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Irish teen Matthew Cassidy (13) on coping with dyslexia and overcoming the difficulties


Mathew Cassidy, who suffers with dyslexia, with his mother Jennifer.  Photo: Tony Gavin

Mathew Cassidy, who suffers with dyslexia, with his mother Jennifer. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mathew Cassidy, who suffers with dyslexia, with his mother Jennifer. Photo: Tony Gavin

When Matthew Cassidy (13) does his homework, it's never a case of dashing off an essay or flying through a batch of sums before rushing out to kick a soccer ball.

On the contrary, it usually involves a two-hour session of intense concentration, with his supportive mum Jennifer Cassidy (33) by his side. The reason is Matthew has dyslexia.

According to Rosie Bissett, CEO of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland (DAI), this is "a specific learning difficulty which makes it hard for some people to learn to read, write and spell correctly. It is typically characterised by inefficient information processing. Difficulties in organisation, sequencing and motor skills may also be present. Approximately one in 10 people in Ireland have dyslexia."

So every day, Matthew battles to make sense of data that most people would process with ease. However, he is lucky in one sense, because his mother understands the hurdles he faces. "I was tested at the age of seven, and was found to be a 'bit slow' at reading," she volunteers. "I struggled big time with spelling and comprehension, but there was very little help when I was at school."

Jennifer got by with the help of grinds and a laborious process of audio learning. "I'd have to read the text aloud, then write it down," she explains. Getting into a panic when she knew she was going to be asked to read out loud was also a frequent occurrence. Because of all these difficulties, Jennifer's self-esteem took a battering. Nonetheless, she got her Leaving Certificate and went to college to become a Montessori teacher. And it was there that her problems were finally given a name.

"One of my tutors picked up from an assignment that I was dyslexic," says Jennifer. "She noticed some of my letters were written backwards and certain spellings were completely wrong. At Montessori, they use a really efficient system to help children to learn to read. Thanks to this method, I read a book for the first time at the age of 19. It was a Harry Potter, and I haven't stopped devouring books since." She was also advised to use a computer for her course work and make use of tools such as spellcheck.

By the time Jennifer went to college, she was already three months pregnant with Matthew. But she was so determined to "get an education", the day after he was born, she discharged herself from Holles Street to do a test at college. When the examiner invited her to take a seat, she had to explain that she actually couldn't sit down.

Soon after Matthew started at Oatlands Primary School in Stillorgan, south Dublin, Jennifer realised that he too was struggling, so she brought it to the attention of his teacher. She was told that he would be assessed when he was seven years old - by which time most children would have grasped the rudimentaries of reading and writing.

"The week-long assessment was done in the classroom and in the playground," says Jennifer. "It also involved his peers and teachers, while various skills were looked at, including comprehension and spelling."

A meeting with all those involved in Matthew's education then took place. "We needed to know we were all reading from the same page," she explains. On a scale of one to 10, Matthew was close to the bottom, at one-and-a-half to two points. So appropriate interventions were put in place then.

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Jennifer has nothing but praise for the support that she has received from the teachers and especially the principal, Ber O'Sullivan. Every day, Matthew has a session of learning-support maths and another for reading. In the evening, Jennifer spends an hour with him doing his official homework and another hour doing additional exercises in an effort to improve his skills. And though he was given an exemption from learning Irish, he continued with it until Fifth Class, because an aunt, a fluent Irish speaker, was helping him.

"I wanted him to keep on with it in case he wanted to get a job teaching or in the civil service," explains Jennifer. But eventually Matthew dropped the subject. "It got too much," she says. "Homework was already an uphill battle."

Explaining what dyslexia means to him, Matthew says there are profound problems of interpretation when it comes to what he sees on the page. "I can look at a word and it makes absolutely no sense to me - I can't even work out how to say it," he says. "Yet, it's just a normal word for most people. My brain interprets what my eyes see differently to most."

Jennifer agrees. She says a friend came to visit recently and noticed that Jennifer was reading a word incorrectly. Then Matthew tried the same word and he saw it in yet another way, but both mother and son were totally wrong.

No one understands more than Jennifer how important it is that Matthew reaches his full potential, and there is no doubt whatsoever that she will move heaven and hell to make things right for her son. So she is quite prepared to fund him to attend the DAI's weekly workshops in Sandymount. "They help them build confidence," explains Jennifer. "They are all paired with a peer, or they work one-to-one with a teacher. It does Matthew so much good to be with other children who have similar problems - to know he's not the only one." She says this extramural tuition and coaching costs €700 a year and is worth every penny. "I'd scrimp and save to keep him there, no matter what," she says vehemently.

Apart from his bright and totally dedicated mother, Matthew has other supporters, including his teachers, his grandparents, Rita and Brian Cassidy, and his brother Alex (5). Thanks to all their different inputs and interventions, Matthew's score has now jumped to four-and-a-half to five points.

He, in turn, is also a supporter - but a supporter of a very different kind. He is a big fan of Chelsea Football Club and has been to see them play. He's also a keen player himself and his ambition is to play professionally with his idols.

Given that he is a most cooperative and hard-working student, who squares up to every single obstacle he faces, and does so with an intelligent and mature attitude, there can be no doubt that if it continues to be his dream, Matthew will indeed have a strong chance of playing for Chelsea FC one day.

The DAI's European Conference takes place on Saturday, April 25 at UCD. For more information, contact the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, tel (01) 877-6001, or see dyslexia.ie/conference

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