My son just started the 8th grade and my wife and I recently received some news that we were hoping for. My son is Dyslexic. I can hear some of you now saying “You were actually hoping for this?” We are not cruel nor do we wish him any ill will. It’s just that after three years, we now know a key reason for his struggles at school and are in a position to help.
Our experience reminds me of an episode of “The Cosby Show” called “Theo’s Gift.” Theo had always been portrayed as a lackluster student. Like many parents, Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable thought Theo’s difficulties at school were due to lack of effort but in reality, Theo had Dyslexia. He would have trouble expressing himself at school and the notes that he took in class often didn’t make sense. I remember that the episode didn’t try to show Theo as a victim but as a person being empowered. It showed by adjusting how Theo learned and organizing his work in a different way, he could be just as successful in school as anyone else. The moral of the story was that Theo wasn’t dumb but just had a different way of learning.
Fast forward about 25 years when my wife and I were faced with a similar situation. We had recently adopted two children from the Caribbean. Although they were older when they came into the family (10 and 9 respectively), both still had trouble mastering the basics of reading. Initially, we thought the issue stemmed from not attending school regularly in their home country (before the adoption). Initially, we focused on having them read 30 minutes every day but things still didn’t improve. After they started school in the United States, their teachers suggested placing them in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program to give them additional language instruction (especially since this was their first exposure to structured English language). While we could see significant strides in our daughter, we noticed that our son still struggled with reading.
My son likes to present an image that he has everything under control and likes to hide the fact that there are certain aspects of American life that he still struggles with. When it comes to schoolwork, he doesn’t like to ask questions (something ingrained from an early age in his home country). When we would inquire about grades or homework, he would say that everything was fine. My wife and I still felt uneasy because we noticed that he still had difficulty explaining himself when asked basic questions about topics at school and at church. When we looked at his agenda or reviewed his homework, we found that he consistently misspelled words that he was familiar with (all the letters were there but he would consistently “flip” his letters), and we noticed that certain concepts were missing. Further, we could tell that he wasn’t comprehending things that he should for a boy of his age. In short, these were the same symptoms that Theo had in that episode of The Cosby Show some 25 years before.
At first, we discussed our concerns with his teachers since they also saw his work on a daily basis. Since he was in the ESL program and the teachers had only worked with him for a few months, his teachers felt that we needed to give him more time to catch up. We followed this path for an additional two years. with teachers saying that he was making progress but still needed more time. Finally, when his improvement started to level off, I brought my concerns to his Assistant Principal. Fortunately, we had a consistent presence in his school and had good relationships with the teachers and administrators. After doing some extra research on the topic, I asked that he be tested for Dyslexia. The Assistant Principal agreed and asked one of the schools reading specialists to give him a short test to see if there was a chance that he had Dyslexia.
The initial test came back inconclusive. Since I was still convinced that something wasn’t quite right, the Assistant Principal told me that the school district headquarters had a group that specialized in diagnosing cases of Dyslexia and could administer a more in-depth test. Our school district is rather large and it would take some time to get an appointment, but this group would be able to give us a definitive answer on Dyslexia. It took me about half a second to ask for the referral. After waiting a few months, we finally got an appointment. The test administered by this group took over an hour to complete, and we had to wait 6 weeks to get the results, but the test confirmed that our son did indeed have Dyslexia. Upon receiving the results, the Assistant Principal placed our son in a specialized class where he now receives support for Dyslexia. He is learning strategies to improve his reading as well as techniques on organizing his school work to be more effective. Most of all, he is learning that he can still learn, just in a different way.
In retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t ignore my inner voice telling me that something wasn’t quite right. I’m also glad that I kept pushing his school officials for an explanation. No one wants to hear that their child isn’t perfect but the good news is now we know what the issue is and in partnership with the school, we have a game plan to help our son. He knows that if he works hard, he can still achieve his dreams and that he no longer needs to suffer in silence.