6-year-old nephew has severe dyslexia - how can I help?
April 7, 2006 8:03 PM   Subscribe

In the past week, my 6-year-old nephew has been diagnosed with severe dyslexia and significant auditory processing problems. I'd like some information from others -- dyslexics, teachers, parents, sibs, etc. -- in terms of how I can help support my family as much as possible.

After a lot of testing and assessments, it appears that the problems are very severe -- his scores are in the bottom fifth percentile in several key areas -- while scoring above average in generalized intelligence, math skills, etc. My sis and brother-in-law are arranging for tutoring, starting to do phonics-based exercises/games/reading with him, and are communicating the findings to his teachers (he's in private school, not public). They've also started reading this book, which I'm planning on picking up too and I expect will answer a lot of my more "technical" questions about dyslexia itself.

So for now I guess I'd like to hear suggestions as to how can I best help my nephew not feel like a "dummy," which he already calls himself (especially now that his 3-year-old brother is actually starting to surpass him in certain verbal/reading skills) -- besides just being the doting aunt who says "oh, you're not a dummy, sweetheart!" (My sis's family and I all live in the same city, so I'm very close to all three nephews and see them frequently.) If you have dyslexia, what type of support/feedback/help have you found you most appreciate from family members? What are the things that aren't helpful? And if you have kids (or have taught students, worked with families, etc.) with dyslexia, what do you suggest is most helpful for me in supporting my sis and BIL during all this, too? (And of course, I'm worried myself -- Will other kids make fun of him? Will he always struggle with this? What does this mean for college?)
posted by scody to Education (12 answers total)
Dyslexia runs in my family. I think the main thing to point out to your nephew is that there are actually advantages in being dyslexic. It's a way of thinking/seeing that we nondyslexics don't have -- and it's not a disability. Check out how very many famous dyslexics there are, and tell him about them. Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Cher, George Burns, henry winkler, Whopi Goldberg, Walter Elias Disney, Alexander Graham Bell ...

It's true that extra help is needed with reading- and writing-based activities, so learning can be more difficult and a lot depends on the teacher, but our family dyslexics have got themselves Ph.D.s and other advanced stuff.

Don't let your nephew or his family go on thinking of him as a dummy -- read up the advantages and emphasize them. My kids are pleased to be dyslexic (the ones that are) and feel sorry for people who lack their advantages!
posted by anadem at 8:16 PM on April 7, 2006

It should definitely be possible to "work around" dyslexia just by changing the way you read words, from what I understand. One of my fellow students in high school was dyslexic and apparently he could read words forwards and backwards, In fact he could read words printed backwards as easily as words printed forwards, I think. Hopefully the tutor your sibling/sibling-in-law hire will know the techniques to do this and will be able to help the kid manage it.
posted by delmoi at 9:04 PM on April 7, 2006

I'm dyslexic. I spent a couple of years of elementary school in special education classes, and I failed a year over it. That said, I really have no idea what it means..

My sister the teacher talks a lot about learning styles. It seems to me if you favour one learning style a lot more strongly than most people, then you are dyslexic. So, calling it a disorder, or a syndrome.. Well, it is a good way to get resources to help people, and classification plays an important role in scientific understanding, but it doesn't have much to do with a little boy who is having trouble reading..

What to do about it.. Well, I didn't read very well early on either. My Mom kept me in libraries fairly often anyway, and when I was 9 or 10 I discovered fighter jets. I devoured everything I could find about them, and eventually everything I could find about almost any big expensive military weapon. It is very much a different kind of reading, specifications tables and technical descriptions, but that really shouldn't be seen as a problem. Reading is reading, and you've got to start somewhere.

So, figure out what he is interested in and pile that information on him as fast as you can find it. Don't worry about what the topic is too much - I'm a fairly serious pacifist now (I just spelled that passivist, but is that really what dyslexia is?). You have to leverage the interest to get him working hard at reading, even though he doesn't take to it naturally.
posted by Chuckles at 9:48 PM on April 7, 2006

I'm no professional, but I do have two dyslexics in the family and have volunteered for a literacy program for several years.

