Does your child have difficulty with reading, writing and spelling? One may think these are just excuses kids make, but this article will make you think otherwise. Let us introduce you to Dyslexia.
By Chitra Satyavasan
It is not often that you connect Bollywood with a classroom displaying paintings of budding artists. But when the classroom belongs to Prayatna, a centre providing intervention services to children experiencing specific academic difficulties, and the movie is Taare Zameen Par, the association is natural. More so, when you spot two framed posters from the movie – one having the paintings of the dyslexic child and the other being the paintings of his art teacher – both placed at the entrance of the classroom.
For the uninitiated, the movie deals with the travails of Ishaan, whose poor grades puzzle his parents and teachers and whose artistic inclinations go unnoticed. Thinking that he is merely ‘lazy’, Ishaan’s parents pack him off to a boarding school to be disciplined. The lonely boy soon discards even the paint brush. It takes a sensitive art teacher, played by Aamir Khan, to discover Ishaan’s dyslexia. He patiently teaches Ishaan, whose performance improves and soon with his new-found confidence, the talented Ishaan wins an art competition.
Thanks to Bollywood, parents and schools are increasingly becoming aware of this learning disorder. Dyslexia, derived from the Greek word ‘dys’ (difficult) and ‘lexis’ (word), is defined by the International Dyslexia Association as 'a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities'.
Though the current literature on dyslexia calls it a learning disability, Prayatna’s founder Aruna Sankaranarayanan prefers to call it a ‘learning difficulty’.
Dyslexics find it hard to break the letters of the alphabet in written words into the distinct sounds of their language; so reading, spelling and writing are challenging to them. Unlike slow learners, dyslexic children have a high IQ.
According to Madras Dyslexia Association (MDA) coordinator Vilasini Diwakar, by the time a child is five years old, it is possible to determine whether he is dyslexic. Signs to watch out for include:
Having just one of these signs does not indicate dyslexia. Many children, before they turn seven, reverse letters. But if a child has several reading problems and there is a family history of dyslexia, it would be best to take him to a remedial centre. Preschoolers who talk later than expected, have trouble in learning words and find it difficult to understand sequences may be ‘at risk’, adds Vilasini.
Further, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and behavioural or memory problems may accompany dyslexia. As Vilasini says, “Some dyslexic children feel lonely, angry and misunderstood. Some indulge in violence, and others steal money to buy things for classmates and win friends. They feel frustrated when others do not understand their actual trouble and call them ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’.”
Once a child is diagnosed as being dyslexic, learning centres will recommend a remedial programme involving an educational specialist, an educational psychologist or a speech therapist based on individual needs.
Parents will have to approach learning centres in schools or NGOs who will help them in deciding whether remedial classes can be held after school hours or whether the child needs a pull-out programme.
“Pull-out programmes are recommended for children who are unable to cope with mainstream school and need individual attention. The child is pulled out for a term or a year, depending on her need. Sometimes, such children may opt for the National Institute Open Schooling (NIOS) system whose flexible curriculum can make learning advantageous to them,” says Geeta Raghavan, a coordinator at MDA’s learning centre Ananya.
Poor reading skills may not stop you from balancing equations, playing with colours or appreciating the complex world of numbers. But the inability to read well makes many areas of learning difficult. Again, dyslexia, when left undiagnosed, can lead to frustration, poor academic performance and low self-esteem. To enable such children to realise their potential, learning centres are necessary.
“Schools are required to have special educators (according to the Right to Education Act) and if the children’s needs are taken care of during school hours, outside help is not required. But this is not happening in most schools. There is a significant discrepancy between the expected and actual performance of a dyslexic child. A child may be in Class IV but is working at Class II level. To reduce this ‘gap’, the child needs special education provided by trained special educators," says Geet Oberoi, president of Orkids, a chain of clinics providing remedial intervention to children with learning difficulties in New Delhi.
Remedial centres perform a battery of tests to diagnose dyslexia. “We first interview the parents to learn about their child’s learning problems. Then, we have a separate session with the child who undergoes reading, skill and IQ tests. We also study his notebooks, assess his personality and analyse how he uses words and solves problems. The child’s birth history, family history, vision, hearing skills and behaviour are also analysed to find out if she is dyslexic,” says MDA’s Vilasini, whose son has dyslexia.
