Recognizing Signs of Dyslexia, Finding Treatment, Embracing the Whole Child
Catherine Cox knew her daughter, at a very young age, operated a little differently from her peers. (Cox has asked to protect her daughter’s name in this story.)
“We just had no idea what we were working with,” Cox said.
Signs of Dyslexia
Her 3-year-old preschool daughter was very social. She didn’t have problems communicating. She had great pronunciation.
“She went to public school (for kindergarten and part of first grade), and I noticed we got halfway through the year, and she had made no progress,” Cox said. “She showed up to the first day of school. She knew all her letters and all her sounds and halfway through the semester, she still couldn’t read ‘cat’ or ‘sat.’”
There were other signs. Cox says her daughter became very belligerent over doing her homework.
“And it was simple stuff,” Cox said. “The other thing they were doing is sending home difficult sight words to memorize like ‘should’ and ‘said.’”
Cox pointed out to the teacher the difficulties she saw in her daughter’s reading and asked if she were using phonics in the classroom. Her daughter’s teacher’s response was a chuckle and reassurance that her daughter was doing well in class.
But Cox says she could tell she wasn’t.
“I know that my daughter is very social and well-behaved, and she’s just going to get swept along,” Cox says. “I think a lot of times [dyslexia] doesn’t get diagnosed in girls because they maybe tend to be a little more socially adept, a little more well-behaved, and they can get swept along.”
So, she and her husband put their daughter in a Montessori school.
“They have an early reading interventionist who recognized [my daughter] had issues right away,” Cox said.
Her daughter met with the early reading interventionist one-on-one for about four years, but Cox noticed she still wasn’t making much progress.
“She couldn’t read anything,” Cox says, “[My daughter] knows phonics front, back, up and down. She knows more phonics than anybody I’ve ever met because they do a phonics-based, Orton-Gillingham program [at the Montessori school]. It was like she had all the puzzle pieces but couldn’t get the puzzle to come together.”
The Orton-Gillingham Approach is a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic and prescriptive way to teach literacy to students who struggle with reading, writing and spelling, including those with dyslexia.
Cox’s daughter worked with the reading therapist two to three times a week for four years.
Cox credits Montessori’s methodology with protecting her daughter from potential emotional damage from the struggle with reading, yet she still struggled with her self-esteem as she got older.
Receiving a Diagnosis
Shortly after she turned 9 years-old, Cox’s daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia.
When she and her husband saw the test results, it was disappointing, but also confirmed that their daughter’s learning disability was a “real thing.”
“A lot of people still don’t really recognize that this is very real,” Cox said. “Just like if your kid had a broken leg or they need eyeglasses because their eyes don’t work quite efficiently.”
Since getting that diagnosis, Cox has been working to educate herself about dyslexia and the different treatment methods available.
“It’s easy to doubt all this stuff, partly because you don’t want it to be true – deep down in your subconscious – because it feels like, ‘Oh my gosh, if my kid can’t read, they’re not going to be able to do anything,’” Cox said. “They’re not going to be able to be successful…It’s like a horrible fear.”
Dyslexia: Misconceptions and Reality
Her daughter now works with Barbara Blanchette, a certified academic language therapist. Blanchette says the misconception that is most hurtful to children with dyslexia is that they’re lazy or they lack motivation.
Other common misconceptions are that they have poor eyesight, an intellectual disability or that they read backwards.
Blanchette says none of these is true, yet these misconceptions may keep parents from getting their child diagnosed.
“There are still people who believe, ‘Just let it be. We don’t want to label them. We don’t want to put them in a box,’ and I understand the point that they’re making,” Cox says. “We don’t want to tell them that they don’t have to do this work because they’re dyslexic, or that they can’t.”
But Cox’s daughter said the diagnosis freed her from shame, even though shame was not part of their family culture. She started to believe in her future and her capabilities.
“You’re carrying around [shame] because you don’t understand, and you feel like something’s wrong with you,” Cox said. “And it turns out, nothing’s wrong with you. Your brain’s just wired differently.”
The diagnosis was also a turning point for Cox’s husband, a successful executive and entrepreneur who discovered his own struggles had a name.
