I read with great interest the newspaper coverage on the latest Ofsted report which claimed that half of special needs children are misdiagnosed as this is a topic which is fairly close to home.
A few years ago I was asked to go and speak about confidence to an adult dyslexic group. What took me aback during our interesting and lively discussion was how much they attributed everything they found negative or challenging about themselves to their dyslexia. This intrigued, and disheartenened, me. Much of what they saw as emanating from their dyslexia I generally saw as linked to personality. For example, many of them argued that they found being organised difficult because they were dyslexic. However, there are lots of disorganised non-dyslexics around and I know a few people who are dyslexic and are organised.
This topic was of particular interest to me as I’m dyslexic myself. I didn’t find this out till I was in my early 40s. Both my sons had been referred to an educational psychologist when they were around 7 or 8 who said that they had some form of learning difficulty. Prior to this I would have said that I had been a ‘late developer’: my performance in primary school was very erratic and I could come either near the top or bottom of the class. Primary school teachers could accuse me of being ‘lazy’ when in fact I tried very hard most of the time and just didn’t get a great result. But while I spent much of my primary school years feeling anxious about learning this seemed to pass when I got to secondary school and learning just started to get easier. The diagnosis of dyslexic for both my sons started me wondering and sure enough when I was tested by an educational psychologist he said I was undoubtedly dyslexic. This then made sense of my father’s experience as well. He is an intelligent man yet finds reading a challenge, prints everything and has been known to give out jars of his home-made rhubard jam.
After my session with the dyslexic group I really started to wonder whether having escaped the dyslexic label until I was 40 had actually been an asset to me. As I had no bit of paper which suggested that I couldn’t learn anything or which predicted that I would struggle with learning particular things I had no internal or external script which encouraged me to give up or feel fatalistic. An additional advantage for me is that I grew up in the 1950s in the days of playing outdoors, ball games and skipping. All that chanting, counting, and rhythm was no doubt great for aspects of brain development which some modern kids may lose out on.
When Dr Norman Doidge did his lecture for the Centre on The Brain that Changes Itself he reported that the people who were least keen on his message were the special educational needs lobby – particularly those involved in dyslexia. He thought that the reason was that they have struggled to get dyslexia recognised as a condition which affects learning and have won all type of concessions and supports such as scribes or additional time in exams. Doidge’s message on brain plasticity challenges this as it suggests that dyslexia might be something which may be ameliorated, or rendered irrelevant, by special exercises which strengthen brain function. Indeed he reported on the work of a neuroscientist called Barbara Arrowsmith Young who herself had acute learning difficulties. She has now identified 19 different ‘learning dysfunctions” which can inhibit normal learning and she has created exercises to strengthen these weak areas of the brain.
I have little doubt that being dyslexic can make people’s lives fairly difficult and that a diagnosis and specialised support can be a lifeline. However, I’m also convinced that too liberal a use of labels is ultimately counterproductive and that many children would benefit more from good teaching methods and support and personalised learning than they would from being told that they have special educational needs.
Carol Craig is the Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and the author of three books including. She is the driving force of the Centre, constantly seeking new and innovative ideas to ensure that it maintains its leading role in the field of confidence and well-being. She blogs on www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/carolsblog.php