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Detecting Dyslexia - October is Dyslexia Awareness Month

Not being able to read stinks, just ask any of the up to 1 in 5 students who live with dyslexia. Lizzy, a local student with dyslexia, remembers asking her mom, “Why am I not as smart as my classmates?” Dyslexia has nothing to do with being smart! Most who suffer with dyslexia have absolutely normal intelligence, but those with this learning disability can really struggle with not only learning to read, but the stigmas that come with it.

What is dyslexia?

Since October is dyslexia awareness month, here are some things you should know. Although there is no known cause of dyslexia, it is widely considered to be genetic. It is a learning disability that makes it difficult to learn to read or interpret words and or symbols, write, and spell. People with dyslexia usually read slowly, laboriously, and with many mistakes. The amount of energy spent decoding the words, along with the choppy reading, can negatively impact comprehension of what is being read. Typically, when read to, the person with dyslexia can comprehend the text with no problems. Dyslexia, however, does not just impact reading. Math skills can also be affected by dyslexia. Dyslexia is a problem with language.

Signs and Symptoms of Dyslexia & Detection

Dyslexia can manifest as a host of signs and symptoms and can range in severity from person to person. Some young children with dyslexia experience delayed speech. As early as preschool, students may show challenges with phonemic awareness - the ability to decipher and manipulate sounds in a word, such as identifying rhyming words. Matching sounds to letters can also present a difficult challenge, as can having trouble remembering sequences such as the alphabet or when counting.

For some students, the signs and symptoms don’t show up until later when the skills required become more advanced. Kindergarten through second grade students can experience challenges with confusing letters and symbols that look alike (p/q, b/d, P/9) or sound like (v/f, d/t). Children may have difficulty separating the sounds in a word, or blending the sounds together to create a word. Applying spelling rules can be hard to remember. Word substitutions can also present a challenge when reading, such as reading house as horse.

Students in third through fifth grades may show difficulty decoding words, skipping words, quickly recognizing sight words, reading fluently, using proper grammar, spelling, writing, and sentence structure. Inconsistencies can also become frustrating for these students, such as spelling a word correctly in one sentence, but incorrectly in the next. Students may struggle to retell a story or answer questions about key events. At this age, students may start to avoid reading aloud to others, become frustrated when reading, or shut down when asked to read. This is also the age that dyslexia can begin negatively affecting grades and students’ sense of self-efficacy and intelligence.

Tweens, teens, and adults can also feel the effects of dyslexia. Some have trouble understanding abbreviations, such as those used in social media. Reading may be slow and feel like a lot of work. The same passage may need to be read repeatedly to understand the content. Spelling, writing, and organizing sequential thoughts may continue to be a challenge into adulthood for people with dyslexia.

Outside of academics, people with dyslexia sometimes struggle with memory, social interactions, and stress management. Their sense of self, self-esteem, intelligence, and ability can also be negatively affected. Children with dyslexia don’t simply out-grow it, but can be taught skills and strategies to manage its effects. “Sometimes people don’t understand dyslexia.” shared local mom Laura M. “It would take us ‘till past midnight to write twenty spelling words and then points would be taken off because it was messy! Teachers would call him lazy and sloppy, and he just sunk into a hole. I wish there was a way for more people to know dyslexia is more than just trouble reading!”

Help at School

Getting help for a dyslexic child at school can be very challenging. There are two routes that parents typically take to obtain services for a child they believe may be dyslexic, the public route or the private.

The public route involves going through the public school system. School districts have screening and testing instruments to determine if a student is at risk for dyslexia. Once determined, the school can meet with the child’s parents to determine if the student would qualify for an Individualized Accommodation Plan (IAP) covered by Section 504. In some cases, the dyslexia is so severe and impacts the child’s ability to read to such a degree that the student may qualify as having a Specific Learning Disability and would receive education through an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, covered under special education services. Going through the public school system is free to the family, but can take a very long time. One additional option in Baton Rouge, is Key Academy, a public charter school designed for students with dyslexia.

