Thursday 18 October 2018

A different wiring

All most of us know about people living with dyslexia is that they struggle to read and write. But Sascha Roos tells Joy Orpen that some very prominent people are successful precisely because they have dyslexia

Author Sasha Roos. Photo: Mark Condren
Author Sasha Roos. Photo: Mark Condren

Joy Orpen

When Sascha Roos set out to publish her first book, she discovered that writing the text was only the very first step. She also needed to consider the spacing, the font style and size. That's because her aim was to deliver valuable insights into what it means to see the world differently - as people with dyslexia often do. But her target market was also important. "Given that dyslexia is genetic in origin, my book is intended for the parent of the dyslexic child, who may also have dyslexia," she says. "So it has to be visually appealing, with plenty of spacing, bullet points and illustrations."

So what is dyslexia? "People with dyslexia have difficulty learning to read, write and spell," says Sascha. "However, these difficulties are not consistent with their overall intelligence, which tends to be average or above-average. They may also find it difficult to process certain information, while learning by rote may be affected by short-term memory difficulties."

Given that one in 10 of us has dyslexia, it makes sense to learn about the topic so we can help those who live with dyslexia achieve their full potential. And potential is there in abundance. Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Albert Einstein, WB Yeats, Richard Branson, and Whoopi Goldberg all lived, or live, with dyslexia.

Another notable is Steven Spielberg, who, in a 2012 online interview, said he had only learned he was living with dyslexia five years previously. "Finding out [I had it] was the last puzzle part in a tremendous mystery," he says. "At school, I was two years behind the rest of the class [in reading]. And that led to teasing. I dealt with it by making movies," he says.

According to Sascha, no one should underestimate the abilities of people with dyslexia. "It's no accident that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were so successful. Having dyslexia usually means seeing things differently and being a great problem solver. These entrepreneurs are successful because they have dyslexia - not in spite of it. People with dyslexia are coming out - it's now cool to have dyslexia.

She adds, "Luke, a former student of mine, said, 'Because of my dyslexia, I think differently to others'. He's now a successful engineer in Tokyo. Katie, another of my students, who achieved a first-class Masters in economics and enterprise development, said, 'Dyslexia has given me skills. I like my dyslexia'."

So breaking down stereotypical assumptions and providing guidance for those affected by dyslexia is a driving force in Sascha's motivation in writing At Home with Dyslexia. Yet, when she first arrived in Cork from her native Cambridge, some 20 years ago, becoming a specialist in learning techniques did not feature on her radar. She had, in fact, come here to teach English in a language school.

But a short while later, she decided to study guidance counselling at University College Cork, and that's when a friend suggested she become a dyslexia tutor. So she did a training course with the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, set up her own private practice, and hasn't looked back in two decades.

She says the best indicator that something out of the ordinary is going on with a child is a parent's own gut instinct. If they believe their child has a lot of potential but is struggling with routine and classroom tasks, then they should seek professional help.

"Even though most people with dyslexia have above-average IQs, they often work four times harder than anyone else, just to keep up. They need more time to process information, to read, and to get things down on paper," she explains.

She says indications that dyslexia might be a factor include difficulties recognising different sounds in words. Another telling factor is the child who is verbally articulate, but who is unable to transfer that ability to their written work. People with dyslexia often have trouble remembering things, because their short-term memories are often affected. They may experience difficulty following routines, organising their daily lives, obeying instructions and repeating messages. They may also struggle with rote-learning tasks, such as maths tables, spellings and the alphabet.

Sascha says supportive interventions are key. "The skill of reading can be a huge challenge, which can affect the person with dyslexia throughout his or her life. However, early recognition and intervention can make an enormous difference," she says. In her private practice, Sascha takes a holistic approach. "I deal with the whole person - their self-esteem, as well as approaches to learning," she says.

That usually includes giving people tools to help them imprint on their brains (which appear to be wired slightly differently to most) information that is essential in their day-to-day lives. For example, a child has an exam coming up, and is struggling to remember key components. Sascha will help that child put Post-it notes with key words on them all over the walls. The child is then free to move around, examining the Post-its, singing or drumming the words; doing whatever works for them.

Movement is often important. "People with dyslexia fidget a lot; they like to move around and they talk a lot," explains Sascha. "They can be seen as disruptive in the classroom, but what they really need is understanding and support. One of my students learned her spellings as if she were chanting like a cheerleader. Others find it helps to do origami while studying.

She adds: "Unfortunately, schools often focus on auditory approaches to learning, rather than visual and kinaesthetic approaches, which are often more suited to students with dyslexia. They desperately need other ways of being, so they can absorb information that is vital to them, if they are to achieve their full potential - which, in many cases, could be quite considerable."

She says many of these challenges can be overcome. "The teen with dyslexia can access the written word via ever-advancing technologies such as laptops, spelling and grammar apps, speech-to-text software and hand-held spellcheckers. These all help them display their actual abilities and potential. Encouraging their own multi-sensory learning style and tapping into their inherent creativity will help them on a smooth progression through school and beyond."

However, Sascha says people with dyslexia must be supported so they can gain the confidence they need to do well. "Parents must be advocates for their children," she says. "They need to ask what supports their child can get at school. They need to constantly remind teachers that their child has dyslexia, and they need to educate themselves so they can educate the teachers about dyslexia."

Probably the very best place to go if you need accessible, user-friendly information, and a whole plethora of sound, practical guidance about how to help a child with dyslexia, is Sascha's fascinating and insightful book.

'At Home with Dyslexia' by Sascha Roos is published by Robinson, and costs approximately €15. For more information, see Sascha's website, dyslexiasupport.ie

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