Reflections on the Path Through Dyslexia
By DeAnn Campbell, Children’s and Young Adult Library Director
My father grew up on a dairy farm and loved animals. He had a gentle way with all of them, but especially large beasts like cows and horses. Apparently, he had wanted to become a veterinarian. After high school he attended a single semester of college where he decided that this path of study would be impossible. He dropped out. My mother once told me that it was likely my dad had a mild form of dyslexia.
My father could read. He always read the newspaper and I saw him (especially later in life) studying intently from scripture. His reading, though, demanded an intense amount of time. It demanded quiet and concentration and was not a casual undertaking; it was work. His favorite section of the paper was the comics. He never did much writing, but when he did there were errors: Bs confused for Ds, missing letters, no punctuation.
Dyslexia is much more complicated than just these signs, which can also be developmental. And, if he did indeed have dyslexia, it was never officially diagnosed.
First off, I don’t have an educational background or any formal training in the diagnosis or treatment of dyslexia which is defined as “a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.” What I do have is a grainy photograph of my father on a horse and a handful of notes from him written in block letters that are riddled with spelling errors and missing punctuation.
My nephew, Ryden, has an official diagnosis. Luckily, Ryden’s diagnosis came early—in kindergarten. His mom is an elementary school teacher and is currently working on a master’s degree with dyslexia as her focus.
Up until this point, though, much of what she now knows about dyslexia was learned through her experience of having a child with dyslexia and not through her formal educational studies. Ryden’s family has found that most teachers have no specific training for aiding dyslexic students. Despite all this, Ryden does receive a lot of support and formal tutoring.
“We work with him all the time,” my brother tells me. “He has so many resources and tools available to him.” He attends specialized tutoring specifically geared towards kids with dyslexia in his home state of California. He must travel to a nearby city to access these resources. In one tactile strategy, Ryden traces letters and blends in trays of sand. But even with countless hours of practice and reading instruction and the time and the financial cost, my brother wonders, “How much it is helping? [Reading] simply does not stick in his brain.”
Ryden’s diagnosis is Severe Dyslexia. My brother’s voice catches at the word “severe.” Over the phone I can hear the emotion and the pain, “It is sad.”
This year, Ryden has tested at a first grade, third month reading level.
He is in fifth grade.
My brother reminds me that a first grade reading level is pretty rudimentary. Meanwhile, Ryden’s younger brother, who is in third grade, can read like a whiz. My brother explains that his third-grade son reads “10 times better” than Ryden. One look at a word and he’s got it. He retains the spelling, the pronunciation, and the meaning. For Ryden, though, none of it comes easy. It isn’t for a lack of trying, my brother says. Ryden works so, so hard. And though there are some moments of frustration and tears, overall, he keeps a remarkably good attitude. He tries and tries again. While his brothers and sister are shuttled to sports practices and extracurricular activities, Ryden’s extracurricular activity is learning to read. “He has worked harder on learning to read than my other kids have on any athletic skill,” my brother says. Not being able to read is not his fault.
Although the reading connections don’t happen in his brain the way they do for others, Ryden is intelligent and bright. He is highly organized and very spatially aware. Misplace something? Ask Ryden. He also has an incredible memory. He excels at puzzles and intricate tasks. He has an uncanny ability to see the big picture and solve problems. He thrives on order.
“I am not worried about him in life,” my brother says. “Ryden is so, so smart.”
But worry creeps into our conversation. So much of school and society is based on reading and taking tests. My brother hopes for people willing to give Ryden a chance within a society that places importance on a college degree. “We have a lot of conversations with him about the school system and how it isn’t the best system for you, but it is in the system we are in.” Ryden has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and accommodations. When texts and math story problems are read aloud to Ryden, he performs well. Still, my brother says that teachers typically don’t have adequate training to deal with such a severe case of dyslexia as Ryden has.
Sometimes, the accommodations, like reading materials aloud to him, aren’t followed. My brother and I talk about text to speech technology and advancements that will surely be made to help those who struggle with dyslexia. We talk about audiobooks and how listening to stories brings him joy. We talk about finding people and resources to be your reader and your voice, if reading and writing aren’t your strengths. We talk about how to find your way in a world that is built for those who excel at reading and writing. These are things I’ve always been good at. I do not live in Ryden’s world.
There is a famous quote about dyslexia, attributed to Albert Einstein*, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
I think back to my dad. He still lived and worked around big animals his entire life. Growing up, I watched him pat and stroke the backsides of cows as he milked them. I watched him give cows shots through their thick hide and put pills down their throats when they were sick. He concocted his own recipes to help calves with diarrhea and dehydration. He would wake us up in the middle of the night to watch the birth of a calf. While he never became a veterinarian, he loved those parts of being a farmer. He still carved out a life he loved.
I’ve watched Ryden stay fixed on a task when everyone else has given up. I’ve seen the way he observes and notices the world. I see that he carries a level of concentration that is missing from most of us. He seems attuned to things the rest of us overlook. Sally Shaywitz, a neuroscientist whose emphasis is on children with reading difficulties, has said, “Dyslexics think differently. They are intuitive and excel at problem-solving, seeing the big picture, and simplifying. They are poor rote reciters but inspired visionaries.”
I see this in Ryden: A brain that that thinks carefully and expansively. A mind that watches the world with scrutiny and wonder. A child who slows down enough to see and to make connections. I hope for innovative approaches to help him navigate the part of the world that is built on words and stand back in amazement at the part that is not; that is where he soars.
*This librarian could not confirm that Albert Einstein said this, though Einstein was dyslexic.