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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Dyslexia - How do you cope?

I was recenly asked what the worst element of dyslexia really is. The truth is that for each of us, it is something completely different. I suspect that for people such as myself, born in the 1960's and disgnosed in our late twenties, it is the damaged childhoods. I didn't enjoy school until I went to Orange Hill Senior High School aged 16. At that point, I'd just about developed a coping mechanism for learning with dyslexia. That meant I wasn't automaticallly bottom of the class in every subject, in fact in some I did quite well. Not only that, I'd started to play in a band and had grown to 6'1" so I wasn't too daunted by my classmates.

It was different when I'd started at St Vincents back in 1967. It was only when I had children that I realised that August babies are at a disadvantage. Aged 4, they have been on the planet only 3/4 of the time that their classmates, born in the previous September have. This means they are smaller, less well mentally developed and weaker than their class mates. If like me, their parents start them in Easter, they join a class where friendships have already been made and social bonds are strong. Add a scrawny, small new boy into the mix, it is no wonder that they struggle. If that new boy is dyslexic, then it is even harder. On top of all that, I was actually born six weeks premature, I should have been born on the 6th October, which meant that in biological terms, there were kids over a month older than me in the year below. Given that I didn't start speaking until I was four years old. I wasn't exactly suited to being thrown into a class of 40 children, who were all mates and saw me as an outsider.

I guess in some ways I was lucky. St Vincents school in Mill Hill was generally a school with nice kids from nice families. It didn't take long to settle in and make friends and I don't recall any of my classmates ever bullying me. Sadly the same cannot be said about certain teachers. I wasn't alone and I didn't particularly suffer, if you can consider being subjected to daily abuse being OK. As I child I believed what people in authority told me and when they told me I was a thick useless idiot, I believed them. Being the youngest of six, the refrain of "all your brothers and sisters were always top of the class, why are you so stupid" rang true. Being told I was thick and stupid cured me of acedemic aspirations. In fact, it cured me of any aspirations at all. When I was about nine, a Priest came to talk about vocations. I was very interested in the stories of going off to Africa to bring God to the natives. I can remember asking a question and being told "Roger Tichborne, they only want bright boys for the priesthood". I don't think I'm cut out for the job, but that confirmed it. I remember my parents coming back from Parents evening and telling me that the teacher had told them it was good that my Dad run a car crash repair business, because it meant I had some sort of job prospect.

As well as lack of acedemic achievement, I had a distinct lack of sporting prowess. being the smallest kid in the class didn't help. I have read that Dyslexics can have issues with spatial awareness and balance. I know that these were problems for me. In short, there was another set of failures there. The only sporting success I had in the whole seven years at St Vincents was the egg and spoon race. I figured out a simple strategy. If I ran like the clappers and didn't worry too much about balancing the potato on the spoon, I stood a chance. It worked like a dream, I didn't drop the spud and left everyone else in my wake. A whole host of parents complained that I'd cheated by running. My Dad stuck up for me and said that there was no rule against it. I got the winners gong, for many years it was my pride and joy.

Then there was music. I was told I was tone deaf and had no musical prowess. I used to sing loudly and out of tune. The teacher would play a note and say "This is C". I hadn't a clue what they were on about or why they were doing it. It is true that I'm not a great singer, but I have also found out that I'm not completely musically untalented, but that is a different story.

Rather oddly, there was one thing I was extraordinarily good at. This I found out by accident. I was very photogenic. I became a child model and appeared in whole string of TV commercials, newspaper and magazine adverts and on the front cover of quite a few knitting patterns. This actually also earned rather good money. I starred in commercials for Heinz Beans, Cadburys Dairy Milk, Galaxy chocloate, Lucozade and Tizer adverts. I worked the maximum number of days I was legally allowed to. This all ended in 1970, when my mum developed cancer and was out of action for a couple of years.

Fortunately for me, working successfully as a child model gave me a degree of confidence and maturity, which I doubt many eight year olds possess. Working in commercials exposes you to the workd of adults. Strangely I felt far more comfortable in this world. On a shoot you sit around doing nothing for hours on end, do your takes and then spend another few hours doing nothing. The director tells you exactly what to do. You do exactly what he says and that is that. I found this easy. It was clear, well explained and if you did it incorrectly, people calmly explained what you had done wrong and helped you correct it. Watching other kids audition or on set, I realised that they weren't listening and so were screwing up. Every audition I ever went to, would end up going to myself or another boy called Darren Scott. We ended up being fierce rivals. If Darren wasn't at the audition,  I knew I'd walk it. If he was there it was 50/50. I remember one time devising a cunning plan and giving him a black eye. Bad move, we both got slung out. I realised then that cheating doesn't work.

It is only now that I realise how lucky I actually was. This career gave me a degree of self esteem. I was able to put all of the other stuff to one side. I have vivid memories of my parents returning from another parents evening. A teacher had told them I had "an attitude problem" or words to the effect. Having failed yet again to spell a single word correctly in the Monday morning spelling test, I had been summoned to the front of the class and told to say "I am the most stupid person in the school" or some such thing. The teacher then pointed to the chart showing spelling chart - a piece of car with everyones name and a star for every time you got all of the spellings correct. "you have none, even Francis Holman has one star. You are a dunce, bottom of the class, useless". She then said"Tell me, Mr Tichborne, what have you ever done that you are proud of?". Now I took this as a genuine question and replied "The cadburys commercial that was on telly last night, did you see it?" For that I got hit with a ruler and my parents got a telling off. I explained to my parents what happened and they thought it was funny. That was when I first heard the word "smartarse".

So in answer to the question "how do you cope with dyslexia", the only answer I can give is find something you are good at. Something you can take pride in. If you have a dyslexic child and they are bad at English, Maths and geography, try and find something else. If they don't get music theory, but love music, take them to a teacher who teaches them to play for the love of it. Buy them a camera or a drawing book, or enroll them in drama club. If they seem unhappy and withdrawn ask them why. I try and explain what dyslexia is like to my highly clever and academic wife, she doesn't get it at all and that is an adult telling an adult. Be prepared to not understand, but listen anyway. Be prepared to deal with anger. I am still avery angry person. Also be prepared to have someone who sees the world through different eyes.

I still don't get things, I still struggle to read some documents (although writing clearly isn't a problem). This isn't stupidity. How do you cope, hopefully with the support of people who love you. That is he truth of it. It really isn't easy.

1 comment:

Mrs Angry said...

I can really empathise with this post - funny, isn't it, that similar causes have produced two mouthy Barnet bloggers. Apart from going to the same school + being mentally abused by the same teacher, I was an August baby & suffered exactly the same problems of late development, lack of confidence,and all the other stuff that comes with it. I also have a child born in August, and it was really only when they started school that I realised quite what a profound disadvantage this is, especially as in your case, my child's and my own, we all had an unrecognised learning difficulty - and all three difficult births too - no doubt there is a connection there.

As you say, children often find their own strategies of copiing with such difficulty, and in the long run it makes you a stronger person, but it would be better if the educational system, especially at primary level, made greater provision for children with such problems. The truth is that only children with the most severe learning disabilities - and pushy parents - get any reognition and active help at school, and now, with the announcement last week that millions of children will be withdrawn from the SEN list, thanks to new government policy, the situation is about to get a whole lot worse.