The private route involves finding a qualified professional, such as a psychologist or dyslexia specialist, who can administer the assessments to the child. Parents who go the private route may have to wait several months for an appointment to have their child evaluated and often have to carry at least some of the costs, as educational testing is rarely covered by insurance providers. While wait times for assessments are longer during some times of the year, such as the very end of the summer break and after the first nine weeks of the academic year, other times are less busy and allow children to be assessed more quickly, such as the first weeks of the summer break.

Dr. Franziska NoackLeSage, a clinical psychologist at Frey Psychology, shared, “Testing usually involves an intelligence test to determine a child’s cognitive ability (i.e. intelligence) and a test of achievement (i.e., academics) that provides additional information about a child’s reading, writing, and/or mathematics ability. A diagnosis is given when a child’s academic ability in one or more areas is significantly below what is expected based on their intellectual functioning, despite the child having received effective academic instruction. While not always necessary, a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation can be valuable to not only determine the presence of dyslexia, but also determine the presence of other emotional and behavioral disorders that can co-occur with or mimic dyslexia symptoms. For example, some children with ADHD can have challenges with reading comprehension because of attention deficits, rather than an inability to understand what they are reading. On the other hand, children and adolescents can also present with diagnoses such as ADHD, anxiety or mood disorders, in addition to dyslexia. A qualified clinician can provide answers to such questions to provide an individualized treatment plan that supports the whole child.”

Once testing takes place, it will take a short time for the clinician to interpret the results and prepare the report. Once the family receives the report, that document can be taken to the school and the process for IAP or IEP eligibility can begin. Going through the private sector for a diagnosis does involve a cost to the family, though some insurances cover testing. Alternatively, parents can also use the report to enroll their child in a school which specializes in learning disabilities, such as the Brighton School in Baton Rouge. Local mom Meghan S. shared, “Our son has been at the Brighton School since his diagnosis in first grade and is thriving!”

Follow Through at School

“I was very disappointed and upset with the level of unprofessionalism in the school’s previous meeting and administration,” shared mom Brittney B. “I felt that they were not listening to me as a mother, a person with dyslexia, a previous and now current educator, and a person with the right to request testing. It made me believe that I was not a good enough advocate for my daughter. I had to watch my child get frustrated and feel like a failure because of the difficulty she had when intervention should have been available. I truly don’t know what we would have done without her 3rd grade teacher, who was great with getting her what she needed. I believe that educators should not have a preconceived notion that ‘signs’ don’t show before 3rd grade and children should not have to struggle like my daughter did.”

If you feel that your child requires an IAP or IEP for their dyslexia and are not having success with the school, it is recommended that an advocate be used to help the family navigate the system.

Final Thoughts from a Clinician

“Early identification and intervention have shown to be of major importance to reduce the impact of dyslexia and other learning disorders.” NoackLeSage continued. “Although testing during early childhood, such as in Kindergarten and first grade, may result in more false positives (that is children who meet the criteria of a specific learning disorder such as dyslexia at that time although they do not have it) due to inconsistencies in previous education exposure, the interventions that may be accessible are vital to address concerns during critical periods of development and to avoid the child falling behind.

Within the school system, goals should be consistently re-evaluated and new goals set as the child improves. However, full psycho-educational assessments should also be completed in regular intervals (i.e., about once every three years), to re-assess the child's performance in comparison to same-age peers and to generate a record that will allow them to access accommodations during standardized testing such as ACT in the future, should they be needed.

The most common accommodation for a student with dyslexia, besides individual or small group instruction, is extended time testing, which allows the child to read and comprehend information, so that their learning deficit does not inhibit them from showing their knowledge on the subject matter at hand. While having exams read aloud is another accommodation that can be of help for young children or children with severe deficits, this support should be temporary and faded out over time if possible, to not create a crutch that is impossible to overcome as a child grows older. A general rule of establishing accommodations is to individualize it to the specific child and within their zone of proximal development. As such, a child should be challenged within the upper zone of what they are capable of. This will challenge them to encourage improvements of skills without creating obstacles they feel unable to overcome. If we set up accommodations appropriately, they will help the student grow.”

Originally published in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine, October 2021. Pages 32-33.


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