Wednesday 31 March 2021

So how would you tell your eleven year old that they are dyslexic

My schoolwork aged 9

There was an interesting question posed on the UK dyslexia support group Facebook page "How do I tell my eleven year old that he's been diagnosed as dyslexic". It struck me as an excellent question.  I was only diagnosed when I was my mid 30's, so it wasn't something I went through. I was worried when my children were born that they may have inherited it from me, but that's one challenge they don't have. 

So where would I start? Let me give some background, so that hopefully what I have to say makes a bit of sense. Last year, when I started writing my autobiography, I found the period of when I was 8-14 to be very painful. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of lockdown, I had to step away from writing it, as it was dredging up to many painful emotions. Many of these were related to the effect dyslexia was having on me, although clearly I didn't realise this at the time.

During this period, I chronically underperformed at school and didn't know why. I felt an outsider and I felt very awkward around other people my own age. The biggest fear I had was being perceived as different. I'd put my hand up in class and my answer would have everyone rolling about laughing. Often I wasn't sure whether they were laughing with me or at me. Often I'd say something, the class would burst out laughing and the teacher would explode with rage. I though I'd asked a perfectly reasonable question. I lost count of the number of times teachers would say "You think you are funny, no one is laughing" as the whole class were usually in stitches, I would be even more confused. I would hand in work thinking it was brilliant and get very average marks, or fail completely, having misunderstood the brief. Often I'd not understand why I'd done so badly. As I couldn't read functionally until I was around 12, the whole experience of school terrified me. The worst experience was when I was told I had to read a bible passage during mass at the school ( I was at a Roman Catholic boys school at the time). I was terrified. I have since learned that I simply don't read in a linear fashion. I could read individual words, but when I was under pressure, the words all came out in random order. The school decided that I was 'taking the mickey out of the Lord" and I got a long detention. Whilst I know that being dyslexic would have given me an excuse, I did not want to be labelled as different, and would have probably refused to even be assessed. It was bad enough that I was different, without being labelled as such. In the '70's any sort of learning difficulty was a red flag to bullies.Whilst I am sure that schools are better now at managing pupils with dyslexia, the concept was terrifying to me then and I am sure it would still be stressful

So what would I do? Well the first thing I would do is have a discussion with the school. Find out their policy on dyslexia and how they would address it. I would not necessarily disclose a diagnosis at this stage. I would state that I am considering seeking one and ask what the schools policy was with regards to the subject. Not every school is enlightened, so I'd be cautious. If the school was not supportive, I'd find another school ASAP before doing anything, as it is the wrong school. If they are supportive, I would then talk to my child and try and get them to open up about the challenges they face at school. What do they find difficult about school and school life? What subjects do they struggle with? Have they ever done some work that they thought was good only to get a poor mark? Do they feel excluded? I wouldn't broach the subject of dyslexia until I understood exactly how they felt about themselves and how they were handling the situation. I'd want to know if they were getting bullied and what the triggers were for this. This may take more than one conversation and I wouldn't push it too hard initially.

I think it is important to understand that a dyslexic child, will be an expert of putting up barriers and developing defence mechanisms, which might mean support won't be welcome. Many of these mechanisms are self defeating, but clearly made perfect sense to the child. 

So what does this say about telling an eleven year old they are dyslexic? As a child my biggest fear was being different. I was resisitant to talking about my issues. Dyslexia is a label with negative connotations and at school it would inevitably mean extra work, outside of the normal class group. That was something that would expose you to all of the things you fear. I had remedial reading classes as an eight year old at Primary school. This terrified me, being one on one with a teacher, with no hiding place and no escape, returning to the class and getting teased for being thick.  It was something I was determined to avoid at all costs. Things have changed, but bear this in mind before you tell your child, you really need to be 100% sure that you are not putting them in a place that terrifies them.

I would broach the subject over a period of days or weeks. I'd start conversations in neutral non-threatening ways, perhaps in a neutral space, on a walk or in the car on the way somewhere. First of all, see where the child is. How happy and secure they are. Then I'd find out what they are struggling with and find out how much they want to address those issues. Once you are ready to tell them,it is vital that you do not present dyslexia as a negative. The list of famous dyslexics includes Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, John Lennon, Walt Disney, Leondardo DaVinci and Agatha Christie so clearly it is no barrier to success. Maybe have a few discussions about these or other individuals who the young person will know are successful who are or were dyslexic. Maybe watch some historical film content about them with your child, to prepare the ground. 

Talk about their positive contributions. Only when you've built a really sound platform to demonstrate that it is not a disablity or impediment to success, would I then explain the fact that they are dyslexic. It wasn't something I went through but if I'd been teased for my dyslexia, being able to say "Churchill, Einstein, John Lennon and Agatha Christie were dyslexic, so what's YOUR problem" would have been a very good defence. 

Once you have told them, it is vital to work with your child to ensure it is not having a negative impact on their education. I have a friend who's son was diagnosed as dyslexic. He phoned me in a panic a few years ago. His son was getting stick from classmates as he was getting extra time to complete exams. His classmates were claiming he had an unfair advantage. I know from my own experience that I only read at 2/3rds the speed of a normal person. The extra time in exams is to take account of this factor. It isn't perfect, but exams are tests of intelligence, not timekeeping. Einstein took decades to develop the theory of relativity, in reality timed exams are false construct in measuring intelligence. I would personally prefer schools to do public exams for dyslexics and other people who get additional time, in a  different place to their classmates. That will reduce both the stress for the child and the possibility of negative comments from classmates. 

It is worth remembering that exams are onlya  small part of a process of education. We don't go to school to pass exams (although some parents and teachers don't seem to realise this). We go to school to learn to be decent members of society who can contribute. Dyslexics are wired differently, so their contribution may well be different. Could Disney, Churchill, Lennon and Christie have done what they did if they weren't dyslexic? No one can be sure, but what we can say for certain is that it didn't stop them making an enormous contribution. 

In short, dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. It is not an impediment. It is just a difference and the world would be a very dull place if we were all the same. If you can get that message across, then you will have done a very good job. Don't rush the conversation, let it take as long as it needs to. I suspect that if someone had those conversations with me aged 11, my early teens might have been a lot better. 

Let me give you a bit of Background so you know who I am and what I do. I was born in 1962. I didn't start talking until I was 4 years old (at all, not a single word). My parents thought I was deaf. My reading age at eleven was 5. When I was fifteen I started a rock and roll band called the False Dots, the band is still going strong. When I was 16 I started a business called Mill Hill Music Complex (although then it was simply called the studio), a rehearsal studio, as we had nowhere to rehearse. The business has grown into a very successful enterprise, one of Londons biggest and most well respected independent studios. We now have 17 studios and a music shop and also have a photography/video studio and a dance studio. I also have done IT work, mostly on a freelance basis since 1983. In 2012 I also moved into film production, producing two highly acclaimed documentary films, both of which had screenings at the House of Commons. When I was 31, I had a dyslexia test. To my surprise I was told I was moderately dyslexic. This made me interested in the subject. To my amazement, what I have learned over the years is that my lack of educational aptitude, my feelings of anger and injustice and the core of my personality have been formed by the fact I cannot read words in a linear fashion. In 2013, I set one of my objectives to use this blog to let dyslexics know they are not alone, to suggest that people who think they may be dyslexic to get an assessment and toget people who have dyslexic children or siblings to understand the issues that they face.

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