young boy going to school

When I Realized It Was Time for My Son With Dyslexia to Attend a New School

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My son is now a sophomore in college studying geology and pursuing his goal of working in the space sciences. Getting him there was a long and often challenging road.

In many ways, my son’s journey can be summed up with the words of his elementary school principal: “Your son is the only dyslexic child we have.” Unbelievably, he was in a public school of more than 400 K-5 students.

A couple of years later, the language arts curriculum chair responsible for overseeing the district’s dyslexia program told me, Dyslexia is a grain of sand in my beach of responsibility.” The question that consistently plagued me as a parent was: Do you stay and fight or leave for higher ground?

Throughout his time in public school, the district remained combative and unwilling to step up; they would continue to do the minimum. It was as if they felt that by providing my son a true dyslexia program, they would be admitting their culpability and lack of services.

My bright son started to fade; he felt outcast, misunderstood. His self-esteem was starting to plummet, so we started looking into private specialized dyslexia schools without a clue of how we would finance it. But after a five-year battle, which included efforts to educate and inform teachers and administrators, bringing in countless professionals including pediatricians, advocates and dyslexia experts, forming a parent group to support dyslexic students (surprise, there was more than one!) and after spending endless dollars on tutoring and testing, we fled for higher ground.

Our pediatrician helped us with this decision. The doctor explained that using any money we had saved for college would be better spent getting the proper instruction at a private school. This would help to preserve our son’s love of learning and rebuild his battered self-esteem so he could make it to college.

We toured many schools and were fortunate to have options in the Dallas area. Some were entirely out of reach financially, and a few felt depressing, but one stood out that felt like a fit. We scheduled a “shadow day” for our son to visit the school where he spent an entire day following a current student and attending classes.

At the end of the day, the teachers wrote up a summary of how he did in their class. The detailed notes included a powerful statement about how my son was leaning towards a learned helplessness.” The head of the school explained that in some public school settings students learn to rely on the lowered expectations of teachers and accommodations instead of developing the higher level skills themselves. This was a wake-up call I didn’t even know I needed. 

The mission of this particular private school was to instill responsibility for work and return a love of learning necessary to be successful in his educational future.

My son started sixth grade at the new school while my daughter continued into fourth grade in public school. Having two kids in separate districts seemed like a big deal to me at the time, but I soon realized the move benefited my daughter as well. She felt the stress alleviated, and it gave her the space to live out from under the shadow of our family’s battles with the district.

We struggled to pay the tuition. The school had a small amount of financial aid, and we received help from grandparents and took out loans so we could make it work. My son thrived in the small environment, and as his confidence grew, he became the editor of the school paper, head sound tech for the theater department and was in the honor’s reading program. He was able to do all this because he received the right instruction. His school understood dyslexia and learning differences and raised the bar for learning. He was no longer just another struggling student as he was in public school because here they saw him.

It wasn’t a perfect school; there is no such place. But he was able to thrive, and that was worth every penny borrowed, scraped together and spent.

I didn’t give up on the fight for other students in public school and continue to work to make changes in district dyslexia instruction and policy. Over the years, there has been a significant improvement. Students today are getting diagnosed earlier and given proper instruction. There have been great strides — it just wasn’t done in time for my son.

My hope is that you may find the answers to the complex dyslexia puzzle that serves your child best so they, too, can find success in school. My best advice is don’t be afraid of change. If you have fought the fight and are still not seeing results, if your child’s self-esteem is changing right before your eyes and if you don’t think his education will improve, it is sometimes not only the best but the only solution.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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To the Teacher Who Gave Me My First 'A' as a Child With Learning Disabilities

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I can’t remember your name, and that really bothers me, but I want you to know that you changed my life.

I was 14 years old when you came to my school from Canada on an exchange to teach English. You immediately struck up a rapport with your students. I can remember your smile and your accent, and that time you came to school wearing shorts in the middle of winter. When we asked you “Aren’t you cold?” you smiled and spread your arms wide and said “This isn’t cold! This is beautiful weather!” I suppose from your point of view it was positively balmy! But as a bunch of Australian kids who had never experienced anything close to a Canadian winter, we all thought you were delightfully odd.

You were the first teacher who ever noticed me. I want you to know that. I have four learning disabilities, but I didn’t learn about three of them until I was 29. I had to go through school with diagnosed dyspraxia, and undiagnosed dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia, and it was hell. I didn’t put any effort into my school work, because I kept failing, so I thought “What’s the point in even trying?” My other teachers never paid me enough attention, or even bothered to ask me “Are you OK? Do you understand the course work?” It was easier to just fail me.

