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Dyslexia is more common than you think

Speaker talks on what condition is, how to address it

Thirty million people in the United States have dyslexia. While dyslexics may struggle to read and associate sounds with corresponding letters, they often excel at connecting ideas and 3-D mapping.
Thirty million people in the United States have dyslexia. While dyslexics may struggle to read and associate sounds with corresponding letters, they often excel at connecting ideas and 3-D mapping.

What do Tom Cruise, Orlando Bloom, Whoopi Goldberg, Keira Knightley, Jay Leno, Steve Jobs, Magic Johnson, George Patton, John F. Kennedy, Agatha Christie, Walt Disney and John Lennon all have in common?

Dealing with dyslexia, according to Amy Chiang, a certified dyslexia practitioner with Pathway to Literacy.

Chiang visited Sheridan's Robert W. Rowe Public Library on Sunday to speak with people who have dyslexia as well as educate the public about the challenges of living with it and how to diagnose it.

Thirty million people in the U.S. have dyslexia. Most don't know they have it. Chiang said about 80% of children placed in special education programs have dyslexia.

What is dyslexia?

“Dyslexia is a brain-based learning disability and hereditary,” Chiang said. “... It's difficulty manipulating the sounds and letters of our language. When children learn to read, first they have to figure out what sound each letter makes. For example, B makes a 'buh' sound. M makes an 'em' sound. Then they learn how to put those sounds into an order so they can form words. C-A-T spells cat. Then they have to figure out what words mean. Cat is a furry animal that meows."

Chiang said for children with dyslexia, the brain has difficulty connecting letters to sounds and blending those sounds into words.

“So to someone with dyslexia, the word 'cat' might read as 'tac.' Because of these mix-ups, reading can be a slow and difficult process.”

Letters often appear jumbled for people with dyslexia, she said. Dyslexics can feel overwhelmed if asked to read aloud. Chiang emphasized children and adults with dyslexia are often smart and work hard — they just have trouble connecting letters to their respective sounds.

Some people are diagnosed early in life, while others don't realize they have dyslexia until they get older.

But having dyslexia does have some positives. Dyslexics can excel at connecting ideas and 3-D mapping. The right side of the brain is associated with art, emotion and intuition, and dyslexics use their right brain more than the average person, Chiang said. Like the aforementioned famous people, dyslexics can and do become successful in art, computer science, design, drama, electronics, math, mechanics, music, physics and sports.

“Thirty percent of entrepreneurs are dyslexic,” Chiang said.

Dyslexia symptoms

Chiang said it can be hard to see dyslexia symptoms until a child starts school. If a child struggles to read or spell, a teacher might be the first one to notice the signs.

Signs in preschool may include finding it hard to learn or remember the alphabet, mispronouncing familiar words ("baby talk" is common) and not recognizing rhyming patterns, such as the “Humpty Dumpty” nursery rhyme.

Elementary school children could show signs like not being able to tell the difference between certain letters or words, not connecting letters with the sounds they make, writing letters or numbers backwards (such as b instead of d), not always understanding what they're read, writing slowly, misspelling easy words or struggling to follow instructions.

Children who were able to hide their symptoms in elementary school could start having trouble in middle school as the demands on their abilities increase.

“They can't explain their problem and can't figure out why no one can help them, so it's about this time dyslexic children exhibit behavioral problems,” Chiang said.

Public schools and awareness

Despite years of research and evidence, some schools might not recognize the existence of dyslexia. But more parents are becoming aware of exactly how common dyslexia is. Some states are beginning to pass statewide dyslexia laws. Other states require college courses that educate teachers about dyslexia.

Chiang said Illinois is still considering a universal dyslexia screening.

Most teachers haven't had dyslexia training. Chiang said if a child is struggling with achievement, parents need to talk with teachers, principals and school boards about requesting help.

Kelly Mercurio, a first-grade teacher in Yorkville, believes parents are beginning to research dyslexia and starting to fight back.

“Parents have a loud voice,” Mercurio said at Sunday's library presentation. “Go to school board meetings and voice your concerns to the principal, superintendent and board members. The more you help them become aware of how common dyslexia is, the more they'll understand this is an issue that has to be addressed.”

Sheridan resident Madonna Wheeler has a third-grade child with dyslexia.

“I know I have difficulties when I talk with school officials and teachers,” Wheeler said. “I'm told my child will grow out of it, just give it time. Well, I know my child, and I know she's having difficulties right now. It's time to figure out what to do.”

Sheridan library director Patricia Smith said the library will work with anyone who wants to hold strategy meetings to combat dyslexia.

“This is an important issue,” Smith said. “One that affects how children read. So, we'll work with anyone who wants to make dyslexia a priority.”

Busting the myths

Amy Chiang, a dyslexia practitioner with Pathway to Literacy, said there are several myths about dyslexia, including:

• Dyslexia is uncommon: According to the International Dyslexia Foundation, between 15 and 20% of the population has a language-based learning disability, and dyslexia is the most common one. The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates 15% of the U.S population has dyslexia.

• Dyslexia can be outgrown: No, it's a lifelong issue. Yearly monitoring of sound (phonological) skills from first through 12th grade shows into continues into adulthood.

• Dyslexia cannot be diagnosed until third grade: Professionals can identify symptoms in children as early as 5 years old. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the quicker a child can get help and prevent self-esteem issues.

• Dyslexia is a medical diagnosis: It is not diagnosed by doctors because they don't have training in oral language, reading or writing assessments. Some developmental pediatricians may have additional training. There is no medication that can heal dyslexia. While it can have lifelong negative effects that affect wellbeing, dyslexia is typically not covered by medical insurance. In most states, dyslexia falls under special education and most schools do not diagnose it.

• People with dyslexia cannot read: Not true. They are able to read, but spelling is one of the classic red flags letting parents and teachers know there is an underlying issue.

• If a dyslexic child reads aloud for 20 minutes every day, it will improve their reading: It will not help a child sound out unknown words. Instead, the child will continue to try to memorize the shape of a word and use pictures to guess. Dyslexic children should be read to by adults or should read along with an audio book every day.

• People with dyslexia see things backwards: Not true because dyslexia is not an eye problem.

• Intelligence and ability to read are related: There is no relation between dyslexia and IQ. Dyslexics can have regular IQs.

• Children with dyslexia just need to try harder: Lack of awareness about dyslexia among educators and parents has often resulted in a child being called lazy. Because these children soon realize they are going to fail at reading, writing and spelling, it's easier to just not continue to try. Studies show they have an inborn brain difference that has nothing to do with intelligence. They often just struggle in school without the right type of intervention or classroom accommodations, even thought they are intelligent, motivated and spend hours on their homework.

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