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Dyslexia & other learning disorders
July 13, 2012 by Dr. Mandar V. Bichu
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Dyslexia & other learning disorders

‘Not performing well in school’ is a complaint that could stem from multiple causative factors involving either the affected student or his family or his school. Dyslexia is one important and intriguing condition affecting school performance negatively.  The facts about this condition have come to fore only in the last decade and they make interesting reading.

 

What are the probable causes of school failure?

When a child is performing below par in a class in spite of average intelligence, there exist a number of conditions that might be responsible for it. Chronic illness, medication effects, vision and hearing impairment, behavioural problems like ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or unnoticed seizures of certain type are important conditions to be ruled out in the affected student. Family environment should be probed to see whether some serious underlying problems like child abuse, parental neglect or parental conflicts are leading to anxiety and/or depression in the child. School conditions like language barrier, incompetent teaching or class-work that is either too difficult or too simple can also result in poor scholastic performance.

 

What is a learning disability?

Learning disability is a collective term used to group the problems related to one or more of basic processes involved in learning like listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing or doing math in an individual with at least average intelligence. This term excludes those with physical or sensory handicaps, mental retardation, emotional disturbance and those having cultural, socio-economic or environmental disadvantage.  

 

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is the most common and most important learning disability. It is an inherited condition, which makes it difficult to read, write or spell the language one is learning, despite at least average intelligence. It also can make doing arithmetic difficult.

 

How common is this condition?

In a study conducted in USA, almost 1 out of 5 children were found to suffer from this condition to a varying degree. It affects boys and girls in same proportions.

 

Is it curable?

It is a lifelong condition and is not ‘cured’ as such. Children suffering from it do not outgrow it and hence dyslexics (individuals with dyslexia) are seen in all age-groups. Timely and appropriate intervention can help these children to succeed in life.

 

How is it caused?

A gene on the short arm of Chromosome 6 is found to have been responsible for this condition. It is a dominant gene and hence passes from generation to generation. Dyslexics have a different brain structure and functioning. Their right half of the brain is larger compared to normal individuals. The nervous connections in their brain are wired differently and they use a different part of the brain while reading than normal people.

 

What are symptoms of dyslexia?

In pre-schoolers and KG students, the warning signals are delayed speech, frequent mixing up of sounds in words, absence of rhyming by 4 years, confused concepts about directions (e.g. left-right, under-over, up-down), lack of dominant handedness (switching right and left hands during tasks) and difficulty in learning alphabets as regards their sounds, symbols and order.

In school age and beyond, dyslexics make specific types of mistakes while reading and writing. Both these processes are slow and laborious for such children. They frequently reverse (‘bog’ for ‘dog’), invert (‘we’ for ‘me’) or transpose (‘on’ for ‘no’) letters in a word. Many a time, they substitute similar-looking but different-meaning word in one sentence or do exactly the opposite in the other. Often either they omit, add or substitute small words and suffixes. They misspell even when copying from a board or a book and their writing often shows un-sureness in form of frequent erasures and over-writings.

 

What is dysgraphia?

Often dyslexics show a tendency of dysgraphia or poor, illegible handwriting. Unusual pencil/pen grip (too high, to low, too tight or with thumb over fingers), difficulty in cursive writing, unusual positioning of letters and a slow, labored writing process are pointers to this condition.

 

What are other important features?

Dyslexics usually have trouble understanding the concepts of time, space, sequencing and direction. They find it difficult to master tasks involving multiple steps like shoe-lacing, long mathematical division or touch-typing. Memorizing figures and tables is difficult.

 

How is dyslexia diagnosed?

There is no single definitive test to diagnose this condition. A combination of an oral test (Comprehensive test of phonological processing) and a written test (Slingerland screening for KG to Grade 8 and Malcomesius screening for Grades 9-12) gives a good idea about its likelihood. A formal psycholinguistic testing involving detailed history from parents and teachers, interview of affected child and his parents, thorough evaluation of the child’s reading, writing and language processing and screening for associated disorders is a must before labeling one a dyslexic.

 

What are the associated conditions?

1. Attention deficit disorder is found in almost 40% of dyslexics. This co-existence dramatically increases risk of indulgence in drug abuse and anti-social activities.

2. Light sensitivity (Scotopic sensitivity) is associated in 3-8% affected individuals. This sensitivity makes them difficult to see small black print on white paper. Printed words seem to shimmer and move and get immersed in white rivers for such individuals. They show a dislike for fluorescent lights and shade the page while reading. Colored lenses or plastic overlays can correct this condition to some extent.

 

How is dyslexia managed?

There is no magic cure and medicine (in days-weeks or even in months) for this condition. The intervention needs to be a continuous process and should simultaneously involve on-going assessment and adjustment. Orton-Gillingham method of multi-sensory intervention is a popular and proven method and its adaptations are also widely employed. Phonemic awareness is the cornerstone of therapy. Each word is broken into basic sounds, the smallest sound unit being termed a ‘phoneme.’ Then the relationship of this phoneme with the written symbol of letter (‘grapheme’) is taught and then the rest of the rules of language are incorporated into the training. Daily sessions of independent and supported reading and writing can then improve the situation a lot.

Multi-sensory approach, involving vision, hearing, speech, touch and motion is employed. That is to learn ‘A’, the child sees it on board, hears it from the teacher, repeats it himself, draws it in air and then writes it on a paper.

 

How can normal schools help dyslexics?

Milder varieties of dyslexia are common and are likely to be present in every school. Introducing phonemic awareness since early classes, reducing load of homework and writing in general and if possible, relaxing time-limits for tests are some helpful measures.

 

Is there a bright future for dyslexics?

Being a dyslexic doesn’t mean the end of the world. With proper intervention, they can overcome many handicaps. New softwares and audio-books in this computer-age have much to offer in this condition.

In addition, such individuals have many hidden strengths, thanks to their unusual brain. Dyslexics are found to have artistic, musical, mechanical, athletic, creative and intuitive abilities in abundance. They do well in professions like architecture, interior designing, teaching, marketing, performing arts, scientific research and athletics.

Mozart had it, so did Einstein, Agatha Christie and John F. Kennedy. They didn’t do too badly in life. Did they?


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Right Parenting.Com is a site dedicated to offer compassionate scientific guidance on various parenting and child-health issues. It is managed by Dr. Mandar V. Bichu, a Sharjah-based paediatrician with the help of experts in various fields.
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