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Personal Stories

From Dyslexia to Dreams - A Parent's Story

By: Raymond Gibbons

Like every parent of a dyslexic child, we have a story to tell. We are fortunate that our story seems to have a happy ending. John is currently U.S. Junior Modern Pentathlon Champion and en route to compete in his fourth World Championship. He has a decent chance to compete for the USA in the 2012 London Olympics. As importantly, he has just successfully completed his first year in business studies here in England at Northampton University. The road has not been easy, but the dream is alive.

At nine, John was already four to five years behind in reading. His teachers said he was inattentive and disruptive. We were totally unaware that he was dyslexic until one of his teachers explained, almost in passing, that this pattern of behavior was relatively common in dyslexic children. No one had ever thought to tell us he was dyslexic, and there had been no obvious signs of problems outside school. His coaches at the local swimming club had found him extremely hard working and easy to deal with. At, home he had seemed bright and eager to learn, if not the early reader we had hoped for.

Once the problem had been identified, my wife I faced some tough choices. We decided our best role would not be to provide our son with learning assistance ourselves, but to source and manage the help he needed. We were not wealthy, however. And, having been brought up in the U.S., I was not familiar with the "way things are done" in England. My ignorance certainly placed the burden on my British-born wife to work the system.

John's state-run primary school was only able to offer a few hours of supplemental group reading sessions a week and transferring John to an independent (private) school was beyond our means. My wife was able, however, to find a tutor who specialized in learning difficulties who was able to see John for two hours, three times a week during school hours. John's headmaster courageously bent the rules to allow him to leave school and, while my wife had to leave work to shuttle John back forth, John responded well to the tutoring. Within two years he was able to achieve a score of Average on the standard tests administered to primary school students in the UK. And, believe me, that was an achievement.

We were also fortunate to have friends and family members who had experience with dyslexia to offer us support and advice. My sister in Nashville, for example, suggested we take him for an eye exam as soon as possible. We did, and the doctor who treated him specialized in assessing dyslexia and related problems. He not only corrected John's vision problems, he offered insights which greatly increased our understanding of John's particular form of dyslexia. In particular, he stressed that this was a life-long problem and we would need to develop long-term strategies to build on John's strengths in order compensate for his weaknesses.

Perhaps the major decision we made was based on that advice. John was, like many young boys, a real sports nut. He was a particularly good swimmer but, we asked ourselves, would the time he was spending swimming be better spent on extra work for school? At end of the day, we decided that his most important need was to feel good about himself. He needed some shield against the "stupid" taunts he was getting from other children. John's obvious strength in swimming gave him a healthy bit of "street cred" with his classmates. And, achieving results in the pool gave him belief that real effort could produce results outside the pool as well. Moreover, the pool work boosted his overall fitness and was something he enjoyed enormously.

Perhaps most fortunately of all, we found financial support to be able to send John to an independent upper school with a very strong special needs program. While attending this school, he found his real vocation in sports - the pentathlon. It was not an obvious choice, since he had never previously ridden a horse, much less held a pistol or epee. And he was competing against boys who were receiving substantial financial and training support.

But, for everyone who tried to get him or us to lower expectations, we found another who was prepared to believe. His special needs teacher, for example, dusted off his fencing kit after a 30-year layoff to help him during lunch hours. And for every teacher who advised against continuing his studies at university, there was another who made him believe in himself and work to achieve what he was really capable of. It hasn't all been success. He started studying sports therapy at university, but found the Latin terminology and emphasis on rote learning were playing to his weakness. Fortunately, by shifting to business studies he has found a course much more suited to his strengths.

There has been a good deal of luck involved in his success. He was lucky to have talents which could be developed to compensate for his weaknesses. He was lucky to have parents committed to his success. We were lucky to find a great deal of advice and support. But I sincerely believe he and we have deserved some of that luck by pursuing a successful strategy. We did not get bogged down in weaknesses, but found strength in success and I hope sharing our story can help others deal with the kinds of difficulties faced by dyslexics.