Dyslexia is relatively common – but it can still be a source of confusion for many families. Liz Connor talks to an expert.
All kids are unique and develop at different rates, and it’s not unusual for little ones to find it challenging when getting to grips with writing, reading and numeracy at some point or another.
But if learning these skills becomes an ongoing struggle, and you notice they’re falling behind their classmates, for example, or it’s causing distress, it could be an indication of dyslexia.
According to the British Dyslexia Association, around 10% of the population in has dyslexia, making it the most common learning difference in the classroom environment. Despite being very prevalent however, there’s often still a lot of misunderstanding around it.
What exactly is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a neurological difference that affects the skills involved in reading and spelling. Children with dyslexia can have a hard time deciphering new words, or breaking them down into phonetic chunks they can sound out in their head.
“It’s a specific learning difference that brings both positive and negative characteristics,” explains Helen Boden, CEO of the British Dyslexia Association (bdadyslexia.org.uk).
“The reason it is called ‘specific’ is because it only impacts on certain areas of an individual, rather than being a general learning difference that has an impact on all areas of someone’s cognitive performance.”
Dyslexia occurs across all sectors of society, independent of ability and socio-economic background. There’s also no connection between dyslexia and intelligence.
A different way of processing information
“Research tells us that dyslexia stems from differences in the way the brain processes certain types of information – particularly, it is thought, language-based information,” says Boden.
“The key point here is that it is these physiological differences in the brain that lead to the challenges that dyslexic individuals experience. It is not lack of ability, poor parenting or poor education. Essentially, there is an underlying cause. All too often however, the indicators of dyslexia are written off or attributed to negative behavioural or personality traits.”
Boden explains that it’s not unusual for dyslexia to occur alongside other specific learning difficulties, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), developmental coordination disorder (commonly known as dyspraxia), autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), dyscalculia (difficulty with maths), or speech, language and communication difficulties.
“Dyslexia is genetic in origin and therefore is inheritable,” adds Boden. “This inheritable factor should also be considered, as it can mean that the parents of dyslexic pupils may also have experienced or still be experiencing similar difficulties to their children.”
What are the main symptoms to look out for?
“Dyslexia isn’t normally diagnosed until around seven years old, and every person is different,” says Boden. That said, there are a few key signs of dyslexia to look out for. These include a child that appears bright and able, but can’t get their thoughts down on paper – which can often present itself during school time.
“Look out for children that have areas in which they excel, particularly creativity and problem-solving, and kids that act as the ‘clown’ or are disruptive to mask what they see as their failings,” says Boden.
Those with dyslexia may also become withdrawn and isolated, sitting at the back of class and not participating, or look ‘glazed’ when a teacher is speaking too quickly.
“Many children with dyslexia find they are able to do one thing at a time very well, but can’t remember an entire list. They might also go home exhausted at the end of a normal day, or exhibit angry frustrated behaviour. Some also find they have difficulties being organised.”
What should I do if I think my child might have dyslexia?
It can sometimes take a bit of time to accurately spot dyslexia. “If you think your child may be dyslexic, the first thing is to be sure,” says Boden. “Dyslexia is much broader than just reading and writing issues, so start with a checklist or screener to get a better idea for little or no cost.”
For a rough indication, there are numerous paper-based and online questionnaires. The BDA’s website has lots of information about recommended checklists you can undertake.
“A screening tool is something that a non-specialist can administer,” says Boden. “A lot of schools use screening tools, but the results may not be as accurate as a medical assessment. They are, however, a useful starting point.”
How is dyslexia diagnosed?
A diagnostic assessment can be carried out by a specialist teacher who holds a Level 7 dyslexia specialist teacher qualification.
“In addition to being a specialist teacher, parents should also check, particularly if commissioning a private assessment, that a specialist teacher has an Assessment Practising Certificate (APC), holds professional membership of a body such as the BDA, which will mean they can use the letters AMBDA after their name, professional indemnity insurance, and has been DBS checked,” says Boden.
“Alternatively, diagnostic assessments can be carried out by an educational psychologist that is HCPC registered, they should also be insured and have been DBS checked.”
An assessment will produce a detailed report of the profile of strengths and challenges being experienced by your child. It will also help to make a diagnosis, if possible, and provide recommendations for support.
What kind of support is available?
For the best outcome for your child, experts say it’s important to try to work closely with the child’s school. If your child has dyslexia, they’ll probably need extra educational support.
“Children with dyslexia are entitled to this by law,” says Boden – and with appropriate support, there’s usually no reason your child can’t go to a mainstream school, although a small number of children may benefit from attending a specialist school.
You can find out more about what support you are entitled to and how to get it on the BDA website. It may be that your child benefits from occasional one-to-one support, or a computer with speech recognition software that can make writing easier.
Children with dyslexia are also entitled to support during exams, like extra time and learning aids like a scriber or reader. Your school’s special educational needs coordinator can talk you through the options.
Dyslexia is a lifelong issue, but parents should be assured by the fact that with the right support, children can thrive at school and in the world of work.
© Press Association 2019