Mumtaz does not like reading. At nine she can manage basic stories, but reading leaves her tired and irritable. Movies and television dramas fascinate her, but even the lure of a well-written story cannot coax her into reading. She does not do storytelling either. The story would unfold with the beginning, middle and end all jumbled up. Then there are the funny words: hopsital (for hospital), strachedy (for strategy). But she was a happy, chirpy kid, always the life of a party, loved by all.
Things began to change as she entered school. Her mother was the first to notice. For an otherwise multilingual chatterbox, she appeared to lack an intuitive understanding of phonics or basic arithmetic. Her vocabulary was lagging, her comprehension lacking. Her father could somehow relate to her better. A successful financial analyst, he still avoids books. He vividly remembers struggling through school, labelled ‘lazy’ by his teachers. His daughter perhaps took after him, but she will figure it out, just like he did. But six months of internal struggle and the undeniable social withdrawal of their bright and happy child drove them to finally approach a child psychologist. The psychologist conducted a cognitive assessment and finally delivered the verdict.
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Struggling to keep it all together
Mumtaz has a specific learning disorder or SLD, in her case, dyslexia. This is a condition that makes it difficult to read and write, often accompanied by difficulties in math. Reading requires (1) decoding or converting symbols into sounds and (2) comprehension or understanding the meaning of words. Dyslexics may have difficulty in either or both. Dyslexics have poor phonological awareness, the ability to recognise similarities and differences in sounds, for example in rhyming words. They may have trouble sequencing; for instance remembering sequences such as days of the week, syllables in a word (hence hopsital), steps in a long division, or the order of events in a story. They may also have a weak working memory such as difficulty in listening to the teacher while taking notes or following their mother’s multi-step instructions. Working memory is like the RAM of a computer, where you temporarily store bits of information to be retrieved for daily activities. Children with dyslexia may look like they are not paying attention, but in reality they are struggling to keep it all together. Dyslexia is a very diverse condition: Mumtaz is one example while young Ishaan in the movie Taare Zameen Par is another, with different combinations of deficits.
For most of our existence we Homo sapiens have communicated verbally. When books were first written, only the scholars needed to read them. As modern societies began embracing universal school-based standardised education, instead of the usual apprenticeship for vocational training, we stumbled upon dyslexia.
Differences in the brain
Dyslexia often runs in the family. Comparisons of genomes of dyslexic people with proficient readers have found changes in many genes that could be associated with dyslexia. These studies are opening new windows into our understanding of how the brain learns. The brain is, however, too complex for us to yet be able to figure out whether these genes have any direct role in reading deficits. In humans, the area known as visual word form area (VWFA — that recognises written words) in the brain is connected to the language region even before children have learned to read. This must be one of those evolutionary inventions that set us up to be linguists and decoders meant for greater things. Comparisons of functional MRI (fMRI) scans of brains of skilled and dyslexic readers clearly show differences in regions related to reading and language processing. But they also show many other differences. Differences in our brain are what make us sociable, moody, imaginative or creative. Thus, these differences in the brains of dyslexics manifest in the way they look at the world, think about and solve problems. Dyslexic individuals are more likely to miss the details while being able to see the larger picture. They may have better pattern recognition and visual-spatial abilities even as they struggle with reading and sequencing. They may be better at dealing with social interactions and managing people. Perhaps these are the traits that helped Albert Einstein and Agatha Christie and Steve Jobs, all dyslexics, to make their mark in the world. But this blooming generally happens after they leave the trauma of school and discover their strengths for themselves.
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Could we forgo this trauma and bolster their strengths in the school itself? Armed with the diagnosis, Mumtaz’s parents entered her into a remedial programme where special education teachers worked with her individually to strengthen her phonological awareness, sequencing and math skills. The school started providing accommodations in the class and gave her extra time and help in understanding the questions during tests. Slowly she began to regain her footing in the school. She is still way behind her classmates in academics, but with encouragement from teachers and parents she has discovered a talent for music and sports. She received this support and help thanks to her getting identified as a dyslexic. Every teacher will agree that there are always a few children in their class who have difficulties with language and math. But these deficits do not get formally identified due to a lack of awareness among teachers and parents. To add to this, privately administered cognitive assessments and remedial classes are very expensive and not within the reach of all.
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Some of these issues can be remedied by making cognitive assessments compulsory in junior school. The National Education Policy 2020 mandates inclusive education for all children with disabilities. It states that teachers should be provided with help to identify children with learning disabilities early, so that these children can be supported from the beginning. It lists out specific actions such as using appropriate technology, allowing students to work at their own pace and making curricula flexible to make education accessible to all. There is now a framework in place to implement such changes in our educational institutions. When inclusive teaching strategies become mainstream, then each student in the class will flourish. A child who believes in herself and feels confident to face her own personal challenges is a child set on a path to success and happiness.
Chetana Sachidanandan is a scientist at CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi and mother of a dyslexic child. Views are personal. October is Dysl exia Awareness Month