Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not-for-Tourists Guide to Dyslexia (Books - Reading David by Lissa Weinstein, Ph.D.)

My advisor at school had loaned this book to me months ago, as I am training in her child neuropsychology lab. Lissa Weinstein (the author - a clinical psychologist and also a prof at my program) has a son, David, who was diagnosed with dyslexia. Reading David chronicles their parallel experiences from first noticing the problem through around 5th grade. Both mother and son write (once the son is articulate enough to contribute) and the mere presence of his sections tell a story all by themselves. The book is not only arranged chronologically it was actually written as the events unfolded, i.e. mother and son do not try to remember long after the fact what happened. The writing gave them each an outlet for their frustrations. It also gave David a grown-up and meaningful, and positive activity that involved language, which was otherwise a source of misery for him.

Dyslexia, Dr. Weinstein tells us straight from the National Institute of Child Health is:

one of several distinct learning disabilities. It is a specific language based disorder of constitutional origin, characterized by difficulties in single word decoding, usually reflecting insufficient phonological processing abilities. These difficulties in single word decoding are often unexpected in relation to age and other cognitive and academic abilities; they are not the result of generalized developmental disability or sensory impairment. Dyslexia is manifested by variable difficulty with different forms of language, often including , in addition to reading problems, a conspicuous problem with acquiring proficiency in writing and spelling.

It is Dr. Weinstein's habit that whenever she faces a big challenge, she ends up at the library reading about it. Rather than leaving us to face this technical definition alone, Weinstein breaks it down into its component parts, explaining and reflecting on each one. The book has several strengths, and one of them is Dr. Weinstein's ability to explain everything in accessible terms. She is a deft storyteller - using colorful, clear language to describe not only what is going on but how it feels to her, and she allows her son to explain for himself how he feels. She clearly wants this to be the NFT (not for tourists) guide to dyslexia and wants both parent and child to go to it not only for information but for emotional support. This is apparent in the other strength of this book - Dr. Weinstein's honest unstinting observation of herself and the openness with which she puts on the page her fears for her sons future, her sense of inadequacy as a parent, her anger at the events and, at times, her son. It's a relief to read a story-of-an-illness book (not my favorite genre) that is not sentimental. People are not perfect (and I don't mean the people with the diagnosis) but rather the people around them. It may be irrational or unattractive to get angry at your child for not acquiring the ability to read with the same amazing seemingly automatic ease as most other children, and it may not portray one in the best light to admit to those feelings, but they are common and Weinstein's ability to identify them in herself and own up to them is refreshingly honest and will, I'm sure, be useful to others in the same role who think they are failing for feeling angry.

There are some very good sections in which Dr. Weinstein describes how she fooled herself into thinking that David was just a unique original and didn't really have a problem so that she could delay getting him tested.

These errors were something different from troubling speech sounds. These were near misses, mistaken efforts to describe a picture that he recognizes but can't retrieve the exact name. I'd heard these funny things in his speech before, him using big words when little ones would do, like saying, "It's a blustery day" at age two and a half instead of, "It's raining." In my mind, I'd defined him as an unusual child with a huge vocabulary.

There are also several good sections on her frustration at not being able to carry over her professional knowledge or distance into situations where she needed to make a decision about or advocate for her own son. Another on her son's anger and fear at his differences:

"You made this happen to me. You made me look at the letters when I wasn't ready. You made me hate them. You made me feel stupid." The veins are popping on his forehead. He's held this in a long time. His bitterness is a rodent, running so rapidly across the room that a moment later we tell ourselves we've never seen it.

And a very funny section about his inability to spell, except when it comes to profanity:

"F-U-C-K, That's fuck. I can spell that correctly." David takes a moment to view his handiwork on the thirty Post-it notes he's using to decorate the kitchen instead of doing his homework. There are other words too, like B-I-T-C-H and S-H-I-T. They are all spelled correctly, with the exception of K-I-K MY A-S-S. It's a pity, because kick is one of his spelling words.

"Why can you spell all the curse words right, David?"

"It's easy. You can sound them out."

That can't be correct. Because by any logic, if you can spell fuck with its silent "c," you should be able to put that same "c" in kick. If you can spell bitch the right way, you shouldnn't be wpelling witch as "witz." So what is it?

Dirty words are E-X-C-I-T-I-N-G. David like to write them, say them over and over, and look at them. The thrill gets him past his wish not to see and his difficulty memorizing. Eventually, he could be taught to connect bitch and witch.

Which echoes David's own advice in the Lessons Learned chapter that mother and son wrote together, in which he tells other children who are dyslexic that they will learn to read. Aside from the disadvantage of sometimes having the mother/son sections repeat each other too closely, it's one of the pleasures of the book to witness David's growth in confidence in the humor of his later sections in which he advises fellow travelers how to avoid homework. "Start a fight with your brother," he advises. "This is sure-fire!" or

Figure our what your parents are really interested in. Do they like your drawings? Start drawing. Do they like you to be curious about things? Now is a good time to ask questions. This works best if there's something your mom or dad want to show you or teach you about. For example, my dad loves rock and roll. He's always getting these videos from the video store on the history of rock and roll. Homework time is an especially good opportunity to offer Dad some alone time with you. Maybe you should watch that video he got out. When I tried this, Dad had no clue. I thought Mommy would hit the ceiling. She kept yelling "Larry, he has to do his homework! What are you doing?" She didn't yell at me, though. She yelled at Dad.

Future Ferris Bueller? Could be. But David has sober advice for kids like himself as well offered in a section he insisted on calling Permanent Scars. His function in the book is to voice some of the feelings kids like himself might have but are unable to express. This could be useful for helping a parent understand what it might be like for their child to be inside the problem of dyslexia and I can imagine it being equally useful for a child who will often assume that other people have not gone through what they are experiencing and that there is no way out. Dr. Weinstein also offers concise paragraphs in this section as well on issues such as Getting Evaluated, Getting Help, What you Can Do, and Life Lessons which might be be entitled What you Can't Do.

Dr. Weinstein and her son have opened themselves up to the reader in a personal, fast-moving story that should offer practical advise and companionship for others on the same journey.

Bernard LacLaverty's Grace Notes is up next...gorgeous writing!

1 comment:

heather (errantdreams) said...

"It is Dr. Weinstein's habit that whenever she faces a big challenge, she ends up at the library reading about it."

Heh, that's my approach to everything too. Want to grow vegetables? Read gardening books. Want to sew? Read sewing books. Developing an illness? Read books on that.

It sounds like the authors' willingess to be unflinchingly honest is what truly makes this a helpful, unusual, and amazing read.