The only thing I felt I had even the tiniest bit of talent for was writing, and you saw that in me. You encouraged me to put effort into my school work, and to pour my love of creative writing into my English assignments. You gave me my first A. I will never forget when I saw that A written on my English paper. It will be etched into my memory forever. I thought “No… surely not? There has to be some mistake!” I’d never gotten above a C before. I was used to mediocre grades. I expected it. I didn’t think I was capable of getting anything higher, and you proved me wrong. You showed me that I could achieve greatness if I put in a little bit of effort and believed in myself. You gave me self-confidence for the first time in my life.

You were only in my life one year before you went back to Canada, but I’ll never forget what you said to me the last time we saw each other. You sat me down and said to me, “I believe you’re going to get published one day, Marisa. And when your book is released in Canada, I’m going to be first in line to buy it.” I remembered those words for a long time, and still keep them nestled inside me as a cherished memory.

Thank you, teacher. Thank you for everything you did for me. You probably don’t remember me, but I will always remember you for being the teacher who cared.

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How Finding My Daughter’s Sister is Helping Her Overcome Dyslexia

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When I first met my daughter, she was 4 years old and in a Ukrainian orphanage. All I really knew about her was that she had cerebral palsy caused by a stroke and was unable to walk. When a nanny brought her into the director’s office to meet us, she said in perfect Russian, “Hello. Are you here to take me home?”

We were.

She struggled more than most children in pre-K and kindergarten. At first we thought it was just due to being neglected and delayed, but in first grade I pushed for her to be evaluated for dyslexia. Her writing was nearly always reversed in a mirror image, and often the words were spelled backwards. Sometimes she would write an entire sentence backwards from right to left, flipping every letter in every word backwards. It was mind-boggling to me how her brain could produce something like that. She often got math problems wrong because although she knew the answer verbally, her 6 was written as a 2 and 17 became 71. The school said they didn’t diagnose kids with dyslexia until third grade. My daughter was only in first, but I knew she had it.

A neuropsychologist diagnosed her with severe dyslexia and dysgraphia as well as a visual impairment and math disorder. She sees things as “mirror reversals and distortions” because her eyes don’t work together or with her brain, due to her brain injury from having a stroke.

School was a constant source of frustration for her because she had so much to say, yet struggled to get anything legible out onto paper. Trying to complete worksheets full of printed words just left her confused. I have watched her write a 7 down the correct way, then say “Oh oops, it’s backwards,” and erase it so she could write it…backwards. When I pointed out that she had it right, she said, “Oh, why do I write things backwards?”

Well aware that she was performing below her peers, she was constantly talking in an effort to distract from her seat work. She hated writing so much that one day she just drew scribbles on her writing paper in a refusal to work on letters. Her teachers were angry at her for being so defiant, but oh, that spirit! She just didn’t see the point in writing when she was so easily able to talk.

I knew that before we adopted her, she had a sister at the orphanage with her. Through the help of an online friend, we were able to find the French family that adopted her sister a few years before. We never knew why the girls were separated, but finding her sister has been a great source of happiness for M. Imagine our surprise when we found out that her sister also has cerebral palsy and dyslexia!

The first day we were able to have the girls Skype face to face with each other was wonderful. Her mother and I were a hot mess of Google Translate, but it didn’t matter to the girls. They wanted to show each other baby dolls, Peppa Pig, and compare their AFOs (braces worn on their legs). What a gift for them both to look at a face so similar to their own. “I don’t like wearing glasses, but look, my sister has them too!”

Dyslexia, dysgraphia, and cerebral palsy can't stop this girl.

Since finding her sister, we have sent pictures and letters through the mail. My daughter was thrilled the day a letter arrived from her sister addressed to Mademoiselle M****. “She wrote it in cursive to me! I want to learn to write in cursive too!” And just like that, writing had a purpose. I homeschool M now, so for the past year we have worked on her handwriting with Dyslexia Games workbooks, and I’ve taught her cursive.

“Writing practice” and “spelling” have been stories she’s written for her sister, and she voluntarily re-writes them with corrections I make, “So my sister can read it easily. I want it to look really nice for her!” The improvements M has made with her writing, and the joy with which she now does it make my heart happy.

