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Asher Meytin: The Problem-Solver

From pre-K through second grade, Asher Meytin attended a Jewish day school where each fall, the kids were asked what they most looked forward to that year. Asher’s number one goal was to learn to read. That was it. But he just couldn’t get it.

Mother and son talk about dyslexia and ADHD

From pre-K through second grade, Asher Meytin attended a Jewish day school where each fall, the kids were asked what they most looked forward to that year. Asher’s number one goal was to learn to read. That was it. In pre-K, his wanted to learn to read. In kindergarten, he wanted to learn to read. In first, and then in second, that was his one goal. But he just couldn’t get it.

“Since babyhood, Asher has been a committed problem-solver. We would give him one of those busy boards and he would sit there, super focused, clicking things together until he figured it out,” says Rachel Meytin, Asher’s mother. “Also, he always loved stories and books and art and so when reading — a puzzle to be solved — became unsolvable, he really struggled. He felt left out, left behind.”

“In second grade I had this copy of The Wizard of Oz. It had a few pictures but mostly words. And I remember I would pretend to read it and if anyone quizzed me on it, I would have to sort of make something up. No one believed me,” says Asher. “It was hard to be the kid still struggling with reading and spelling in second grade when it seemed that everyone else was doing all of that so effortlessly.”

A tough year

In second grade, Asher was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “Getting those diagnoses was a relief and a shock. I mean, my wife, Sarah, and I knew there was a problem but I think it was the realization that Asher had struggled for so long that was the most painful. It had been three and a half years of him desperately wanting to learn and trying and not getting the support he needed because we didn’t have the diagnosis to say this is what you need,” says Rachel. “And on a side note, a month before the dyslexia and ADHD diagnoses, he was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes and celiac disease.

“I think these physical and neurological diagnoses felt bound together for Asher. One did not cause the other, but since they came at the same time, I think Asher felt overwhelmed and he started to show a lot of avoidance in school. He’d go to the nurse’s office a lot. He’d get his insulin shot, which would take five minutes, but he would stretch that into an hour … anything to avoid returning to the classroom. He longed to read with joy and ease, but it was not joyful or easy …”

For Asher, being diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD made him feel better but not for the predictable reason of finally having an explanation for why decoding words and spelling were so difficult for him. “I felt okay about it because of Percy Jackson,” says Asher. “I was a huge fan of the Percy Jackson books, and of course, Harry Potter, too. In Percy Jackson, people who are half children of the gods often have dyslexia and ADHD and that made me feel pretty happy. They were cool, right? I wasn’t happy that I was diagnosed, but it was kind of a it-could-be-worse type of thing.

“Now, even though I still struggle with spelling and decoding big words, I know why. It’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation. If I misspell words or mess up writing or if I misread something, I have an explanation and you can move forward when you have an explanation.”

What dyslexia and ADHD feel like

For Asher, having dyslexia and ADHD can be tiring. And even though, as his mother says, “Asher can make friends with anyone — adult or kid,” his learning differences can sometimes hinder his connecting with people in ways he would like.

“What does dyslexia feel like for me? It can be frustrating. Very frustrating. I’m pretty good with school. Learning comes easily to me except for reading. So, in most classes I’m doing great. For reading, I really have to stop and I have to work hard to do it, which can be discouraging,” says Asher. “And it’s also just exhausting to have to work incredibly hard to overcome something that stops me from interacting with people as much as I’d like. And a lot of the time when I socialize with friends online — playing games and doing online projects together — they assume that I’m a lot younger because I stick to words I know how to spell, baby words basically.”

Dyslexia and ADHD often overlap. In fact, about three in 10 people with dyslexia also have ADHD. And people with ADHD are six times more likely than most people to have a learning difference like dyslexia.

As for ADHD, Asher says, “The best way I can describe ADHD for me is constantly having a coffee or a sugar rush — constant hyperactivity. It can feel completely depleting.” After trying various medications and dosages, Asher takes a low dose of something that seems to be just enough to give him the control that he wants without the side effects.

“I think Asher deals with his ADHD in part by knowing how much he can give socially one-on-one or in groups before he needs downtime to read, draw, or play games on his own,” says his mother. “He understands his needs, I think, more than most kids his age.”

Spinning his wheels

Asher left his Jewish day school, where learning to read and write in Hebrew, let alone English because of his learning differences were beyond difficult. School and homework became colored by anxiety.

For third grade, Asher went to his local public school. It was a tough year.

“My parents thought the Gifted and Talented Learning Disabled (GTLD) program at my elementary school would be a better fit for me since I was having a lot of trouble reading at my Jewish day school and also a lot of anxiety around reading and especially around Hebrew,” explains Asher. “The GTLD program was for kids with any special needs but, at least the year I was there, it included mostly kids with severe autism or really severe anger issues … stuff like that, so it was hard to learn anything. There were 17 of us and I think most of the teachers were new to the program that year. I’m pretty sure the main things that I learned that year were one, pick your friends carefully and don’t be friends with the wrong people because people can be mean. And two, how to read a face clock, which is an important skill, but I don’t think it takes an entire year to learn that.

