Read Brian Conley’s story from Creative, Successful, Dyslexic – out now in paperback

Rooke_Creative-Succes_978-1-84905-653-3_colourjpg-printEntertainer, actor and singer Brian Conley reveals the difficulties that dyslexia presented him with at school growing up, and how he channelled his dyslexia to work out what he was good at. Harnessing the ‘visual’ way of thinking that comes with it, he now looks on his dyslexia ‘as a total gift’.

Click here to download his story

Filled with first-person stories contributed by well-known people from the arts, sports and business worlds, this inspiring book proves that dyslexia doesn’t have to be a barrier to success. Indeed, it can bring with it the determination, creativity and outlook needed to achieve all we want in life.

Darcey Bussell CBE, Eddie Izzard, Sir Richard Branson, Zoe Wanamaker CBE, Mollie King, Benjamin Zephaniah, Steven Naismith, Lynda La Plante CBE, Sir Jackie Stewart OBE, Chris Robshaw and others share their stories and advice. A percentage of profit from the book is donated to Dyslexia Action. To find out more about Creative, Successful, Dyslexic click here.

Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide

 Research shows that at least 5% of schoolchildren are likely to have dyslexia.  Children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help and things can go sour when they’re left to fend for themselves. With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that young dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe explains the link between dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.

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School – legally enforced torture

If you were forced to attend school in Japan without the aptitude to understand the language nor pens and pencils to record what is required, you might not mind if it were only for one day. However, imagine you were legally forced to go five days a week for eight hours a day for ten or more years. Is this fair? I’m sure you would agree not. Well this is exactly how a dyslexic feels. They lack the skills and tools to understand school, and are marked poorly by the lack of such abilities. Everywhere they turn, they see books, and the ability to read and write are valued above all other skills. You can appreciate that they could feel helpless and lacked of control in their lives.

To make matters worse, most teachers lack the skills and aptitude to recognise a struggling learner in their classrooms. It must be said that dyslexic children begin to develop self-protecting strategies to camouflage themselves from showing up their lack of skills, especially amongst their able-bodied peers. Such strategies can include: hiding in class, being the class clown to cover up for the lack of abilities, being the class helper to avoid writing tasks, forgetting homework on purpose, and calling in sick to avoid lessons when there are spelling tests or they need to give in homework. They develop sensitive antennas for situations that might highlight their difficulties, and quickly put in place back-up plans to avoid trouble.

It should also be recognised that children sometimes lack the maturity to ask for help from teachers, and get bored waiting in a long line for help. Calling out in class is sometimes seen ‘bad behaviour’ but in reality it is the child asking for help, albeit not in the way the teacher would prefer.

 

Regaining control in a world they can’t control

When dyslexics feel that they have no control over their life at home and at school, and feel like failures at everything they try to achieve, they begin to look for ways to feel better.

We all can recognise comfort eating; maybe a chocolate bar when you feel sad – but self-harm goes beyond this. Food, if taken to extremes can give an individual some control in a world they feel is uncontrollable. They are forced to go to school each day; even though they hate it and are taught in ways they can’t learn. Over-eating and becoming obese can protect them from social situations that might require them to read or write (e.g. reading the bus timetable; reading numbers on a bus to meet up with friends; reading the name of the film being shown at the cinema; reading a timetable etc.). They might take the other extreme and think if they didn’t eat they would be so small and thin that no one would recognise and take note of them.

Others see that drugs are a way to escape the harsh world they believe they live in, so sniffing glue or taking drugs will bring a high that allows them a respite/escape even for minutes from the pain they feel at school and home, being socially excluded or by them not having a job.

Self-harm through cutting allows a sense of control in their lives, it also gives an adrenaline high to the body. It allows an individual to regain control of some aspect of their life, however it can become more dangerous in their pursuit of this natural high. Easy to hide at first but harder as time goes by with constant cutting.