I hope to one day take M to France to meet her sister face to face. Neither girl remembers the other from their time in the orphanage, but both are eager to one day meet again. Until then, letters, cards, and pictures cross the Atlantic from two little girls who have been thrilled to connect as sisters with not just the same disabilities, but similar interests as well.

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When a School for People With Dyslexia Rejected Me for Being 'Too Dyslexic'

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Before I was school age, Mom would read to my older brother and me before bedtime. It was my favorite part of the day. I would imagine the images on the pages, moving to her words. If there were no pictures in the books, I would create my own images and have them move in the ceiling. They were my private movies.

When I started to learn the alphabet in school, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. As everyone was learning how to spell their names, I could barely read mine. It was humiliating. I can’t remember how many times I cried in class, trying to learn to read.

To deal with my struggle, I taught myself braille and Egyptian hieroglyphics. I thought I could get away with this so I wouldn’t have to learn how to read. But I couldn’t. I had to learn how to read. With the helpful advice from a family friend, I was tested and diagnosed with severe dyslexia and auto processing difficulties. It was great to finally have a label, but now, how to work with it?

My time at school was split between special education and regular classes. But it wasn’t enough. I was still behind my grade reading level. To help myself, I would try to read the dictionary. It built up my vocabulary, but I couldn’t remember how to spell, nor put the words in a sentence.

Justina Bonilla in grade school

Finally, after years of struggling, Mom found a private school that focused on language learning disabilities. From what information Mom gathered, the school’s goal was to help students from kindergarten to eighth grade by using a multi-sensory approach to teach dyslexic students how to read, spell and write. We though we found my educational salvation.

After I applied, I was allowed to attend it for one week for testing. From the moment class started, I was constantly being pulled out for testing. When I’d get back to class, a subject would be getting finished up. It was grueling trying to keep up with the class work and do the constant testing.

On the Friday of my brain-frying week, I got my results. I would not be accepted because I was “too low functioning.” How can a person be rejected by a school for dyslexics for be too dyslexic? Where is the logic? How can you proclaim you help those who struggle when you reject those who need you the most?   

I felt like the dumbest person in town. At 10 years old, I wanted to give up on school. What would be the point in continuing? I truly believed I was beyond help. It was the lowest point of my academic life. This belief of intellectual inadequacy, though disproven, still haunts me.

Defeated and humiliated, I reluctantly went back to public school. My parents fought harder to get the accommodations I needed. I spent the rest of my grade school years struggling between regular and special education, and at times, homeschooling. Thanks to the help of tutors, I was able to academically survive.

Despite getting A and B grades in my class, I still felt inferior to my high school classmates. They were able to read at grade level while I was still at a fifth/sixth-grade level.

But I graduated high school with a 3.0-grade average. Today, I’m in college, perusing my AA in sociology, with a minor in media and film studies, and working a career in writing. I have the imagination to write, but it still takes me a long time to process the words.  According to my last reading test, I’m at a reading level of sixth/seventh grade. The average reading level of American adults is seventh/eighth grade.

Recently, I drove past that school. Surprisingly, its school sign said it now helps students with autism spectrum disorder. Considering how wide the autism spectrum is, I thought, “Finally things have changed.” But, this enthusiasm was cut short, when I learned the school rejected one of my brother’s friends — for being “too autistic.” It’s sad to see history repeat itself.

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I Wasn’t Diagnosed With Dyslexia Until My Final Year in College

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I was diagnosed as dyslexic at 20 years old and in my final year at college.

I’ve always generally succeeded in education but struggled the more I progressed. That’s not exactly unusual. I had weaknesses like most people — spelling and math in particular — but my mom just made sure we worked extra hard on them.

I got into college to study the course I wanted, and I started off not doing as well as I thought I could so I pushed myself even further. But then I hit a wall. I kept getting the same grades and putting more and more time into exams and essays didn’t seem to be making a difference. During one exam, I panicked so much that I spent a half an hour trying to choose which question to answer. That had never happened before. This begged the question about why I couldn’t get past a certain grade. Why was I cracking under pressure like never before? My essays outshone my exams, which dragged down my score.

Kate Delaney graduating from college

I began thinking about where I was going wrong. I couldn’t possibly accept that I’d just hit my limit, that my potential was reached and I couldn’t improve. I’d spoken to people with dyslexia, and I knew the general assumptions around it. I always assumed I wouldn’t have gotten the grades I had if I were dyslexic.

