Fighting for understanding

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Liz Dunoon discusses her struggle to get her son’s dyslexia recognised and supported in her native Australia.

I sat in my car feeling empty and numb as a warm tear slid down my cheek. My six-year-old son Leo called out from the back seat: “C’mon Mum. I want to go home.” 

“OK”, I said as I started the engine. Leo chatted constantly about his day as we made our way home, unaware of my growing feelings of despair.

So what had just happened? I had made the appointment to speak with Leo’s teachers after school because he was struggling to learn to read. Night after night we practised his reading and went though flash cards of basic sight words. After three months he knew only one word – “I” – and could not read any words or sentences in his readers. 

The irony of this situation is that I am a primary school teacher and I have taught hundreds of children to read. I felt sure Leo’s teachers would give me the key to the door, which I could then use to help my struggling son. Instead, I was greeted with blank faces and surprise. Neither had any idea he found reading difficult and when I expressed my concern, I was given a hotchpotch lecture where words like “phonics”, “syntax”, “semantics” and “phonemes” were thrown at me.

My anxiety increased and I wanted to shout, “You’re meant to know what’s going on”. The other teacher realised how distressed I was and offered to keep a closer eye on my son in the future. 

As I drove Leo home I felt weary and confused; was I over-reacting? My oldest son had been a slow developer but I knew he was intelligent. Something just did not add up. Perhaps I just couldn’t teach my own son because I couldn’t be objective. Was I blinded by my love for him?

Anger, fear and worry settled upon me like a winter coat. I knew children need to be able to read competently by the end of Year 3 because that’s when learning to read slows down and reading to learn becomes paramount. I was in a race against time to secure my child’s future.

Searching for answers
As a teacher, I believed the best way forward was to engage Leo in more reading practice before and after school. I put sight words on the fridge, on the bathroom wall and in the car – repeating words after me on the way to school. Did it help? Marginally. Maybe Leo could now recognise four of his ten sight words, but he still couldn’t read more than one or two words in his readers and he could never transfer learning from one page to the next.

Dyslexia briefly crossed my mind, but I just didn’t know enough about it. My teacher training offered me scant information. We were never told how to recognise signs or what to do to help a dyslexic child.

We continued to work hard but poor Leo quickly became mentally exhausted, sad and anxious. School was fast losing its appeal and our relationship was suffering as a result.

A few months later, I went back to the classroom. I needed to see what was happening because, although Leo was making friends and was happy enough, he still could not read and struggled to write. As I flicked through his schoolbooks, I noticed beautiful handwriting, the use of full stops and capital letters. My joy was short lived. It was Leo’s workbook, but it wasn’t his work. The boy who sat next to him had witnessed Leo’s struggle and had offered to do his schoolwork for him.

His teachers, of course, had no idea this had been happening. Again, I felt angry. I was a teacher and I knew this wasn’t good enough. Needless to say, I started to look around for a new school.

The one we chose was further from home and more expensive, but it was the right school for Leo. Within weeks of starting, his teacher told me that Leo was most likely dyslexic and he was placed straight into learning support. Very slowly, with baby steps, Leo began to learn to read. It was difficult and took an enormous amount of mental energy, but it was reading all the same.

By grade three, however, it was evident that Leo’s challenges weren’t diminishing. He was still a struggling reader, a disaster at spelling and a slow writer, but he was now having difficulty mastering some basic mathematical concepts. He felt constantly frustrated and confused. “Something is wrong with me,” he would say. “I have to try so hard all the time when everyone else just mucks around and still does their work.” 

The after-school hours were particularly challenging. He carried anxiety and fear of failure throughout the day, and, by the time he came home, he was mentally exhausted from his constant effort to keep up. As a result, most days would end in an eruption of frustration and anger, with Leo taking it out on the people who loved him the most – his family.

The introduction of regular homework nearly tipped him over the edge. He would abuse, threaten, yell, cry and demand constant assistance to complete it. After a year of this, enough was enough. I was exhausted and this was only grade three. What was going to happen in Year 11?

Searching for assessments
I sat at my computer and typed in “dyslexia assessments”. There were thousands of businesses trying to sell me a solution, but I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on something that might not work. I wanted to know why my son struggled to learn and what I could do to help him.

I finally chose an assessor who was not attached to a specific learning program and, I hoped, was capable of being completely objective.

We had a long drive to Brisbane from our home in regional Queensland but, after Leo’s assessment, we had an answer. The expert opinion was that Leo had dyslexia. Yes, it was a label, but to me it was much, much more: it was a prescription for action and now I could help my son to succeed. 

At school, an individual support plan was created and means of tracking his progress and keeping me informed were introduced. The assessment was relatively expensive, but now I finally felt in control of the situation. 

Now in Grade Six, Leo is a “‘C” average student. I think he is a champion. His “average” is an exceptional achievement. 

My quest to help my son has taken me on an amazing journey of discovery about dyslexia, my family and myself. I have spent years researching this condition and I know that what researchers have discovered about dyslexia will change many lives, yet this information isn’t reaching our teachers or parents. 

Without a diagnosis the child often has to fend for themselves, and teachers and parents try to support struggling children with limited information and resources. Children with dyslexia do not “grow out of it”; instead, the gaps in learning tend to widen, and frustration and failure at school can put children at great psychological risk. 

A child who is struggling to learn will try anything to cover it up so they are not seen as “the dumb kid”; until our politicians and educators provide more resources for training and assessment, parents will need to be vigilant, well-informed and persistent in seeking answers.

Children with dyslexia are generally of equal or higher intelligence compared to other children. The child who struggles to read, spell or write today might just be the next Richard Branson, Agatha Christie or Albert Einstein – all high-achievers who have battled dyslexia. I believe that my son Leo is destined for greatness. He works harder than most and understands what it means to struggle and to succeed. He knows his weaknesses and utilises his strengths to look forward confidently to his future.

Liz Dunoon
Author: Liz Dunoon

Liz Dunoon
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Liz Dunoon is a teacher and a mother of three children with dyslexia. She is the author of Helping Children With Dyslexia, now in its second edition. Liz runs a website with information and free resources on dyslexia:
www.dylexiadaily.com

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