In the extreme, the need for an escape through risk-taking can lead to putting one’s life in even more dangerous situations (e.g. playing on train lines, getting into fights), however it is with attempted suicide that can be shocking in young dyslexics from a very young age of seven years old. They want to escape a world they feel excluded from, they also see the pain and anguish they are putting their parents through and want to save them from further pain. Sadly many dyslexics do take their lives but such deaths are unrecorded as they haven’t left a suicide note, as that would require writing, a task they feel is very hard and they want an escape from.

It is interesting to note that some dyslexics get into fights to break bones, especially arms and hands to avoid writing tests. Such calculated lengths to avoid taking tests should be recognised, along with unrecognised dyslexic children forcing themselves to be sick just before a test to avoid being judged badly in front of peers. The lengths some dyslexics go to preserve what self-esteem they have can be remarkable.

 

What can be done?

  • Schools need to screen and put in place interventions to help dyslexic and other struggling learners.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harming.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Teachers need to read through secondary behavioural manifestations in pupils and look to understand their primary learning needs. What is bad behaviour covering up? Are they lost in class? Have they missed vital stepping stones to learning? Are they using bad behaviour to cover up for their struggle to understand what is required?
  • Parents need to recognise the signs of self-harm and depression in their children, so that they can refer them to specialist teams for help.
  • Parents need to praise the effort, not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.

 

Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

The lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia

With the aim to assist both parents and educational practitioners to recognise the emotional turmoil that both young and older dyslexics face in life, Neil Alexander-Passe illustrates the lifelong social and emotional effects of dyslexia. The author’s new book Dyslexia and Mental Health: Helping people identify destructive behaviours and find positive ways to cope is out now.

 

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What is dyslexia?

To most, dyslexia is the difficulty with words, but in truth the term is misleading. The true effects of dyslexia go well beyond having a difficulty with words and spelling, as it also affects the ability to remember names and facts, balance and the ability to tie shoe laces and tying ties, misreading and misunderstanding the relevance of numbers, to write neatly, and to recall facts once learnt (even from two minutes ago).

 

The young dyslexic

The effects of dyslexia are widespread, and in mainstream education everything the dyslexic has difficulty with is valued highly by teachers and their peers. Can they read fast and write neatly? Well, no. Can they remember spellings for a test? Well, no. Can they recall enough facts to write an essay? Well, no. So a young dyslexic will see their friends and peers perform at ‘normal’ rates and progress smoothly through school, and each year the gap widens. Unless teachers have knowledge of special needs and/or dyslexia, it is unlikely that the young dyslexic will be identified as having learning difficulties or differences.

Studies of teacher training courses and the knowledge-bases of teachers support the argument that most teachers are unqualified to recognise a dyslexic child in their midst. So what happens? The dyslexic child begins to see themselves as ‘abnormal’ and ‘stupid’, which is exactly what they are told, either openly by teachers or by their friends, or indirectly by being put on the ‘stupid’ table with the other ‘slow’ kids. Children know who the clever and not-so-clever ones are very fast, and no matter how teachers dress up mixed-ability classrooms, kids know! In the playground the clever kids mix within their own circles, excluding all the others as misfits.

Each year the dyslexic child falls even further behind their peers, and their common reaction is to give up even trying in class, as no matter how hard they try, they always seem to get the lowest marks. No matter how hard they revise spellings or facts, within minutes or hours such facts or spellings are lost like grains of sand.

Emotionally such failure on a daily or hourly basis is harsh. What can the dyslexic child do in such a hostile environment? Well, many withdraw and develop depressive symptoms to cope, as it’s easier that way.

 

The adult dyslexic

After ‘surviving’ school, maybe without any qualifications to their name, dyslexic young adults are faced with finding a job, or going to college to gain the qualifications they need to start an apprenticeship. They see their peers leave school with 8-10 GCSEs, and all they have is one or two qualifications in unvalued subjects, such as Art or Drama. They see their peers go to university or train up to any career that takes their fancy, but what can the dyslexic do? Do they have a choice? Not with the lack of qualifications they have. Their dreams of being lawyers or doctors are just that, dreams.

