. The pain is more mental than physical because you're aware that you are different from everyone. He may react to his failure to keep up in these subjects with temper tantrums, psychosomatic ailments such as headaches or tummy upsets or by wetting or soiling himself.

Parents are often puzzled why their child is doing badly at school when he seems bright enough in every other way. They may begin to wonder whether his indeed as dull or lazy as his teachers seem to suggest. Teachers may be totally baffled by the pupil who does not respond to teaching methods that are successful for most of other pupils especially as there is no obvious reason for his lack of progress.

There is a strong need to create public and professional awareness about dyslexia. We need to work to improve the future for the dyslexics. Expert help needs to be provided so that the number of pupils with symptoms of dyslexia becomes fewer. They need not suffer unnecessary hardship as a result of lack of understanding from parents, teachers and other professionals.

Dyslexics have many strengths: oral skills, comprehension, good visual spatial awareness/artistic abilities. More and more dyslexic children could become talented and gifted members of our schools if we worked not only with their specific areas of difficulty, but also their specific areas of strengths from an early age. To do this we have to let go of outmoded viewpoints that a dyslexic child must first fail, in order to be identified. These are the children of our future and they have a right to help and support before they develop the dreadful sense of failure which is so insidious. Class teachers dealing with dyslexic children need to be flexible in their approach, so that they can, as far as possible, find a method that suits the pupil, rather than expecting that all pupils will learn in the same way.

Above all, there must be an understanding from all who teach them, that they may have many talents and skills. Their abilities must not be measured purely on the basis of their difficulties in acquiring literacy skills. Dyslexic children, like all children, thrive on challenges and success.

Individual tutoring should be sought to help these students learn to use their strengths and build their feelings of competence. Sincere praise works wonders. They often excel at activities such as Legos, computer games, art or music. Any skill in which these young people experience success should be encouraged and nurtured. Their skills, interests and hobbies may lead to careers in adult life.

In adulthood, these individuals excel in fields dependent upon their special abilities: art, architecture, physics, aeronautics, pure mathematical research, engineering, computer programming, and photography. Frequently, they develop their own businesses or become chief executive officers (CEOs) in major corporations because of their inventiveness and ability to see the relationships of large numbers of variables. We need individuals with highly developed visual-spatial abilities for advancement in the arts, technology and business. These are the creative leaders of society. We need to protect their differences in childhood and enable them to develop their unique talents in supportive environments at home and at school.

By Remediana Dias, Dyslexia Practitioner


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