But in spite of this, I decided, in my first term of my final year, to have a dyslexia test because I could relate to being a terrible speller and sometimes my grammar and sentence structure was really confusing, but I wouldn’t notice it until someone pointed it out.

The test itself was impossibly hard, and at one point, I had tears in my eyes. But I understood that it’s meant to challenge you. We got to the end after about two hours of mental Olympics, and I was told I have mild dyslexia, which mainly revolves around my processing speed. What?

Essentially, my dyslexia symptoms come out when I’m under time pressure. I write slowly and need time to think otherwise things come out jumbled and my spelling is a mess. I read slowly, which I’d made up for my whole life by scan reading. That explains why I never used to remember much of the books I read. I can’t take written notes because I’m not fast enough, and my brain can’t work out sums without a lot of time and a pencil and paper. When the results came back, everything made sense.

But because I was always viewed as doing well in school, no one noticed. My potential is at one level, and then my achievement is lower than that despite still getting top grades.

My college made adjustments for my class assessments, and I felt so much better. I really started to understand my dyslexia, and I actually felt like I was able to get the most out of myself for the first time in higher education.

There are moments where I notice my dyslexia in everyday life, moments which I hadn’t even realized before my diagnosis. I’m sort of relieved now that there’s an explanation. For example, I make terrible errors and spelling mistakes in forms I’ve been given to fill out because I’m under pressure to complete them quickly. Sometimes, I get frustrated and feel cheated by my brain.

I have been through times where I’ve been angry that it took my own initiative to actually have a test at 20 years old. This could have been done ages ago, and I get frustrated that no one noticed it. I was getting good grades on average so no one looked more closely.

What I’ve experienced is there is a stigma to dyslexia. People think you can’t be dyslexic if you’ve achieved good grades or have done well academically, which is completely untrue. I feel guilty that I stayed quiet about it and was happy with the grades I got.

It’s quite strange for me. I didn’t grow up with dyslexia. Well I have, but I haven’t been aware of it. I’m trying to adapt and learn about it in my 20s when other people have grown up knowing. It’s really opening my eyes, but it’s also helping me to reach my potential. And everyone deserves the ability to do that.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When I Worry About the Challenges My Son With Dyslexia Will Face

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Our oldest son, John, is dyslexic. He’s so sweet. He works so hard. He got his reading abilities from his daddy and me and my daddy and my brother. That’s just how the ball bounces.

John is a homeschooled senior in high school. He takes dual credit courses at the university near our home. It hasn’t been easy. As he neared graduation, he decided he wanted to join the Navy and be a first responder.

With the help of some friends, it was determined that he might consider some certifications to streamline his career pursuits. An associate’s degree as a paramedic made sense to him.

Panic.

Not just because he’s been homeschooled and I feel the stress of his challenges. I worry about what he may encounter — tender-hearted as he is. Mommas with children who face challenges, I know you hear me. We just want them to feel OK. We want them to be successful.

We know these children. We know they are more than the sum of their standardized test scores. They’re more than that bubble-filled sheet. They’re more.

He is brave.

He is kind.

He’s more than his test scores can convey.

This morning, John left for his medical personnel CPR certification.

I paced.

I prayed.

Please, I don’t want him to be discouraged or humiliated. Worse still, I don’t want him to give up. You gave him a hero’s heart. Please.

At lunch, John called and sounded great. But he reported on the written exam he’d missed all but one. I told him to meet his father and me for lunch.

We were heartbroken.

Our young man strolled into the restaurant with a huge smile on his face. I just wanted to wrap him up and love on him.

“Well,” I gently inquired, “now what?”

He chirped, “I’m done! I’ll take my packet to the school.”

We were confused. I said, “You said you missed all but one?”

And John interjected, “What? I did pass.” He rubbed his head and face, laughed and explained it was his dyslexia. “I meant I got all of them right but one! I got a 95.”

Cheers and laughter erupted. He joyfully told us which one he missed and explained his folly. He was elated and excited to face the future. He was proud. He did it.

He will do great things.

More than the sum of their test scores — just more. Don’t give up encouraging these unique children. Don’t doubt they will have boundless and mind-blowing accomplishments. You’re right about your children — they are outstanding. Sometimes it can be hard, but hard is good. Hard means there are challenges. A challenge can mean depth of character.

Your child may be “different” — it separates them from the pack.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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