I think I have said before that I teach the dyslexia class at my school. People often ask me exactly what that looks like and how I teach it.
First of all, dyslexia is not just people spelling poorly or reading things backward. There are various and sundry degrees of dyslexia, just like there are various and sundry degrees of myopia or various and sundry shades and colors of red hair. You can be a little dyslexic or a lot dyslexic. It never goes away. You don’t outgrow it. You just learn to cope. . . much like being left-handed in a right-handed world–but way, way, WAY worse.
Unlike seeing a left-handed child struggle to not smear their pencil across a page, diagnosis for dyslexic kids is a difficult thing. We’ve all heard tales from folks who lived many years without glasses, then when they were ten, someone got a clue and took them to the eye doctor. All of a sudden things were crisp and sharp and identifiable rather than just being big blobs of color. Why didn’t they KNOW that trees should have individual leaves? Well, because a tree had been a big, green blog all of their lives. It’s the same things with dyslexic kids. If you don’t KNOW the direction that letters should go. . .or that words have spaces between them, then learning to read makes NO SENSE whatsoever.
Dyslexic kids are, by and large, really, really smart. This is a double-edged sword as they ARE so smart that people think they just “aren’t trying” or are “being lazy.” “You’re so smart. You should be able to do this.” After being told that enough–after failing enough tests–after being in the “blue bird” reading group even though you have the vocabulary of someone a couple of grades ahead much less the yahoos in the “eagle” group–after going as far as your own made-up and unintentional coping mechanisms can take you, you finally give in and go with it. You’re not trying. You’re lazy. You’re dumb.
Add to this another thing called Irlen Syndrome or scotopic sensitivity. This involves the way your eyes process light. Bright light–much like florescent lighting in classrooms–makes it harder for kids with Irlen to read what is on the page. Rather than this being a “reading” issue, it’s a vision issue, but the kids have 20/20 vision. It still isn’t completely understood, but it has to do with the arrangement of rods and cones in your eyes and the processing of the two extremes of white and black on a page. A lot of time these kids will cover their book with their arms or put their book under their desk and rest their forehead on the desk to block out the light. They may even prefer to read in dark rooms or to read only paper back books because of the reduced glare. They don’t know WHY they prefer those things. . .but there is a reason.
To some it’s still a “controversial” topic, but I’ve seen enough to know that it is, indeed, real. Here is an example of how some people with Irlen Syndrome or “SSS” (Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome) see text. The most common complaint is “rivers” in the words. . .where natural breaks that we see move or change. Or the words and letters dance and shake.
More telling than anything was the story of our diagnostician at school. Her job is to test kids for special ed and be in charge of all of the ARDS (meetings regarding special ed kids) and IEPs (federally guarded documents for special ed kids). Her son was having some eye strain and it was determined that he had SSS. When it was being explained to them, they mentioned how the words will sometimes fade out or swirl on the edge of the page. . .the paper will fade from white to gray and back again. R., the diagnostician, said, “Is that not supposed to happen?” She was 33 at the time and had suffered from Irlen syndrome her entire life without knowing it.
And get this. Fifty percent of kids with dyslexia have Irlen Syndrome.
Yep. Not good. Just like dyslexia, you can be a little scotopic or a lot scotopic–it just depends. And you don’t HAVE to be dyslexic to have scotopic sensitivity. The “cure” for scotopic is colored overlays. They are specially developed, blah, blah, blah. . .if you have questions or think you or someone you know might have SSS, I can explain more or point you in the right direction.
I have KNOWN about Irlen for years–literally–and I have taught dyslexic kids AND began teaching the dyslexia class at my school last year. I am familiar, though not an expert, with what red flags warrant testing. I have recommended kids to be tested for both Irlen AND dyslexia during my tenure as a teacher.
So imagine my jaw-dropping, bone-jarring, face-reddening chagrin when during the BIG, FAT MIDDLE of my 3rd session of presenting information about Scotopic Sensitivity (Irlen) Syndrome to the entire staff of my middle school back in August FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, the picture of a boy exploded in my brain. It wasn’t his face that I saw immediately. It was the top of his head. . .because I CANNOT COUNT THE NUMBER OF TIMES LAST YEAR THAT I SAID, “B., put your book on your desk, and pick your head up.” It breaks my heart to think of it–how frustrated I was with his grades despite his intelligence. . .he never turned work in. . .he failed his reading tests. . .but he knew definitions to words that other kids couldn’t even pronounce. “You are smart, B. You just need to TRY. Will you TRY????”
Shortly after I saw the top of his head in my mind, I saw his beautiful aqua blue eyes. . .his white blond hair. . .and his sad, sad face. And he was sad. A lot. And no wonder.
Once school started, I went and found him one day during my off period. I asked him some questions, explained to him what I thought might be the problem, handed him a permission letter for his mom to sign so I could have him tested for SSS even though I don’t teach him this year.
And then I apologized.
I told him how sorry I was that I had not seen what was right in front of my (perfectly healthy) eyes all of last year. . .and I told him that I was going to do my very best to help him all I could. I apologized AGAIN today when I went to tell him that on Wednesday, the district screener will come to test him officially to see if he does, as I suspect, have Irlen.
I don’t need words of encouragement about how I “fixed” my mistake as soon as I recognized it. . .I pray that this is in fact the problem and that we can fix it now before B. goes even one more week thinking it’s just too hard to even begin to try. More than anything, I’m thankful that God showed me the back of that boy’s head as I explained to other teachers what they should look for, because I have NO DOUBT that it was God who did it. And just now, right this second, sitting here typing this, I know why I am back in the district. At least I know ONE of the reasons I’m back. . .if I had been tucked away in a 4th grade classroom in Magnolia, I might have thought of B. I might have even contacted someone to have him tested. But I am right there in the same building. . .I will make SURE he is tested. I am hopeful that if B. IS diagnosed, his mom will let us test his brother who is now in high school. I never taught R. But I know he struggled like B. does. I’ll keep you posted.
In the mean time, say a prayer for B. and for his brother. Say a prayer for the gal in our district who tests kids for scotopic and dyslexia. . .she truly IS an expert and takes her job straight to heart. And say a prayer for the teachers who hold childrens’ very lives in their hands on a daily basis. I am so often blinded by other things–by my own concerns or worries or stresses. I am thankful that God is giving me the opportunity to try and make this right.