Remedial centres use multi-sensory learning techniques like the Sonday system. It may also involve modelling letters and words in clay and other three-dimensional techniques. Prayatna employs game-based colourful, creative and indigenous teaching aids like Peacock’s Plume, Free the Butterflies and Factor Flowers to make English and Math fun. Parents can buy them (reasonably priced at Rs 300-500) and teach their wards at home. Children with behavioural issues may also undergo counselling.
“MDA also prepares dyslexic children for National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and board exams where these students appear as private candidates,” says Geeta.
ICSE, CBSE and State Boards provide exemptions to help dyslexic children compete on an equal footing. They are given more time to complete the work and marks are not cut for spelling errors if the content is clear.
CBSE gives dyslexic children the option of studying one compulsory language as against two. Besides one language, they can opt for any four of the following subjects: Math, Science, Social Science, another language, Music, Painting, Home Science and Introductory Information Technology.
They are also permitted to use an amanuensis (an assistant who takes dictation), who should be a student of a class lower than the one for which the candidate is taking the exam.
To avail of such concessions, parents would have to submit medical certificates issued by doctors and learning centres to the respective Boards, whose rules may vary.
Dyslexia occurs across a whole spectrum of intelligence and is likely to be found in the gifted as well as those with average intelligence. Dyslexics have excelled in art, science, sports, business and entertainment.
A few like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Thomas Edison are regularly cited at learning centres to inspire children and inform parents that dyslexia need not limit a child’s aspirations. But parents are usually devastated when their child is identified as dyslexic.
“Parents live in denial when they learn their child is dyslexic. It takes a lot of effort on our part to convince them that remedial programmes will enable their children to cope with studies. Later, these same parents are grateful to us when they see improvement in grades. Even we see the difference. Children, who once disliked reading or writing, are now eager that we see their notebooks and want to learn more. Their enthusiasm is hard to miss. Children with dyslexia have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and architects, and there are many who are studying catering technology,” maintains Vilasini.
Recent studies reveal that dyslexics have an advantage in certain scientific and artistic fields due to their superior peripheral vision. The focus of recent research is on understanding the causes of dyslexia and identifying the distinctive aptitudes of those facing such learning difficulties so that remedial programmes can also focus on their strengths.
But, as a New York Times article ‘The Upside of Dyslexia’ says, “Whatever special abilities dyslexia may bestow, difficulty with reading still imposes a handicap. Glib talk about appreciating dyslexia as a ‘gift’ is unhelpful at best, and patronizing at worst.”
Though dyslexia is a lifelong problem, early diagnosis and intervention will help children overcome their difficulties to a large extent. With extra effort and dedication, children with dyslexia can succeed in academics and other areas, and make meaningful contributions to society like other children. Don’t forget to tell your child that despite her trouble with writing and spelling, Agatha Christie went on to script detective fiction!
Geet Oberoi of Orkids believes that it is usually the mother who is the first person to realise that something is ‘amiss’ in her child. This is what she would like to tell parents.
Forty-three-old Indira’s son Dev, 17, loves Harry Potter books and is a football fan who has also played tennis at the national level. Indira talks about her son’s dyslexia and how it never stopped him from leading an enriching life:
“My son Dev was in Class II when his frequent spelling mistakes began to worry me. His reading was slow and at times, he would write numbers in reverse. His teachers said that probably in his hurry to answer questions, he was making such mistakes. My mother-in-law had once told me how my husband, too, had such problems. I thought that with time, Dev’s problem would disappear as his IQ was high. Also, he did very well in his oral exams, was keen on football and tennis and was crazy about jigsaw puzzles. When Dev was in Class V, I realised that he needed professional help. As he was very good in studies, I didn’t want him to lose marks owing to spelling errors. We took him to Prayatna where he attended classes on Fridays and weekends. In one-and-a-half years, his reading skills improved by 60-80%, and his spelling and writing became better.
He also scored 100 per cent in Science and Sanskrit in his Class X board exams. He’s in Class XII (Science) now and unlike his classmates, he cannot complete his answers fast. So, we requested the CBSE to allow him extra time. His Board and various entrance exams are keeping him busy now. He wants to become an engineer or an architect as he has excellent visual-spatial skills. My only request to parents is – once you suspect your child may have dyslexia, refer him for early intervention services. He should have every opportunity to learn."
That's an inspiring story! So, do not be disheartened if you feel your child is dyslexic. Take the right measures and ensure a good life for your child. There is hope!
This is the first of a series of four articles on children with Learning Disabilities
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