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Deborah Shaer Child & Adolescent Therapist - Counsellor

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Dyslexia in Education & Therapy

About Dyslexia

In this section, I explore the area of special needs with a focus on dyslexia. My aim is to look at the complexities of learning difficulties which are also referred to as disabilities within the dyslexic field. By coming to understand one’s self more, which is to say that “I am not my condition, I am much more than that,” is a big step forward for a child or adolescent whose self-confidence feels undermined, whose self-esteem is low and whose stress levels are high.

An Overview of Special needs in the School System

Many of the pupils who became my therapy-counselling clients were referred to me through the SEN department in the schools where I worked. SEN stands for Special Educational Needs. The SEN department provide learning mentors. They also work with educational psychologists, in addition to holding other related responsibilities within the school system which include making referrals to the NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services known as CAMHS. A child or adolescent with Special Needs includes dyslexia, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), dyspraxia and autism which impact the capacity to absorb learning. Additionally, vulnerable pupils including those who have been removed from the family home and are in the foster care system may come under the guidance of SEN if their issues also affect their ability to study and learn.

For dyslexic pupils (and in some cases they have not been assessed) it is particularly challenging for them to stay present and attentive in a classroom. It may become very difficult for these pupils to self-regulate due to highly charged stress hormones through no fault of their own. A vulnerable child or adolescent may not outwardly demonstrate the services of a SEN department. Or they may have been overlooked. So regardless of whether their educational needs do not appear to be a concern, a common thread that I have seen amongst pupils who have been referred to me, most often include anxiety, depression, self-harm and/or social anxiety, as well as being victims of bullying, or who act out by bullying others. For those who bully their peers, it needs to be noted that they too can be seen as victims of bullying including domestic violence; so many of these issues tend to be complex.

From my observations over the years in working with young people referred to by the SEN, my experiences in attending multi-agency meetings has shown me how important it is for a child or adolescent in need to have a network of support. Under the canopy of SEN, multi-agency meetings discuss individual pupils and include speech and language experts, educational psychologists, various teachers, mental health professionals, and at times a child psychiatrist if it is specific to a particular child or young person.

Looking at Dyslexia through a wider lens

From a neurobiological perspective, it appears that one aspect of dyslexia is linked to impaired brain connectivity between the auditory cortices. So a person with dyslexia is often challenged by their slow responses as a consequence of the slight delay, as well as how their brain might perceive information, as opposed to fully grasping the whole of what is being communicated to them. So, it takes longer for dyslexics to absorb information whether face-to-face, on the phone or online. The part that is often missed is the emotional impact of an individual whose stress responses become activated in situations where they become confused. It is not that such individuals cannot intellectually understand. They just need more time, such as understanding a question and they also need someone who can explain things in detail, step by step, in a way that is compatible to their individual learning preferences.

In addition to the above as it relates to absorbing information which impacts communication, other key factors include poor working memory and processing words in reading and writing abilities. Reading is usually slow. Writing is another issue though varies for each person but writing can be illegible. Other difficulties may include spelling, syntax, grammar and structure. Structure is key for dyslexics, such as being able to write succinctly. In my book, ‘Hindi Handwriting: An effective way to learn,’ I devote the first part to learning difficulties for educators and parents and the second part to learning how to write – though it relates to Hindi rather than English.

Another significant aspect of dyslexia is disorientation. This issue of understanding directions includes memory recall, such as turning left or right or straight ahead. I am referring here not to the physical act of walking but following directions and experiencing difficulties in navigating based on those directions. As an example, for someone who is dyslexic, giving a verbal set of instructions for left, right straight ahead and so on, this is going to be far too challenging when multiple changes in direction are involved. Yet even with a written guide, set out like a bullet point list and/or a simple map, it is also usually necessary to include the opposite for a return journey. This is important because for many dyslexics, instructions need to be explicit. So when we think about sequencing, the sequence of a list of directions shows point A to B but not from B to A. Visually, the list needs to also include the latter because the left and right is transposed. I am aware that what I am saying may sound redundant, which it is to a non-dyslexic person. But the ability to mentally capture the flip-side is a dilemma for many a dyslexic. An impaired sense of direction includes handles such as doors and windows and taps. This impairment also plays out in a multitude of other ways such as operating the hardware or software of a computer.

