|PHOTO: PETER McINTOSH|
Dyslexia has many guises. It can be a cloak smothering one's ability to learn or a platform for achieving great things through pictorial visualisation. CATHERINE PATTISON sorts through the learning disorder's multi-faceted characteristics and talks to education authorities about it, including a Dunedin facilitator of a dyslexia correction programme.
ONE OF four facilitators of the Ronald Davis dyslexia correction programme in New Zealand, Shelley McMeeken (42) knows only too well the frustrations the disorder can bring to people's lives.
Her daughter, Alice (14), had always struggled at school despite being a bright, articulate girl. Mrs McMeeken, of Dunedin, knew Alice had a learning difficulty and refused to believe her increasing protests that she was just dumb.
Alice was eventually diagnosed as dyslexic and Mrs McMeeken was encouraged to read The Gift of Dyslexia by Ronald Davis. Suddenly, things began to fall into place about "why a bright and intelligent person would struggle with school and learning", she says.
After sending Alice to a series of tutors, Mrs McMeeken was reluctant to send her to another but had a feeling the Davis programme might just help.
She travelled to Sydney and attended the programme's fundamentals workshop.
"I was absolutely convinced if I could convince Alice to go, it would be of real assistance."
The McMeekens went to Sydney so Alice could complete the 30-hour intensive course and, shortly after, Shelley decided to take the 12-month course to become a facilitator.
Reading became easier for Alice and her fluency improved dramatically. Her mid-term English mark, for example, went from 42% to 64% in her end-of-year exam after completing the programme.
Learning aside, Mrs McMeeken found her daughter's self-perception was changing.
"Most importantly, her confidence in herself has been restored in a big way."
Looking through a dyslexic's eyes, the letter "p" can be three-dimensional, spinning on varying axes and in different directions.
It joins "d", "b" and "q" as the letters most commonly confused.
But all letters have the potential to warp out of their standard appearance and there are 217 words in the English language which cause confusion because they have no picture. Abstract symbols, like numbers and musical notes, also pose difficulties.
Every person with dyslexia presents with different symptoms, which is why it becomes difficult to diagnose, Mrs McMeeken says.
President of Speld New Zealand Susan Schweigman adds that people with special learning difficulties tend to have a "zig-zag pattern" of intelligence.
"They are very good at some things and not so good at others", she says.
Speld tests for areas of strength and weakness and assigns individual programmes to each person. These can include the use of audio tapes for people who learn better aurally.
The average time for a Speld course is about 18 months and it aims to provide skills for the person to manage their learning difficulty.
While it has its positive results, Speld is not going to transform someone into a genius, Mrs Schweigman says: "But a lot of them go on to do well".
She is aware of recent statistics compiled by a University of Auckland department of psychology researcher which indicate 7.7% of New Zealanders have a special learning difficulty.
But when it comes to visualisation, dyslexics have an advantage over everyone, according to Mrs McMeeken.
"Their mental pictures are similar to 3D virtual movies. They can experience their imagination as reality."
However, education department head at the Dunedin College of Education, Dr John Smith, disagrees that dyslexics have any special picture visualising abilities.
He argues all children are encouraged to associate words with pictures and early-learning books highlight the links between the two.
"I don't go along with this stuff that people have difficulty because they think in 3D or in pictures."
Dr Smith says learning difficulties stem from inappropriate teaching methods and these need to be modified to suit children experiencing problems.
He advocates the Ministry of Education's Reading Recovery programme that targets 6-year-olds and focuses on 30 minutes of daily one-on-one attention.
It has been running for 25 years and had "numerous reports" documenting its successes and failures, he says.
"We don't have all the answers. We would like to think we do but we don't."
However, the Davis programme believes dyslexics have a "roving imagination", and provides a place for it to settle, Mrs McMeeken says. It teaches them how to put their mind's eye in the correct place to be able to focus on reading, writing and spelling.
Mrs McMeeken works through three techniques which are based on "orientation counselling". They address the cause of dyslexia as opposed to the symptoms, she says.
"In essence, I'm teaching these kids the techniques to make sense of the 2D world - that is reading and writing. They are taught to recognise when they need to use their tools or techniques."
Mrs McMeeken insists early intervention is "great" but it is never too late to try the Davis programme.
Sally Jackson, of the Ministry of Education, says no systematic evaluation of the programme had been done and was unable to comment on how effective it was.
Ms Jackson, the special education operational policy and support manager, says "different individuals will have different experiences and views of this course".
"As has always been the case, parents can make choices about any additional out-of-school support they choose to purchase. The Ronald Davis programme is one of many courses offered for people with additional support needs."
The ministry would like to focus on the initiatives already in schools that aid literacy development, such as the systematic training of classroom teachers through literacy and assessment strategies. These increase teachers' skills to better address students' needs, she says.
Unfortunately, lack of detection often means dyslexics begin to develop strategies to avoid having to read or write. Children can switch off and start daydreaming or manifest behavioural problems at school, to draw attention away from their learning difficulties.
If left untreated, dyslexia can lead to depression, Mrs McMeeken says.
Her mission is to empower dyslexics to match their intellect with an ability to read, write and spell confidently.
"The stigma of dyslexia needs to be lifted so that people stop feeling that they are dumb and their self-esteem and confidence are not battered by being unable to keep up in the classroom."
Once mastered, it can be a gift and Mrs McMeeken strongly believes well-known people who have dyslexia got where they are because of it.
"They are not successful in spite of their dyslexia. They are successful because of it. Because of their picture-thinking abilities."
Saturday, 11-October 2003