Yes, he will always struggle with this. The good news is that he can and likely will be quite functional by developing other skills, smarts, and workarounds.

As you know, dyslexia has nothing to do with IQ. He needs to know and hear this from everybody in his support network, over and over. Teachers aren't always supportive, or may not know how to deal with these issues. Family can help by staying informed and involved in his education.

His auditory processing problems may really compound this. A lot of dyslexics rely on auditory learning. Incorporating different styles and techniques of learning into his education is going to be of ultimate importance.

Negative reinforcement is only going to increase his shame and anxiety, which becomes a nasty, lifelong feedback loop. Focus on the positive, on things he can do, and build from there. Help him to see himself as somebody smart and capable. Show him that there are many paths to a goal, many ways of getting something done.

I know that doesn't even begin to answer all of your questions, but I hope this little bit helps.
posted by moira at 9:52 PM on April 7, 2006

Lysdexics Untie!

I have a mild case. I tend to write numbers, and sometimes letters, in the wrong order. This is particularly troublesome in math classes and phone numbers. I have learned workarounds. I always read a phone number back to the person who gave it to me, or replay a voice message after I have written the number down. As for math class, I have to watch, and check, my work carefully. When I took a math class recently, I explained the situation to the professor, and she took it into account when grading my tests. She was also very good about giving partial credit, only discounting the one incorrect part, not all of the work that followed. However, I knew that going in. I recommend choosing teachers/professors as carefully as possible. Also, spell checkers are good friends of mine.

From what I've heard, and personally observed, there is a definite link between intelligence and dyslexia. For me, it feels like my brain is several segments ahead of where my hand is.

I know that my situation is different than the type of dyslexia you are writing about, but they are related from what I understand.

There will be challenges, but it seems like he has a very supportive family, and that is important. If you don't stigmatize him, he will learn to adapt, just like with any other difference. You might try word games like boggle or babble, where seeing patterns in words is valued.
posted by tbird at 10:06 PM on April 7, 2006

I guess I can think of another way of looking at what I said above.. I think it really helped that my Mom was able to communicate something like "Yes, reading is hard for you. It is something you need to do, and you can do it, so we'll work on it and it will get better."

I think it also helped that my Mom kept fighting to keep the standards I was judged against high. What I mean by that is.. She didn't push me especially hard to do well, but she pushed the school to keep me challenged. For example, special education classes were okay and I'm sure they helped, but after a couple of years she pushed to get me back into regular classes, and I think that was very important! I definitely learned some useful things in special classes - you've already mentioned phonics, and I still remember how they taught me to keep b and d the right way round - but if you are going to do well academically you have to work within the system as it is.

To keep b and d the right way around think of the word bed:

One more thing (and sorry for the digression)...

dyslexia has nothing to do with IQ

I have to agree with Stephen Jay Gould on this one - The Mismeasure of Man..

I mean, a correlation of 0.5 might be considered high for psychological research, but in practical terms 0.5 isn't very high at all, just look at the figure..
posted by Chuckles at 10:37 PM on April 7, 2006

I think it's really important to have one thing that you really excel with. It won't damage him to struggle through many areas of life as long as he feels he's got his specialty where he can excel.

In addition to special extra work in the areas where he has trouble, I'd keep up sports practice, math club, art, whatever he's good at. This will keep his spirits up.
posted by scarabic at 11:07 PM on April 7, 2006

I am a special education teacher and a reading specialist, so I can give you some information that may be helpful to pass on to your family. Most lay people think of dyslexia as a visual processing issue. For example, seeing letters or words backwards. However, special education teachers and reading specialists (in the USA) usually define dyslexia as difficulty reading, a broad category which may be caused by a wide variety of things. Only specialized reading assessments can pinpoint the individualized needs your nephew has in this area.

