Raising a dyslexic child: from guilt and confusion to progress

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2011, 12:00am


I would like to tell you about my experience as the mother of a child with dyslexia. According to the Health Department, children with dyslexia have difficulty with word recognition, reading and dictation. Without proper assistance, this may result in a severe disability in acquiring reading skills.

A 2008 study by the University of Hong Kong found that dyslexia affects 7 per cent to 9 per cent of children in Hong Kong, and up to 17 per cent of children worldwide.

My first child, a girl, is a 'normal' child. As an enthusiastic and committed mother, I read books and took courses to equip myself with appropriate parenting knowledge and skills. My daughter learned to read before kindergarten.

I tried to do the same with my son. But he was still unable to recognise all the letters of the alphabet at the age of six. He had difficulties with Chinese, too.

I received many complaints from his kindergarten. They said he was inattentive in class and failed to follow teachers' instructions to complete the writing worksheets.

What the teachers found most frustrating was that he avoided looking at them and refused to respond when they tried to teach him to write and read. He just bowed his head, looked at the ground and sat frozen in his seat.

As his mother, I was incredibly confused. He is a very inquisitive boy, one who loves to listen to stories. He seems to learn a great deal from daily observations and others' life experiences.

He would sometimes make wise and clever remarks that surprised me and his father.

He was a very happy boy when playing, but extremely emotional when doing his homework.

Making him to do his schoolwork and revisions was a daily battle. He couldn't stay at the desk for more than 15 minutes at a time, and it was exhausting to just try and make him to return to the desk to do his homework. Even then, he was reluctant to pick up his pencil.

When he did pick it up, the pencil seemed so heavy that he couldn't write anything with it.

The difficulties made us feel very helpless as parents. Gentle admonitions proved ineffective, and were always followed by angry scolding, then punishment such as cancelling breaks from homework.

While experiencing our anger, helplessness and frustration, my son responded with loud and bitter crying that could last for hours if we continued scolding him.

It was a dark time for our family, and most days ended with a crying son, two exhausted, angry and guilty parents, and a fearful and helpless elder sibling.

Dyslexia robbed our whole family of joy. My identity as a professional social worker further intensified my shame and guilt when I couldn't help my own son.

But my son's diagnosis of dyslexia in Primary Two provided with us a new perspective for understanding his behaviour. Although dyslexic, he was also found to have superior intelligence.

It helped to resolve my confusion as to why he was so clever in conversation but so inept at reading and writing.

The assessment did not provide an instant cure for all our problems. We have taken years to come to terms with my son's disability and our loss of a 'normal' gifted child. He failed nearly all his dictation tests in primary school and lagged behind in his academic results despite support from his teachers.

We are still worried about the long-term effects of dyslexia on his future development, especially with the strong emphasis on academic performance in Hong Kong.

As an ordinary parent, I work hard to save up money for my children, especially my son, in order to provide them with a more secure future.

Despite these anxieties and grievances, we have allowed our son to choose a 'band two' secondary school that has small classes and a good pastoral care system.

This has turned out to be a very good decision.

He completed his first year of secondary school with awards for extensive reading and exemplary service as a librarian.

Although his difficulties in writing persists, my son's interest in reading blossomed after we stopped focusing solely on his academic performance and addressed his special learning needs more appropriately.

Again, it is a taxing process that can't be fully expressed in words. It requires a great deal of patience, persistence and give-and-take. Conflicts often arise among family members due to failures and difficulties in the process.

Knowledge and skills helped, but adequate support and patience dealing with anxiety, frustration, sense of loss, shame and guilt are the most essential factors in successfully raising a child with dyslexia.

Dr Lau Yuk-king is a professional consultant for the department of social work at the Chinese University.