“As the therapist starts explaining everything to us, we realized my husband is also dyslexic and has ADD. He just didn’t know,” Cox said. “So, there are people – especially those of us who are older – people everywhere are walking around with undiagnosed dyslexia, ADD – all these things. And historically, they just had to cope the best they could and often walk around thinking there’s something wrong with them or that they’re stupid.”
That’s also a common feeling for children once they receive the diagnosis of dyslexia, Blanchette says.
“Because they’re struggling, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m just dumb. I’ve never been able to do that,’” Blanchette says.
She says many of her students are overwhelmed with emotions – both from their hard work and their breakthroughs when they’re reading something to another student that they have never done before.
“I’ve had kids just break down and bawl, and I’ve got to hold them because it’s so hard for them,” Blanchette says.
The Dyslexia and Education Task Force
Seeking to address the long-term academic, social and emotional impacts on children with dyslexia, the Oklahoma Legislature appointed a Dyslexia and Education Task Force in 2017. As a result, the Oklahoma Dyslexia Handbook was published in July 2019 to educate teachers, students and families about dyslexia and to support children with dyslexia.
The Handbook states that children with undiagnosed dyslexia become vulnerable to “problems with self-esteem and depression.” It goes on to say that schools should be nurturing places, and that teachers need to be able to recognize the signs of depression in younger students, which may be that they misbehave or become more active to hide pain. Early intervention to help struggling students is critical to their ability to learn and for their self-image.
The Task Force found that many students reported being shamed by their teachers for not being able to read.
To address early intervention, the Oklahoma Legislature passed House Bill 2804, which requires all K-3 students who are not reading on grade level to be screened for dyslexia. The bill took effect in the 2022-2023 academic year.
Dyslexia and the Brain
Blanchette says dyslexia is neurobiological in origin. It’s a specific learning disability having to do with differences in the way that the brain works when it’s learning how to read.
She says it’s evident in brain imaging.
“The child with dyslexia is using the right side of the brain in symmetry where both sides of the brain are working,” Blanchette says. “Whereas the left side of the brain in a non-dyslexic child is all lit up.”
She says a dyslexic brain compensates with the right side of the brain because the pathways are not developed.
“The brain research shows that what is needed for a child with dyslexia to learn how to read is building the pathways or the connections in their left side of the brain because that’s where reading occurs,” Blanchette says. “All children learn how to read the same way. Some struggle and some don’t.”
She says it takes 500 to 1,500 repetitions for a child with dyslexia to make a correspondence when they’re learning how to read.
While Cox’s daughter knew her letters and their sounds at a young age, Blanchette says many young children with dyslexia struggle with learning and remembering the names of letters.
“They’ll call a letter a different letter name,” Blanchette says.
Recognizing or producing rhyming word patterns are also difficult, she says.
“They mispronounce familiar words because they’re getting the sounds mixed up,” she said.
Some children have trouble with retrieving words.
“They just kind of stare out and you think that they’re ignoring you, but really they’re trying to retrieve words,” Blanchette says.
Some children have difficulty understanding directionality – knowing their left and right or up and down.
As they grow and enter kindergarten and first grade, many children with dyslexia will find it difficult to learn the sounds that go with the letters.
Blanchette uses a program called Take Flight that is based on the Orton-Gillingham Approach.
“The evidence-based research shows that the instruction that a child needs is a multi-sensory, structured language education,” she says. “The visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile pathways are simultaneously being used.”
The sequential program is taught in small groups or one-on-one.
Blanchette uses manipulatives and movement.
“You’re feeling, ‘What does my mouth do when I make the ssss sound?’” she says. “’What’s the air feel like when it comes through your lips or is it coming through your teeth? Is it being blocked?’ You ask these questions throughout.”
Blanchette says the Orton-Gillingham Approach is widely accepted as the gold standard of treatment for dyslexia.
Cox, however, has found that there are therapists who are at odds with each other.
“A lot of them will say, ‘Oh, that’s not backed by research. That’s not going to work.’ That may or may not be true,” she says.
Cox’s daughter was working with the Orton-Gillingham based program for several years, but she still couldn’t read, so the family decided to try something different about halfway through her treatment journey.
Davis Dyslexia Remediation Program
Three years ago, her daughter participated in the Davis Dyslexia Remediation Program.
