As many as 120,000 students will be diagnosed with dyslexia this year. Early diagnosis and treatment are critical, as is a supportive home life.

READING THE SIGNS

August 30, 1998|By PETER JENSEN | PETER JENSEN,SUN STAFF Research librarian Andrea Wilson contributed to this article.

In retrospect, Kim Snyder says, the signs were obvious: He son didn't speak until age 3 and even then only could pronounce parts of words, like "hay-hay" for Fairhaven Street where they lived.

At 4 1/2 , Will Snyder was diagnosed with a reading and language disorder or dyslexia. Its early recognition lead to quick intervention -- daily lessons with a tutor. Three years later, the 7-year-old now reads a year ahead of his grade level.

"He's a very confident, very ambitious little boy," Snyder says proudly. "He knows he has to learn differently, but now he knows he can succeed. He's not afraid."

An estimated 120,000 students will be diagnosed with dyslexia this year, but not all will be as lucky as Will. There are about 2.4 million schoolchildren (15 percent of the population) with some form of reading disorder.

Dyslexia is not a disease, but describes a different kind of "wiring" in the brain that makes it harder for a person to understand language, spoken or written.

Unfortunately, some children will not receive the kind of specialized teaching they require to learn reading, while many others won't be helped until they are far behind in school -- a delay that can cause them great emotional and psychological harm.

Snyder, a pediatric nurse living in Woodbine, was well aware of the warning signs of learning disorders. She knew the frustration her brother went through when his dyslexia wasn't diagnosed until fifth grade.

Even so, she wasn't convinced of Will's condition until a reading specialist made the diagnosis, and then she wasn't sure how to get help.

"It took a two-by-four to hit me in the head," she recalls. "I had to track down help."

As children return to their classrooms this week, parents need to ask an important question: Is my child learning to read satisfactorily?

For those who find that the answer is "no," the coming months could be critical to their child's development and future success in life. Is a slow-learning child simply maturing less quickly than his or her peers? Is he or she getting the proper instruction at home and school? Could the problem be dyslexia?

Parents whose children are found to be dyslexic face a host of challenges: What is the proper kind of instruction? Where should I go to get help? Is my child getting enough attention?

"The most important thing a parent can do for their child is to be a supportive and nurturing parent," says Dr. Bernadette Landolf-Fritsche, a child psychologist in Towson. "With dyslexia, the most important thing is to become an expert with what's going on with that child."

Treated properly, someone with dyslexia can usually be taught to read, but will perhaps be slower than average. It depends on the nature of the disorder -- the severity of dyslexia can vary widely.

Early identification of dyslexia is critical, but it's not always easy to catch. Dyslexia sometimes accompanies Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for instance, and a child's reading problem may be masked by his disruptive behavior. Or a particularly bright child may hide his reading problems by

correctly guessing at words, figuring them out by context or the accompanying pictures in a book.

Suzanne Jacobson, an emergency room nurse in Frederick, believes her son Nathan was slow to be diagnosed because he has cerebral palsy. Specialists assumed he was having trouble picking up language because of his physical disability.

Today, the 9-year-old reads at a first-grade level even though he's bright and able to keep up with a fourth-grade curriculum in other subjects.

"The biggest mistake I made was that I thought I had time," said Jacobson who has enrolled her son in a tutoring program. "I knew something was going on, but the school's view was clouded. All they saw was the physical."

The warning signs of a reading disorder can appear early. A child may be a late-talker, have difficulty rhyming words, learning the alphabet or days of the week, have a small vocabulary or trouble following directions.

By kindergarten, the child may be slow to understand the connection between letters and sounds, commonly reverse letters such as b and d, transpose words like left and felt, or confuse basic words like run, eat and want.

"Most parents can tell when expectations are not being met," said Dr. Betty S. Levinson, a Silver Spring psychologist and nationally-recognized expert in learning disorders. "It's generally not that hard."

Educators often point out that whether the child is meeting expectations or not, it's important to cultivate a home environment where reading is encouraged. Reading aloud is considered key, but it's also helpful to promote conversation, rhyming games and to play with sounds from the moment a baby is born.

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