Don’t deny – defy dyslexia
The day Steve Jobs died my son came home from school and asked me:
“Can I also please be dyslexic like Steve?”
Dumbfounded I stared at him as he rambled on about Steve Jobs, about Mac and how “awesome” it was.
Technological icon Steve Jobs left behind a silver bitten apple, a legacy of hard work and most importantly a realisation that learning differences are a gift – not a stigma.
Nobody truly knows the origins of learning differences. The spectrum is wide and deep, ranging from low attention span, weak memory, speech problems, auditory issues, literacy and numeracy challenges, vestibular and cognitive development and social interaction to behaviour issues this wide umbrella is widening at a startling pace and deepening at an alarming rate. Genetics, diet, environment, academic pressures and competition are all contributing to this increase. Yet the most resonating factor is denial from parents.
Children with learning differences have been wrongly associated with the inability to succeed. Such children are not intellectually impaired. Despite increased awareness, stereotyped beliefs continue to linger that children with learning differences are “slow and clumsy” and will not be able to survive mainstream class environments. Long before children were labeled as plain simple “lazy”, “dumb”, “de-motivated”; these “late bloomers” were shoved aside - simply because they could not read and comprehend as well as the other children. The symptoms have always been there, but the language has changed giving rise to names like dyslexia, dyspraxia, and sensory processing disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD)/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – which, admittedly, do sound incurable. They may be irreversible, but early intervention and treatment can certainly equip the child with tools and strategies to tackle their learning differences with ease.
A decade ago, most developed countries were struggling to accommodate children with learning disabilities and differences in their homes, school systems and corporate structure. Things have dramatically changed since then. The increase in awareness has given rise to new challenges, methods, tools and solutions to handle children with learning differences. Most importantly the task is being handled at the government level, where organisations with the help of the government are able to channelise their vision, conduct teacher-training programs and essentially build up a learning support system for the educational sector.
Pakistan is challenged
Karachi has a total of two private educational consultancies – one of which is ‘READ and CARE’ - who are struggling to attend to children with learning differences, churn out enough teachers to support the learning system and generate enough funds to expand further. Lahore has one institution, the ‘Lahore Centre for Children’ that again does not have enough resources to train staff and manage the influx of struggling children.
A child with learning differences can be detected as early as 18 months – simply by the parent.
“Go on your maternal instincts,” says Huma Durrani– a mother of an autistic child, a teacher and an art therapist.
When the child is born, the two most important behaviours he/she exhibits are sleep and feeding; if either or both are disrupted parents should take notice. Simple cues like milestone delays, speech problems, regulation, behaviour and last but not the least social interaction is enough to give the mother a head start. If a teacher reports that a child is struggling with identifying numbers, alphabets or poor memory the parents should be alerted. They must seek professional help. Early detection is instrumental in the well being of the child and family unit as a whole.
Don’t be ashamed
It is essential for the parents to mutually realise and embrace the challenge. “When parents seek professional advice they often hope that they might be wrong,” says Alvin Chan, occupational therapist at KIDZ POTC, Singapore.
Initially, parents go through guilt, denial and negativity. The sooner you bypass this natural phase the sooner the child will benefit from the support system. Parents must realise that they will always remain the prime advocates for their child, irrespective of the treatment offered and attained. “All we ask of you is to just be a parent,” insists Alvin.
If the parent is able to prepare the child through different environments, that child, with moderate to severe issues, might function a lot better compared to a child with mild issues with parents who don’t accept or send the child for therapy.
“Stop being ashamed of your child,” further reiterates Huma.
The problem lies with parents who deal with the situation miserably and not with the child.
It is advisable for the parents to consult, preferably educational or clinical psychologists or even pediatricians for the task at hand. Once the child is assessed, the psychologist writes up a report and refers the child to an educational consultancy. The consultancy then allocates the child to a learning support teacher who devises a customised plan for the child and the therapy begins.
“These children will definitely make progress, they are extremely capable, they are intelligent, they have thoughts and ideas – only find it difficult to express themselves on paper” stresses Samia Azmi, an educational consultant at Brain Train, Singapore.
The parent remains the most important member of this remedial team – working in conjunction with the teachers and therapists. It is absolutely pertinent that this marriage works well in harmony, sensitively, for the child’s well being, confidence and academic performance to truly bring out unearthed potential.
Undeniably, one of the most challenging factors remains academic pressure and competition. As much as the parent is supporting the child, offering therapy and professional help unless the education system is revamped such gifted children will be squeezed, crushed and stepped down all their lives. The highly wired up class environment plays havoc with these lateral thinkers and is not conducive to their natural development. Important thing to realise and believe is that academic achievement of the child is not indicative of his/her intelligence levels. These children need their own space and time to develop and perform. Parents and educators alike need to provide the appropriate surroundings for the child to bloom.
Awareness and knowledge in Pakistan is required across all boards as far as learning differences are concerned – ranging from medical professionals, nurses, parents and last but not the least teachers and heads of educational institutions. As Huma shares her personal experience with her eldest son she regretfully admits that his problem would have been detected much early on if the pediatricians in Lahore were more in tune with the issue.
“If only they (doctors) were slightly more switched on”.
She insists on taking action the moment you feel things are not right.
“Please don’t lose out on the crucial time – the brain is so malleable at that stage – you can do wonders”.
Pakistan faces a dearth of professionals who can help out such children. We need pediatricians to be in-sync, developmental psychologists to brief new and would-be mothers, educational therapists for early detection and occupational therapists for treatment. The issue is magnanimous and Pakistan has no means or resources to fill up the gaping hole.
Unfortunately, the only few institutions helping out, charge exorbitant amounts of money for therapy. Hence, learning differences have become more of an “elitist complexity”. Rightly so, because the lower income stratum is barely surviving on a meal a day let alone sending their children to school and then also detecting learning challenges. At the private level, a certain part of the population is being treated; however, the root remains dry and parched.
The state owned schools’ basic infrastructure is poor, classrooms are crowded, there is a dearth of qualified personnel – addressing issues like learning differences is a far cry at that level.
“Pakistan, at the state level, is just trying to put up walls around schools and keep them up,” rightly points out Samia.
We need help from the government to set up awareness programs across villages, hospitals and schools – through talks, literature and media. Spread knowledge about early detection cues, healthy diet, and role of genetics and range of therapies available. The need of the hour is to set up educational consultancies run by professionals, set up a complete learning support system for the educational sector and conduct nationwide teacher training programs. And last but not the least set up parent support groups – for this might seem as an insurmountable challenge but with help, advice, patience and perseverance it is achievable.
Until we have adequate professional help, parents can be the only resource, help and therapists for their children. Parents can provide them with the adequate nutritional and sensory diet, normal conducive environment and above all deal with the matter with utmost patience – for the gift will take time to unwrap!
As the most recent statistics go, one child in every four is caught in a learning challenging warp, struggling to fight out, and we as parents might be the only way to assure our young and intelligent bloomers that help is on its way!
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.