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Don’t write off children with dyslexia

Abu Dhabi: Mohammad was 13-years old when a teacher told his mother Ms. Shereen Al Nowais that he might be dyslexic.

“My son was a smart, happy and active boy, but when it came to school he became reclusive and sad, spent extra time on his assignments, mispronounced words and had poor reading, spelling and handwriting skills,” the 34-year-old Emirati said.

The turmoil of seeing her son frustrated prompted Shireen to look for ways to help him. “I travelled to the US and paid around $2,800 for a three-hour assessment in English. Experts identified his disabilities, wrote a 20-page report and recommended ways to overcome his dyslexia,” Shireen said.

Dyslexia in children goes largely unnoticed in the UAE as there is not sufficient awareness or statistics on it either at home or school.

According to a study published by UAE University in September 2011, 459 of 2,500 Emirati university students had symptoms consistent with dyslexia.

The study was conducted to investigate the prevalence of dyslexia among female students attending the university in the academic year 2007 – 2008.

The findings suggested that the prevalence of features consistent with dyslexia is 17.6 per cent among female Emirati university students, that they experience these difficulties in both English and Arabic, and that they tend to choose courses that are more job-oriented.

The findings of the study confirmed the occurrence of dyslexia among higher education students in the UAE and highlight the need for systematic screening programmes for dyslexia.

Getting statistics on the actual prevalence of dyslexia across the population is difficult, but more parents are now having their children screened for such conditions.

In Ms. Shereen Al Nowais case, her son’s plight motivated her to establish the Ta’leem Centre, which opened this year and to date, has handled 24 cases. Most children who joined the centre are Emiratis between 6 and 18 years old.

Ta’leem Centre is an Abu Dhabi-based exceptional educational facility and consultancy dedicated to promoting a better understanding of learning disabilities in the UAE.

“I couldn’t find any centre in the UAE that could provide an accurate assessment of my son’s Arabic and English language skills. After establishing the centre, judging by the number of children entering our centre on a daily basis, I see that dyslexia goes largely unnoticed,”Ms. Shereen Al Nowais said.

Signs of dyslexia in a child can be picked up by parents. “There are several warning signs of dyslexia. They tend to mispronounce words, experience short attention, have difficulty naming colours, counting numbers, memorising math facts, and have a weak memory for directions, lists, facts. They need to hear and see concepts many times over in order to learn them,” Ms. Shereen Al Nowais said.

Dyslexia may involve both vision and hearing impairments.

‘I Learn Differently’, one of Ta’leem Centre’s initiatives aims at building awareness on learning disabilities at home and school. It received a good response in the local community.

“Dyslexia tests, diagnostic tools, evaluation techniques and assessment programmes are now being developed by academics and researchers from various Arab countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia,” Ms. Shereen Al Nowais said.

There is also some confusion about whether a child is autistic or dyslexic.

A.A., a mother of a boy, noticed that her child had problems with speech since he was 4 years old. This increased as he grew. A doctor diagnosed his condition as a hearing impairment so he underwent surgery. However, his condition worsened. He started to get angry easily and shout a lot. He lost confidence. The mother went to many clinics for years and got several diagnoses — autism and epilepsy being among them. It was only after she approached Ta’leem Centre that she realised that her son was dyslexic.

“Some speech therapists advised me to do an Intelligence Quotient test (IQ) to measure my child’s ability to understand ideas, process information, solve problems and distinguish relationships. I went to Ta’leem Centre, as recommended by several doctors. I was shocked with my son’s result in the IQ test. He was diagnosed as severely dyslexic.”

She said there is a lack of resources in the UAE for parents to properly address problems of dyslexia. She also believes there is a lack of speech therapists in schools.

“It is very hard to detect early signs of dyslexia. It goes unnoticed until the child goes to school. Children with dyslexia may have difficulties in acquiring language. They make phonological errors in their pronunciation,” Dr Tahir Saeed, clinical psychologist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, said.

Dyslexia is different from autism, Dr Saeed said. “Autism is a more pervasive developmental disorder, where a child may have difficulties with social communication and social imagination.

“Research to date suggests that children with autism are not at increased risk for dyslexia. Many autistic children have excellent basic reading skills. Some even have what we call hyperlexia, which means they learn to read at very early ages without being taught,” he said.

“Parents should detect the early signs of dyslexia such as, the reversal of letters especially (b-d) and (p-q). If there are concerned about their child’s learning abilities, they quickly need to be referred to a psychologist who can do a complete assessment, which can determine whether the child has specific learning disability or his difficulties are across the board.”

Dyslexia can’t be classified as a mental or psychological disorder. It is a specific disorder that needs a psychologist for an accurate diagnosis.

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder and it can only be diagnosed by a psychologist with experience. I have no figures of dyslexia rate in the UAE, yet the prevalence in the US is estimated to be 5-17 per cent of school children, with as many as 40 per cent reading below grade level,” Dr Saeed said.

He assesses 2-4 children for dyslexia at his clinic every day.

“Dyslexia is the most common of learning disabilities, affecting at least 80 per cent of all individuals identified as being learning-disabled,” Dr Saeed said.

He cautioned that every child should be handled differently using a variety of motivational techniques. “Any form of punishment will have serious consequences on a child’s emotional well-being and therefore, it is important to look for professional help for the child rather than punishment.”

“There are many programmes designed to help individuals with dyslexia. There is no guarantee that they will completely cure such a disorder; however, they can certainly help the dyslexic people to use alternative strategies to overcome their learning difficulties,” he said.