Do they either start on a low-level college course to develop their basic skills, take a job in manual labour, or be unemployed – they begin to question their place in society. Can they take their place, or are they excluded from a society that highly values those who can read and write? Once again, they see that withdrawal is a good option to protect their self-esteem, and again depression looms. Many find completing application forms so exhausting that they give up even applying for jobs or benefits, and some even turn to crime to make ends meet.

 

Dyslexics and their families

Parents of young dyslexics are bemused by their child who can orally seem intelligent but just cannot seem to cope at school. They know they work hard but nothing seems to stick. They know that no matter how long they work at writing an essay, it looks messy and rushed. Compared to their non-dyslexic children, they can see their dyslexic child starting to give up, and beginning to withdraw into a shell-like existence.

The dyslexic child begins to question their place in their family; it is almost like they don’t fit in. They begin to question if they were adopted, and many have been known to write ‘help me’ on signs in their bedroom windows, or even run away from home, as they feel trapped by a family that they don’t feel a part of. What does running away achieve? It manifests their anxiety about fitting in. It says to them that it’s better to leave as they don’t fit in, and that their parents and siblings do not understand them. Many keep a packed bag under their beds, even from an age as young as seven, so when the pressure gets too much, they can flee at a moment’s notice. Where do they go? Anywhere, as it must be better than a home that feels more like a prison.

 

What can be done?

  • Schools need to train teachers to recognise dyslexics in their classes. Research suggests that 20% of all school-aged children will have a learning difficulty at some point in their education, and dyslexia is the single most common difficulty. Seen severely in 5% of schoolchildren and another 5-10% more mildly, that’s at least one to two dyslexic children in each classroom.
  • Teacher training needs to teach recognition of learning difficulties.
  • All teachers are required by the UK government to be qualified to teach all children with special educational needs in their classrooms, but most lack this ability, so additional training is urgently required for them to ‘differentiate’ their lessons effectively.
  • Schools need to identify early and provide specialist teaching to children with special educational needs.
  • Schools need to provide counsellors for children who experience difficulty learning at school, as the emotional effects of failure can lead to social exclusion, depression and self-harm.
  • Teachers need to recognise the avoidance by children, ask themselves why, and act to question if there is a learning difficulty or another barrier to their learning e.g. avoiding reading and writing.
  • Parents need to praise the effort not the end result, and support their children to focus on strengths not weaknesses.

 

But don’t some dyslexics survive school and succeed in life?

Whilst it is true that some dyslexics do well in life (e.g. Richard Branson, Keira Knightley, Mollie King, Jamie Oliver, Tom Cruise), researching them you hear the same thing. School was hell and they left as soon as possible. They also highlight that they found something they were good at early on, maybe not school subjects such as English, Maths or Science, but vocational skills such as selling, persuading, acting, cooking, art and design, etc. This allowed them to balance the negativity at school with their ability to out shine their peers outside school. Ongoing research in dyslexia and success has found that each successful dyslexic has a ‘chip on their shoulder’ to prove everyone who ever doubted their ability wrong, to prove that they are not ‘stupid and thick’. They are driven by their school failure and humiliation to do well in life. Even returning to school for their own children is hard for them, they can have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when seeing small chairs, smelling sickly floor cleaner, or seeing drawings pinned up on walls, as theirs were not deemed good enough for presentation.

 

Dyslexics, unless diagnosed and helped early on in their school career, will suffer from varying levels of emotional pain. Be it low self-esteem, self-doubt; withdrawal or running away from home. It is important to recognise that secondary bad behaviour is commonly covering up for primary difficulties, but most teachers are just satisfied by mislabelling pupils as troublemakers and try to move such needy pupils to a different teacher.

 

Neil Alexander-Passe is the Head of Learning Support (SENCO) at Mill Hill School in London, UK, as well as being a special needs teacher and researcher. He has taught in mainstream state, independent and special education sector schools, and also several pupil referral units. He specialises in students with dyslexia, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and autism. Neil has written extensively on the subject of dyslexia and emotional coping and, being dyslexic himself, brings empathy and an alternative perspective to the field. Find out more about Neil’s work here.

Learn more about Dyslexia and Mental Health here.

Read Neil’s other blog post: Dyslexia, self-harm and attempted suicide