The fact that your nephew has auditory processing difficulties may actually be the cause of the dyslexia. Many six year olds reverse letters and numbers, this is a normal part of development. Your nephew's difficulties more likely present themselves as difficulty hearing differences between sounds that are similar, such as the sounds of p and b, or vowel sounds in pen and pin. He may have difficulty following oral directions, or have trouble filtering out background noise. Using visual and tactile learning are ways to work around an auditory processing disorder.

One example of this is repeated practice using sandpaper letters. Your nephew can look at the letter, trace the letter with his finger, and say the sound out loud. This can also be done with whole words or word chunks, such as ing. Only about 1% of the population have "true" reading disabilities that cannot be overcome. His parents need to make sure he gets the help he needs to learn to read, especially at this young age, when the gap between himself and his peers is smaller and more easily bridged. Orton Gillingham and Wilson are commonly used reading programs for dyslexia. Lindamood-Bell is less well known but is well researched.

As for his self-confidence and self esteem, it is extremely difficult for kids who have trouble reading, especially when they see those who are younger doing things cannot do. In my classroom, I teach students with social and emotional disorders. Some of them also have mental retardation or specific learning disabilities, whereas others are typical or advanced learners. I approach the problem of poor self esteem by pointing out that everyone has areas where things are easy, and areas where things are hard. I point out that I struggle in the area of athletics, and always felt bad during gym when people would get mad at me for doing poorly during a game, or how bad it felt to be among the last picked for a team. It helps kids to know that other people feel this way too, even the teacher! It also helps my students develop empathy for others. Maybe you could share one of your weaknesses with your nephew, explain how it made you feel and how you have overcome it.
posted by kit4kat at 9:39 AM on April 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I was using the term "IQ" loosely and generally. It would have been more appropriate for me to say that having dyslexia does not mean a person is stupid. Chuckles, when it comes down to the test and measurement itself, I agree with you wholeheartedly. And then some.
posted by moira at 11:22 AM on April 8, 2006

I think, early on, the best thing to do for the family is to organize attitudes. As to how your role fits in to this, it might be just mild suggestion, but it looks like the parents in your case are actually concerned, so that might just be redundant.

I'm an uncle to a nephew that was diagnosed in a similar fashion to yours. Unfortunately, in my family setting, my in-laws aren't the most understanding of parents, and didn't take into account any special needs he might have for development and education.

So, we arrive to today, where he's in his mid-teens. He's now an angry young man, with absolutely no sense of right and wrong. He's been lashing out most of his life at authority figures, and he's not about to stop just because it's a family gathering or a situation that might warrant a different attitude. His cousins, my children, have taken to avoiding him at every opportunity, as childhood friendships have completely desolved into a wary emnity.

To think: It all could have been dealt with early on by just giving him a little more help and maybe a little understanding.
posted by thanotopsis at 1:48 PM on April 8, 2006

I read The Gift of Dyslexia several years ago. It made me feel good about myself. Then I didn't read anymore about fixing it or overcoming it. I just got on with my life.

I feel that dyslexia makes me better than "normal" people at a lot of things. I am very good at fixing things, for example.

I can't believe someone used that picture of a bed example. It may seem really simplistic. But that bed picture trick REALLY helped me. b and d are awful for me. especially handwriting. not typing. typing is different.

The worst time for me was taking notes in college. I switch things around, especially b and d. then I am compelled to cross it out and write it again correctly. it was so inefficient. I never did get the hang of note-taking. But the little tricks help me.

I'll often make a picture of something that I need to remember. And tape it to the wall behind my computer.
posted by 9000.68 at 5:19 PM on April 8, 2006

Response by poster: checking back in terribly late to thank everyone for their contributions -- there is lots of good info here, so I don't know where to start with a best answer. The update is that he's doing intensive phonics tutoring, and in less than two months we're already seeing some definite improvements both in reading/spelling and in speech. I was over there last week and he ran to the door to tell me "auntie scody, I can spell your name! I can spell lots of things!" It was awesome (though tricky to try to hide the tears in my eyes).
posted by scody at 12:42 PM on June 6, 2006

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