“They did a bunch of stuff with balance. It was a little more occupational therapy-based,” Cox said. “They did stuff with getting the brain centered and ready to focus. They did a bunch of hands-on work with clay, and that was all super helpful for her, too. That kind of helped her bring the puzzle pieces together into an assembled picture.”
Cox admits she doesn’t know how much of her daughter’s success in reading was because of the Davis method and how much of it was due to the years of repetition or her daughter’s brain development, but she says she would not discourage parents from trying more than one treatment to see what works for their child.
“There are professionals who would absolutely not agree with me,” she says.
Her daughter is still in the Take Flight program and goes twice a week for one-on-one therapy. Cox says she is planning on seeing it to the very end.
“These therapies aren’t going to work effectively if you’re not working the program consistently,” Cox says. “So, if your kid goes to reading therapy twice a week but they’re not reading anything in between, they’re not practicing, they’re not reading, then it’s not going to lay that groundwork in the brain as well.”
Finding a practitioner to work with children with dyslexia is difficult, Cox and Blanchette say. Parents face a limited number of therapists, scheduling conflicts, and the ability to pay for it.
“Our insurance certainly doesn’t cover any of this,” Cox says. “If you have two working parents and not a lot of cash on hand, there’s a lot of people that aren’t going to have access to [treatment] unless it’s offered within their public school.”
A Long Road
Blanchette and Cox emphasize that treatment for dyslexia is a long road because there is no cure for it.
“The therapy isn’t trying to fix them because there’s nothing to fix,” Cox says. “I think it just works to re-wire the reading part of their brain a little bit so maybe instead of hitting 10 spots before it gets to its destination, maybe it hits like three spots.”
Like her daughter and her husband, she says children with dyslexia tend to be creative, entrepreneurs, socializers and great problem solvers.
Cox says her daughter has been doing serious, dedicated therapy for six years and she is now reading at grade level.
“She can read out loud in class now,” Cox says. “The issue still is she does not comprehend what she reads – barely at all.”
So, Cox buys the books her daughter reads in school in the print and audio versions, and her daughter reads ahead before class, so she is prepared for independent reading and writing in class.
It’s a lot of work, including trying a variety of things to find what works for her daughter, who has been an active part of her own success.
“If she hears it, she can remember it all,” she says. “Often, she’ll just listen to audio books for fun while she’s doing art projects and stuff.”
Cox’s daughter is in middle school now, and she allows her to handle her own social situations as much as possible.
“I think everything we’ve done up to this point has helped her just operate with confidence and some grace. She’s not as hard on herself,” Cox says.
She has regular conversations with her daughter about what is happening in school and how she is feeling. Walking the family dog together gives Cox time to talk to her daughter about challenges she’s facing in school.
“Find a way to make it natural for your child to discuss what’s going on with them because everything’s changing all the time, and they’re changing all the time,” Cox says.
Children often lack the experience and reasoning ability to problem-solve for themselves. However, parents can help by listening as children identify daily struggles.
“If they can verbalize that to you,” Cox says, “then you can help them come up with solutions and so can their therapists.”
Parents need therapy, too, she says, as they cope with their child’s learning differences.
“I still seek help in coping as a parent with the dyslexia and ADD issues that we deal with every day,” Cox says. “When I’m frustrated because I can’t come up with a solution, then I get to ask the therapist who really understands this stuff, ‘What can we do here?’”
Cox has some advice for parents who are disheartened because their child has received a diagnosis of dyslexia.
“It’s not the end of the world. It’s going to take some time and some effort and some treatment, maybe, but there’s so much more to your child than just making sure they can read,” Cox says. “If you can take a breath and step back and look at the whole picture, there really is so much more to this person in front of you than, ‘Can they read this paragraph right now?’”
Blanchette says there are hurdles, but children with dyslexia can learn to read.
“If they get the right multi-sensory, structured language instructions, they’re going to thrive and flourish and learn how to read,” she says.
Resources for Parents
- Academic Language Therapy Association: altaread.org
- Barton system: bartonreading.com
- Davis Method: davismethod.org/cat/davis-dyslexia
- Dyslexia Handbook Oklahoma: sde.ok.gov
Mikaela LeBlanc is a freelance writer in Tulsa.