Dyslexia — it’s about more than letters

This fall, many new kindergartners may notice they’re out of step with their classmates. One may struggle to learn the letters of the alphabet, have trouble singing songs or mispronounce words. Another might be told to draw a picture but isn’t sure how to hold a crayon.

Both might have dyslexia.

Despite intelligence and motivation, children with dyslexia may have difficulty reading, spelling or understanding what they hear — or expressing themselves clearly in speaking or writing.

With school soon starting, parents who see their child is having difficulty communicating should prepare to seek help through their local schools or from private therapists.

That’s what Sheila and Dan Morrow of Woodbury did. Because they have two older kids with mild dyslexia, they were watchful as Kaleb grew from toddler to preschooler. They had found their older son and daughter never responded when asked what a cat, dog or cow says, and their daughter went from not speaking at all to putting together full sentences.

The Morrows noticed Kaleb’s speech was also delayed, and that he wasn’t understanding things. At age 4, he began working on speech therapy with Janet Jacobs of Associated Speech and Language Specialists in Arden Hills. Over time, he learned to speak well. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

“We knew in kindergarten that something else wasn’t right, but we didn’t have a clue what it was,” says his mother, Sheila. “No one wanted to give us an opinion.”

When Kaleb was tested in first grade, he was at a third grade level in some subjects and barely kindergarten level in others — such as reading. Sheila says she’s heard that when there are huge swings in ability between different subject areas, there’s usually something going on, and parents need to dig deeper.

Jacobs referred them to a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital, where Kaleb was diagnosed with dyslexia.

“Many people think dyslexia is transposing letters or writing letters backwards but it’s much more than that,” Sheila says. “And there are different degrees.”

Get help early

When Kaleb started second grade, he could only recognize or sound out 11 of 52 upper and lower case letters. So they found a private reading tutor in Lakeville. In the next five months he made great strides, Sheila said.

But he still struggled to keep up in school. In fourth grade, Kaleb was in special ed classes 80 percent of the time. Though he had a significant communication barrier, the actual coursework in the special education curriculum was too easy for him. Plus, he had little opportunity to socialize with the kids in his regular fourth-grade classes.

His parents decided to “mainstream” Kaleb back into fourth-grade classes. Now age 11 and heading into sixth grade, Kaleb is doing reading and speech therapy this summer with Jacobs, and is only one grade level behind in reading.

Getting help is a big effort and expense, but Sheila says her concern is for her child and she’s willing to pay for it.

“I’d rather put our life on hold now for the kids to give them good life skills and empower them. Life is hard enough without disabilities,” she says.

“Lots of parents don’t want to admit their child has a problem. It’s hard to do and takes a lot of time and energy to deal with,” she admits. “But when kids are having problems, drug abuse, stealing and low self-esteem can become issues.

“And socially, you get so far behind without therapy. Dyslexia usually isn’t diagnosed until fifth grade. So if you’re still reading at kindergarten level, you’ll be way behind. It’s a huge injustice.”

The Morrows are happy with their decision to mainstream Kaleb, but Sheila cautions others that a lot depends on school teachers’ willingness to work with parents to meet a dyslexic student’s needs.

“It’s good we got help early, though it’s a struggle. I would recommend a private tutor,” she adds. “Kaleb is very intelligent, very mechanical and good at math. He can put together things that would be troublesome for most people. But if we hadn’t stayed with Janet, I don’t know where we’d be now.”

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