As an educational therapist, I’ve worked closely with many parents of special needs children. I’ve seen the struggles that they can face, where oftentimes confusion and despair come from not having a firm, solid shoulder to lean on. Recently, I came across a parent-support group for people with dyslexic children. The initiative—Dyslexia Support Group Singapore—is spearheaded by Christina Tan, a lawyer by training and mother of two, one of whom has dyslexia. I reached out to Christina for a chat and an interview—several areas were discussed, including the difficulties that her daughter (’E’) had faced and what she had done to help ‘E’ overcome them.
I understand that ‘E’ has dyslexia and was diagnosed to be so quite early on. Specifically, what challenges did she face?
For the life of her, she could not process sounds, so there was no point in forcing phonics on her or teaching her how to blend. It didn’t work for her.
My daughter also had low self-esteem. She would bargain for less homework and would often act up when it came to dealing with texts, or when people tried to teach her new words.
I used to send her to I Can Read. When attending classes there, she was often recommended for grade jumps to go up to the next level. When she was in class, she would be perfectly fine, but when you brought her into a one-on-one assessment for the grade jump, she would have meltdowns. She would not even want to look at the text. Her teachers would say that she was okay, that perhaps she was just shy—verbally she was still alright, using bombastic words of which I had no idea where she had learned from, but which she could use in context.
When it came down to reading or asking her to do her homework, she would just throw tantrums and not cooperate. It was only after I had spoken to a friend who was an Educational Psychologist (EP) that started me on the journey to find out if she was dyslexic.
In fact, the diagnostic assessment only happened in December, and in January, ‘E’ was due to go into primary school. Her confidence was at an all-time low, and when my husband and I brought her to the school orientation, she was one of the two students out of the whole cohort who were crying at the time. We decided that no, we were not going to let her start school in this state.
How did you overcome the initial challenges?
We went to a private EP, and by March, we got the diagnosis that she was dyslexic. Straightaway after that we gave her intervention, including Occupational Therapy (OT) intervention and the Davis Dyslexia Correction Programme from the US, which had done wonders. I started by reading the book (written by Ronald D. Davis) first, and just basically devoured two of his books within the week. After that, I spoke to some parents who put their children through that programme; from there, I sent my daughter to a facilitator, and the rest is history.
Because we took her out for a year, I was able to get her to start from scratch with what I had not been able to do. She picked up her English language skills from I Can Read; I didn’t specifically teach her other than to provide the means for her to go to the enrichment centre. When I discovered the Davis Dyslexia Correction Programme, I was the one giving the coaching at home, at the same time teaching myself. Within the short span of six months, she was taking off and was up to speed with her reading at her chronological age.
When she went to Primary school the year after, she was on par with her peers and was just learning the subjects, no more having to deal with the issue of dyslexia. It was basically corrected and out of the way.
It’s a very brave and well-calculated move that you and your husband decided to put her off one year of primary school.
We didn’t even think twice. It was not even about dealing with the typical social expectations. I had none of that baggage, but ‘E’ did. Until today, she is still not very forthcoming in telling people that she’s dyslexic when people ask about her extension of time or going to a different room when sitting for exams. Maybe as she grows older, she will come to terms with it, and we have been really reinforcing in her that dyslexia is not a branding of stupidity or anything like that. By and by, she came to know that famous people like Jamie Oliver and even our own local celebrity chef, Chef Heman, are dyslexic, but hey, they’re doing well.
She will probably come to terms once she internalises it. Once we removed the barrier to learning, learning just became that. It’s not dealing with the underlying condition anymore, it’s just dealing with whether or not she’s proficient in the subject. It’s just dealing with what neurotypical people do. If you’re not that good at math and you have problems understanding it, okay, then you need help with math, but it’s not from the angle of dealing with dyslexia as the underlying cause. It’s dealing with the subject as a lack of understanding it, or not grappling it.
What really resonates with me here is that the mainstream is not necessarily right in its beliefs. Society’s cornerstones are institutionalised by ourselves.
I’m never about chasing the fact that you need to start school at the age that you’re supposed to, so this pulling her out was a no-brainer for us. We didn’t have to agonise over it, because to begin with, we’re not one of those parents who would say that by this age, if you’re eligible for Primary 1, you have to go into Primary 1. A friend told me that in the American system, if you’re a December kid, you will not be admitted into the same year as the other kids who are before you of that year. You will go in the following year. Our system does not have that, and doesn’t touch on all these things. That’s what’s lacking.
I understand you’re starting a support group for parents. What was the spark behind this initiative?
I was browsing through the KiasuParents forum, and was pleasantly surprised to find a thread on dyslexia, so this thought just basically popped into my head, to put a parent support group out there. I haven’t seen any dyslexia support groups officially out there, and even if you do an Internet search, you can’t find any as well. On KiasuParents, I saw so many people expressing helplessness, not knowing what to do; there would be one parent advising another parent, and you would have other professionals (such as EPs and therapists) jumping in and saying that they could help. I think if we can do it from more of an impartial point of view, perhaps it will help parents to address their concerns.
What are your goals for the parent-support group, and how do you hope to achieve them?
I’m just trying this out, and I’m not sure how it would go. So far I’ve had four parents who had written in to me, but it’s just pretty much advice over the phone, so it really depends. It’s really driven by the people who want to be a part of it, and what they envisage it will be too.
Having said that, at least I’ve been through the journey and I’ve had success stories, rather than just me groping in the dark, roping in other parents and being the blind leading the blind. That’s the value that I hope to add. I think the support group will be a good way for parents to come to terms with dyslexia, rather than being another source of one parent frightening another. It’s really from one parent with a success story, of how she actually walked through the journey and was able to put all the pieces together, reaching out to other parents to offer help.
Which is important because some parents can be quite lost when it comes to finding ways to cope with their children’s learning difficulties.
Some can be, it depends. I am the type of person whereby if there is an issue, I will face it and deal with it, take the bull by the horn, as they say. It doesn’t intimidate me as much, and I don’t get cold feet.
A lot of times, the solution is out there. The onus is on the parents to actively find it, and they need to demonstrate an active willingness to help their kids overcome it rather than be in denial.
I guess it depends on how some people see it. Some may see it as a rather crippling diagnosis. I was rather fortunate to have found a programme that actually worked for my daughter, and so it made the journey a lot less painful; we were able to see success within a short span of time. In that sense, I must say it hadn’t been a painful journey for me. It was a learning journey and it had a steep curve, no doubt, but it actually forced me to read as much as I could, to question how and what kind of programme was best suitable, and to also question the logic behind it. Being a lawyer by training, what I really look for is the evidence that supports the arguments, to make sure that it really answers the questions that I have.
Do you have any advice for parents of children with special needs?
Do not be in denial. It’s about not creating excuses for yourself; at the end of the day, if your kids don’t achieve as well as they should because you had felt that they were just a slow developer, or that they would outgrow the challenges, guess whose fault it is? It’s your decision to make. Sooner or later, you will recognise the underlying problem; by then, hopefully it’s not too late, and there will still be a solution.
Be master over the situation. Read as much as you can and understand what you are dealing with. With knowledge comes empowerment, and empowerment will lead you to make decisions that meet your child’s needs. Do not go for what the majority of people go for, especially when it comes to intervention programmes, if knowledge tells you it does not work. Trust your own instinct. The herd mentality may not always be right.
Many thanks to Christina for her time and for sharing her experiences. To find out more about Christina’s parent-support group, you can reach her via Dyslexia Support Group Singapore’s Facebook page.