Today I was part of the beautiful impact a diagnosis of dyslexia can have for a young teenage girl. For her, the information was freeing because it gave her context. It doesn’t always work out this well. But today it did.
This girl’s parents sought my help in pouring through a big pile of school documents, previous language evaluations, IEPs triennial testings and the like. They wanted my help in interpreting the mountain of information and to find a way to talk with their daughter about what it all means. Somehow with all of these tests, no one had put it all together in a way that found the necessary patterns. So there was lots of data and info, but no clarity. She’d been struggling in school most of her life but there was never any definitive diagnosis. As I began to work through the huge amount of data and written discussion contained within the file, I saw the patterns and an image of an actual learning profile emerged.
There were important things to note; like her performance at the 95th percentile (superior) in “understanding spoken paragraphs” and the 85th percentile when it came to “formulating sentences from a visual prompt.” In contrast, I also saw evidence of language processing weaknesses when it came to the mechanics of language processing. In addition, once again in stark contrast to her excellent thinking and concept development, her spelling and reading scores have always been in the single digit percentiles. Looking further, besides real struggle with working memory tasks, I saw things in the IEP that began to make me feel angry. Even though she’d been struggling for years and was on an IEP (a guarantee it turns out of unfortunately, nothing), the box to check off labeled, “Scientifically-based reading approach used as part of Response to Intervention” was left blank, signifying “not needed.”
Subsequently I gave this girl a few more testing protocols (e.g.rapid naming, phonological processing) and verified the obvious; she has dyslexia. Her pattern of phonological, decoding and spelling struggles, completely unexpected considering her strong thinking skills was clearly the result of this dyslexia. In her case, her disability, or difference, was compounded by years of the wrong kind of attention and help at school. The fact that she struggled with attention and anxiety, and has had some real rough spots in early childhood family experiences led all of the educational support staff to kind of shrug away her skill deficits. Not that they weren’t caring, but they were caring in the wrong way.
OK. So, today I had her mom and her in my office in order to go over the testing results. When I began to describe her pattern of strengths and weaknesses and explained to her that educational scientists had a name for this,and the name is “dyslexia,” tears rolled spontaneously out of her eyes. She said, “I’m sorry for all this emotion…it’s just such a relief.” When we began to look at the cost of her slow inefficient reading, in terms of time (spent on homework), anxiety (fear of looking bad), and self-worth (believing her own worst fears about herself), her eyes welled up and leaked again.
Later I described what I thought her school life might be like as a result of having high understanding of oral language (as long as that wasn’t too long and dense), but also having such pronounced working memory deficits (for the same spoken language). I said in effect, “You can listen to the teacher in history class, be engaged in the story, and really get what’s going on. Five minutes later, the teacher asks you the names of the three presidents just mentioned and your mind goes blank, it’s just gone…How frustrating and embarrassing it must feel.”
That’s when she really teared up and her eyes leaked again, shocked someone could understand her secrets so quickly. Again, she apologized and expressed relief and desire to move forward.
I really felt privileged to be at this particular juncture for this particular person, and grateful I do what I do for “work.” There is plenty of reading/language training, technological support, school modifications, and working memory training ahead of us, but for the first time in a while she has some hope and a direction.