April 5, 2009

The Experience of Dyslexia

It always astounds me when I hear parents of children with learning difficulties say (right in front of their kids), "He's quite slow." This is inevitably accompanied by an apologetic laugh, while the child cringes and looks at the floor. Regardless of what language they speak, 'slow' is often a euphemism for 'not too smart'. I once even heard a mother say, "He's quite dumb." OMG!

Not only does saying such things damage the child's self-esteem, it also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e., the child will believe that he is dumb and does not attempt to be anything else. When you are a child, you think that everything your parents say is the gospel truth.

However, nothing could be further from the truth! For a dyslexic child, 'slow' means exactly that. He takes longer to learn the same things, but it's not because he's any less intelligent. One can only be diagnosed with dyslexia if he or she is of normal or above-average intelligence.

To understand why dyslexics are so slow, you'd have to see the world through their eyes. Literally. Let's try a little quiz and see how well you do in their world.

Below is a list of ten English words, written by dyslexic children aged 9 to 12. All you have to do is read the words and figure out what they mean. When you're done, note your ending time. These are simple, Standard 3 (third grade) words—easy peasy!

Ok, ready? Write down your starting time now. Here we go -

No cheating!

When you're done, write down your ending time. How did you do?

(Highlight the blank space below to see the answers.)

1. crash, 2. go, 3. vowel, 4. seaside, 5. clothesline
6. violin, 7. married, 8. socks, 9. a goat, 10. buys

How many did you get right? Ten? Congratulations, you're dyslexic! Haha, just kidding. No way a dyslexic can read that any better than you can.

Anyway, your score isn't important. What's important is what you experienced.

What was your first reaction when you saw the words? "What the heck is this?? I don't understand!!!" Welcome to the world of the dyslexic, where words don't make sense.

Next, did your brain start to hurt as you tried to figure out what you were looking at? Did you suddenly stop reading fluently and started to struggle and went back to the same word again and again? Dyslexic kids experience this EVERY time they read - they are ALWAYS struggling. Now you know why they dislike reading. Wouldn't you, if it was always this difficult?

As you continued to struggle to comprehend, did you scan your word bank to find an approximate word? Did you think, "Could it be this word? Or that?" You were using your intelligence and memory to compensate because your vision had failed you (the information coming through your eyes made no sense to you). Dyslexics call on their intelligence and memory much more than normal children do, hence they also get tired much faster.

After much struggle, you said, "Ah, forget it. There's no way I'm ever going to understand this. Enough! My brain hurts!" You gave up and quit. Congratulations! You have just engaged in typical dyslexic behaviour! Parents complain that their children refuse to do their homework, or do their homework for 5 minutes and run away. Did you last even 5 seconds? Did you at least TRY??? Obviously, you're lazy and uncooperative because you didn't even try. I'm sure if you try, you can do it.

Sound familiar? Dyslexic children hear this every day from their teachers and parents. Can you carry on with this for 10 hours a day, every day? If you were forced to, would you not rebel or throw a tantrum?

Why was reading such a struggle for you? After all, these are very elementary words that you have already been taught many times.

This quiz demonstrates a disturbance in visual processing that most dyslexic children have. The words they wrote there were actually what they saw. How easy was it to read when everything is garbled like that? Can extra tutoring change what you see?

How long did it take you to figure out those ten words? Longer than it took you to read the last ten? Why so slow? Are you dumb? Or just 'slow'? No. You were busy deciphering what your eyes were telling you and it took longer than normal because what was coming through your eyes made no sense. If you were reading a sentence, do you think you would understand the meaning of the sentence? Or would you keep going back and try to guess what you think it might mean?

This is why dyslexic children struggle with reading. They don't read, they decipher. By the time they finish deciphering that row of squiggles we call a sentence, the rest of the class had already finished reading two paragraphs. Or three. (Compare your own time and see.)

So, what did it feel like to be dyslexic? The next time you catch yourself thinking that a dyslexic child is dumb, maybe you'll remember this and think again.

See also:

Symptoms of Learning Disabilities

Symptoms of Auditory Processing Disorder (in pictures)

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