“I also listened to a lot of audio books for reading, which of course I enjoyed, but looking back, I realize my teachers didn’t encourage me to actually read, to actually build my reading skills. That was probably one of the least helpful things I could have been doing to improve at reading.”

Rachel adds, “The one benefit of his third-grade year was that he didn’t feel like the singled out, struggling kid … he didn’t feel like everybody else could do this and that and he couldn’t. In a sense, not being the most ‘needy’ student in class took a lot of the pressure off socially. But he didn’t learn anything.”

Finally, learning the foundational tools to read

Asher was able to enter The Siena School in fourth grade and finally learned the fundamentals of reading. Like solving a puzzle, there were steps and a foundation to build upon, one brick at a time.

“My main challenges with dyslexia are decoding words that I don’t already know, and spelling. At Siena, we were taught root words, which made decoding words much easier and less mysterious. If you understood what a root like ‘para’ means and know how to spell it, you can read, understand, and spell at least most of the word ‘parallel,’ for example. We also learned prefixes and suffixes,” says Asher.

“By learning the fundamentals, practicing a lot, and only moving on when the basics were mastered, reading started to click for Asher,” says his mother. “He was learning because they were teaching him really specific techniques. It was remarkable to see how much progress he made and how much happier he was.”

On many levels, being at a small school with small class sizes surrounded by teachers trained in language-based learning differences and peers who had similar challenges helped Asher feel more agency around how he learned — what works for him, what doesn’t work so well. For example, he came up with a timer system to make sure he gets his homework done. “I think it was in seventh grade that Asher started setting his phone alarm for 5pm, a strategy he came up himself. On a regular day, he gets home around 3:45pm. Before he implemented his timer strategy, we would have to badger him to settle down and start his homework. We understood he needed a break after school, but oftentimes, we would fight about when homework was going to start and get done, and sometimes I’d get home from work and then it would be dinner time and then it would just get late and he still hadn’t started his assignments. Now, the timer goes off at 5pm and he stops what he’s doing and switches over to his homework. We no longer have to remind him or nag him,” says Rachel. “It’s not perfect; there were definitely times when he forgets to write down an assignment so it doesn’t get done or it’s late, but he has improved exponentially. I am so proud of him for acknowledging a challenge and finding a solution.”

Heading to high school

Asher is “excited and nervous” about heading to Wheaton High School this fall for ninth grade.

“We started talking about switching him to Wheaton for high school and Asher wanted that the minute we started exploring the idea. He got really excited about being able to have the broader choices that a big school can offer — different academic focuses, different electives, more social opportunities. And Asher, Sarah, and I all felt like Asher had made huge strides at Siena and no longer needed quite as much support academically. He started talking to his friends who were already in public school and who could talk enthusiastically about their experience and their excitement about heading to high school. Asher is already enrolled in the Biomedical Academy at Wheaton, something he is pumped about,” says Rachel.

Asher plans to use some of the strategies he learned at Siena at his new school. “One of my best tools is being an advocate for myself. I have gotten good at saying what I need, why I need it, and how I need it. I also learned how to write emails to my teachers with questions and concerns, not be afraid to raise my hand in class if I have a question, and how to be a better communicator overall,” says Asher. “I know Wheaton is going to be a very different learning experience but I know I will ask for help when I need it.”

Decoding and spelling are still challenging for Asher but he is a good reader. When he needs them, he will continue to use tools like a browser extension called “Read and Write” — basically literacy support tools to help with reading and writing.

The Meytins are also working with Wheaton on an IEP based on recent academic testing. “I think it will provide some structure for Asher to get the support he needs,” says Rachel.

And Asher plans to take his parents’ advice. “They told me that the first step to making a big school seem smaller is to get to know people, and the more people I get to know, the smaller the school will seem,” says Asher. “So, I plan to join lots of clubs and also continue with volleyball and tennis.”

Words and pictures

Asher revels in many books and stories, but he is particularly drawn to graphic novels. “I love the style of graphic novels. Yay, there are words … I love reading! But then there are also the illustrations that add another whole layer to the words of the story. You can see and experience the story unfolding in both. You’re reading the story and learning about the characters but you can also actually see the expression on a character’s face or more deeply understand the tone of the story like suspense or joy or dread in the illustrations,” he says. “I love words, but I love seeing the story, too.”

In many ways, Rachel believes that Asher’s having dyslexia and ADHD have made him stronger. “I think it enables — maybe forces — him to be more creative, to explore alternative ways of approaching a problem if the first or second way doesn’t work. I think that sort of problem-solving, which he’s always been really good at, has helped him become more resourceful and creative,” she says. “And I think it’s also made him more understanding and empathetic. Everyone’s got a challenge to work through … and our challenges are only part of who we are.”

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