One of my earliest memories is of the big, heavy swinging glass doors inside the main school entrance. I wasn’t going in but rather trying to escape through them. While for many children school is a wonderful, busy, life-affirming place, that wasn’t my experience. More than once I attempted to escape and each time I was dragged back until, eventually, I acquiesced to years of struggling in a system that seemed to have no place for me.
As one of the estimated one-in-10 children affected by dyslexia, I had two strokes of good luck – a tiger-mother who believed in me and my abilities, and an amazing teacher who helped me make sense of words and discover the things I was good at in school. And while the ladybird, Read It Yourself, series felt like a joke specifically aimed at me, there was nothing I loved more than stories. I spent hours listening to my grandmothers chatting in the kitchen about their childhoods, their lives and ways of life long, long gone. I could never hear enough stories. When I did eventually – with a lot of help – learn to read, I fell in love with books.
While inclusivity wasn’t an idea that was consciously featured in the books I read back then, I always sought out characters who were a little different. Whether it was George from The Famous Five or Clara from Heidi, I yearned for characters who didn’t conform to the norm, who managed to break out of the restrictions placed upon them. Later, I went on to study Literature and become an English teacher. In my classroom, I could quickly spot the child who was struggling with words, the one who looked at a novel like it was amountain, the one who flicked straight to the back to see how many pages they would have to wade through to get to the end.
I knew exactly how they felt.
Luckily, education has come a long way since I was at school with teachers now much better trained to identify children with dyslexia and dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers) and schools much better equipped to help them. Many children are still going undiagnosed, especially in families where parents can’t afford the hefty fees for private assessment, however. I know a parent who recently paid €900 to have their child assessed. These children are left to struggle on with reading, writing and maths difficulties and cognitive and processing skills are also affected, skills that become important when they transition to secondary school and beyond.
Quiet, well-behaved girls can go undiagnosed and slip under the radar in a busy classroom. Experts used to (incorrectly) believe that dyslexia affected boys more than girls, when in fact it affects both equally. But perhaps the biggest loss these children face is a lack of confidence in their own abilities, a sense of self-worth that stays with them long after their school days and impacts on all aspects of their lives. The dictionary defines the prefix dys as “diseased, abnormal or faulty; difficult or painful; unfavourable or bad,” all negative. And while dyslexia most certainly is a difficulty with words, it is so much more than that. Children with dyslexia are known to be creative and intuitive with strengths in reasoning and problem-solving among many others. In the right environment, these traits can flourish and children can reach their full potential.
[ Children with dyslexia are made to feel they're not clever ]
[ How do you write a book when you have the reading age of a seven-year-old? ]
The British Intelligence Agency (GCHQ) said it was seeking to recruit employees with dyslexia and other neurodiverse conditions as they specifically valued their analytical skills. As much focus needs to be placed on the unique talents and strengths these children possess as is placed on their difficulties.
Of course, children will face all kinds of struggles and obstacles in their lives and we know that this helps build resilience.That resilience comes with overcoming the difficult, of grappling with the problem and finding a way through or around it. however. Allowing their self-confidence to crumble will never build resilience. For all those children I wish those two strokes of luck that I had: a parent/guardian who truly cares deeply and a dedicated teacher who can guide them through and help them reach their full potential.
Time sometimes does that funny, serendipitous thing and brings us back to a place we’ve been before.
A few years ago, when my youngest child started school, it became apparent he was struggling. When he started to ask me why all the words and numbers seemed to be moving on the page and why everyone else in the class could read the words on the board and he couldn’t, I knew what the problem was, but more importantly, I knew exactly how to help.