There can be a lot of shame related to these issues. Unless a child or adolescent, or adult, can find the courage tell someone about their struggles, a safe and trustworthy person, these issues become hidden. Ridicule and humiliation can be very hurtful and what can happen is that all of these issues turn into a secret. These things can have more serious implications including addiction to numb the pain. Isolation happens a lot when shame is a core issue and it is preferable to catch this earlier than later so awareness, compassion and empathy is crucial.

The effect of punishment on the vulnerable child or teenager

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It happens that authority figures at times are unable to recognise that it is not the fault of the child for a perceived misdeed but their particular condition of which they have no control. Much long-term damage has been done in the name of punishment against vulnerable children and teenagers which are considered to be disciplinary measures. Punishment is also linked to shame from being shamed, though I wish to make a distinction between healthy shame which is an awareness that one has done something such as maliciously hurting others. But the impact of meting out punishments as a standard practice and without awareness or compassion can lead to unnecessary suffering, as well as exacerbating low self-esteem which is also likely to be operating in the background. In addition, a pupil may be suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which affects behaviour, and I believe it is important to gain more understanding about the impact of punishments and detentions, to take these things into consideration for the wellbeing of the child and young person. One way to do this is by Continuing Professional Development by bringing in professionals who can provide workshops for educational staff.

An example of a classroom experience for a dyslexic

The classroom experience for a young person who is dyslexic and experiences auditory delay, cannot follow the teacher’s instructions. This is due to an inability to keep up with the normal speed of the teacher’s delivery which involves the increments of seconds within the instruction to turn to a particular page, read a section and answer a set of questions. The brain of a dyslexic is simply not adequately equipped to grasp the instruction or manage to complete each action, from finding the page, to reading and absorbing the information which makes it impossible to provide an answer. The tragic consequences of this scenario, which sadly is too common in educational institutions is also a cause for shame as a consequence of being shamed in the class and ridiculed by peers. It has a life-long and debilitating impact on the child and adolescent, and many dyslexic adults can relay their own stories and how it has negatively impacted their lives.

My hope is that educators who may be reading this article can take in the import of what I am saying. Even inadvertently, the undermining of a child and young person whose brain plasticity has not yet fully developed, will be impacted negatively for the rest of their life in all manner of ways unless they are provided with the help they need. Before they reach adulthood is the best time to provide therapeutic support for maximum effect.

How can Therapy Help Dyslexic Children and Adolscents?

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In my professional experience, most often the dyslexic children and adolescents I’ve worked with suffer from co-existing issues such as high levels of anxiety. The nature of the school system being results-oriented exacerbates the pressures for a dyslexic child, given that slow auditory processing and poor working memory alone places them at a disadvantage. Trying to cope with dyslexia usually causes escalating stress, fear, low self-esteem and lack of confidence. Yet their ability to achieve also depends on the adults around them. The quality of support is crucial. Helping to build confidence and providing skilful ways which help to manage dyslexic issues also needs to be balanced with being able to attune to each child and adolescent in a loving, caring way so as not to diminish their sense of self.

To discover and delight in pursuits which inspire and help to develop a solid, integrated self, creates a foundation for healthy interactions with others. Love is not a scientific term but it is the core of everything that is good, healthy and vital. I am relating love, here, to what allows a person to truly development. The developing brain thrives through the nourishment given in affection and tenderness as well as the more dynamic qualities needed to successfully participate in the world we live in. But very often, the essence of the child becomes buried. It happens when they are seen as a commodity and treated as such. To quote the insightful psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “Only in the love of those who do not serve a purpose, love begins to unfold.”* The way that love is translated in this context occurs through an attuned therapist, underpinned by their capacity for compassion and the appropriate expression of genuine empathic response. Much depends on the individual case but to evoke in that child the motivation and aliveness needed for rejuvenation and brain optimisation is a key to help them to transcend in whatever ways the work unfolds for them.

When working therapeutically with young people with dyslexia, I factored in their dyslexic issues. Building a therapeutic relationship is key, alongside the dialogue, the use of the arts, play and the multi-sensory ways appropriate to the work. Everyone wants to be understood, to be seen for who they truly are. Yet, to know this about one’s self is a life journey. I take a holistic approach to my work. In my training and experience, understanding child development and working with each individual, usually providing parental support as well, creates a more fruitful experience for enhancing communication, and understanding.

* Erich Fromm (1957) The Art of Loving, re-published (1985) London: HarperCollins Publishers

Painting by J. R. Korpa, courtesy of Unsplash. Photos by Callie Gibson & Noah Buscher at Unsplash.

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