One of the biggest struggles I’ve faced as a mom is recognizing, accepting, and getting a diagnosis of dyslexia for one of my children. This process was filled with uncertainty, guilt, worry, and incredible loneliness. I felt like I was on my own in researching and understanding why my daughter was struggling so much harder than any of her siblings or classmates seemed to be.
That gap between her and other kids around her was really the thing that pushed me to look for answers. Unfortunately that came along with a lot of questioning and guilt – why couldn’t I just accept her the way she was? Did school performance really matter? What was I doing wrong as a parent that my daughter didn’t know her ABC’s? All that guilt isolated me from others and put me constantly on edge. Finally, when I found the answers, I realized that I had been right all along. She did not need to struggle as hard as she was. While grades can be overlooked, social experience and school confidence could not be.
If you are reading this blog, I’m guessing that you are looking for answers, too. So rest assured, you are doing the right thing! Trust your gut, and do your research! There are ways to identify dyslexia early on, and there is help out there. Don’t listen to anyone (including yourself!) who tells you that dyslexia cannot be identified conclusively. Look at the early warning signs I’ve listed below and if they resonate with you then keep looking until you feel like you’ve exhausted all possibilities. I am here for you and you are not alone!
First, here’s a little background on my experience. I have four daughters and there is only a 5 year gap between the first and the last. Miriam is my second, coming along only 18 months after her older sister and two years before her younger sister. Before becoming a full-time stay-at-home-mom while I was pregnant with Miriam, I taught high school English for a few years. During the credential program I learned about learning disabilities and some of the incredible struggles dyslexics go through. My husband is dyslexic, and I knew that it is a genetic condition.
When I began to suspect dyslexia in Miriam I learned that if a parent has dyslexia there is a 25% chance their child will have it, too. When I got my hands on the book Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, I was stunned to see that Miriam checked the boxes for more than half the indicators for dyslexia. This pushed me to continue pursing a diagnosis and intervention. So let’s take a look at what some of those early warning signs were.
Rhymes are a source of frustration
Perhaps the first sign to me that something was different about Miriam’s brain was the way she hated nursery rhymes. Poetry is a particular passion of mine and as a young mom I loved sharing this passion with my daughters. My oldest would sit with me for hours listening to nursery rhymes; she loved playing a game we called “poking holes in the story” where I would leave out a rhyming word at the end of a line or sentence and she would shout it out. Miriam, on the other hand, absolutely hated it when we would “poke holes in the story.” Not only would she not participate, but she would beg me to not do it. That’s where the first round of mommy-guilt came in: do I do what the first one wants or what the second one wants?
As you know, most children’s books rhyme. Stories like Cat in the Hat, A House is a House for Me, Mother Goose, and Llama Llama Red Pajama are early reading favorites because of the rhythm and rhyme. These books make it easy for typical kids to recognize patterns in language because of the end rhymes.
A dyslexic child, however, will not be able to recognize these patterns. The reason for this is found in the basic definition of dyslexia: dyslexia is a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to read and understand language. Brain research shows that there is a difference between dyslexics and non-dyslexics in which parts of the brain are activated when reading. This means that rhymes other people enjoy can literally rub a dyslexic brain the wrong way.
Difficulty learning to write/ recognize letters
The next solid clue to me that Miriam would have trouble with reading was when I had her first ever parent-teacher conference in November of preschool. Her sweet teacher showed me samples of Miriam’s work and I was stunned at the sloppiness of her writing and how few letters she could identify. A big part of me wanted to dismiss the whole thing as “it’s only preschool, who really cares?” but the reality was that those early handwriting samples demonstrated a difficulty that we would need to overcome.
As Miriam continued in preschool, I tried to work with her at home. We read more, we practiced signing the ABC’s, and I bought books that were designed to teach kids the alphabet. The end result was that Miriam’s little sister learned her ABC’s by the time she turned 2, and Miriam felt worse and worse about her language struggles.
In kindergarten, Miriam had a teacher who was in her last year before retiring. This teacher had clearly had enough of 5 year olds and was extremely short on patience. This did not turn out well for Miriam, who wanted so much to please her teacher and instead just made her angry. The letter W proved to be especially difficult. Consider this letter for a moment: looks like two “v”s put together, the name of the letter starts with a “d” sound, it actually makes a completely different sound.
At that kindergarten parent-teacher conference the teacher told me that Miriam was “flat lining,” a phrase I took exception to. Looking at her progress, she was only making minimal forward motion in learning her letters and their sounds. An aide would come into the class two-three times a week and work with Miriam and several other students for less than 10 minutes. Regardless of this “extra help,” Miriam was still not making progress.
Homework is a massive fight
And that’s when the fights started. Fights with Miriam, that is. Those little kindergarten packets that came home and weren’t supposed to take more than 15 minutes would drag on for hours. Doing even the slightest bit of school work outside of school was grounds for World War 3 if I let it get to that point. Even though I tried to just forget about the homework, my earnest people-pleasing kindergartner insisted on doing it and hated every minute.
It got worse and worse as the homework load increased over the school years. No matter how much teachers told us that homework should “only take” 15, 20, 30 minutes plus 20 minutes of reading, day after day I found our afternoons and evenings being consumed with weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth.
On the one hand, we all know that kids hate homework, but on the other hand this reaction was disproportionate. As I built up a network of other parents whose kids have dyslexia, I came to realize that this homework struggle is an early sign that something is wrong. Not that the child is wrong or the brain is wrong, but that the system and the way it is meeting the child’s needs are wrong.
Performance doesn’t match Intelligence
This is the sign where you have to trust your gut the most. You know your child in a way that is completely different than the way people outside your family know him/her. Does your gut tell you that your child is intelligent? Maybe he or she is really good at building Legos or doing puzzles. Maybe outside of school your child had natural leadership abilities and is really good at getting the neighborhood kids together.
Perhaps you know that your child can listen to a story and remember the details two or three months later. The point is that you can tell if your child is more intelligent than he or she is demonstrating at school.
Tests are hard for dyslexics if they aren’t given the assistance needed to access the material, so test scores don’t accurately reflect their intelligence.
At the end of the day
You are your child’s best advocate. Listen to your gut and pursue answers. None of the early warning signs I’ve mentioned are things that teachers, coaches, principals, will pick up on. That’s because one of the strengths all dyslexics have is the ability to hide their dyslexia. At school, at practice, at work, with friends, your dyslexic child will be doing everything he or she can to hide the fact that reading is exceptionally difficult.
You would be amazed to see all the creative ways your child hides dyslexia from the people around them. But at home it’s a completely different story.
Your child is safe enough at home to stop pretending and to let all the frustration out. The front row seat we as parents have to this frustration is the push we need to advocate for our children.
So, trust your gut and go for it. You are so much more than a parent! You are an advocate!