“I think one of the hardest and most courageous things a parent does is to acknowledge their deepest fear and then marshal all the resources they can to deal with it.”–Joyce Millard Hoie, Executive Director, Raising Special Kids
My daughter “M” was four years old and in pre-kindergarten when, at our first parent-teacher conference, we learned the teachers had some “concerns.” “We just love M,” they told us. “She is such a good friend, her artwork is quite advanced, and she’s always happy and eager to participate.” But… here it comes… I thought to myself. “We’re concerned, because she seems unable to remember the names or sequence of the letters of the alphabet, including the letters in her first name.” It wasn’t quite that simple, they continued. She would seem to remember a particular letter one day, but the next day, it was as if she’d never learned it. Given these difficulties and the fact that M was easily distracted during “circle time,” they recommended that she repeat pre-K instead of beginning kindergarten in the fall. They said she’d probably grow out of it.
I vividly remember how my heart sunk upon hearing this news. And in the years since I first became a mother, I’ve also watched countless other parents come unglued after hearing for the first time that their imagined “perfect” child is struggling in school. Although I’ve learned a tremendous amount about how to address dyslexia, ADHD and a host of other educational challenges over the years, I believe the most important lessons I have learned have nothing to do with these difficulties. What matters most is that I help my child develop the self-awareness and skills to become the unique person she is meant to be, and the only way to do that is to let go of the fictional child I had imagined. Only then can I accept—indeed embrace—the amazing child I have and do whatever is necessary to help her thrive.
How I Found Acceptance
When we adopted M, then a young toddler living in China, I couldn’t wait to share with her all the things I loved as a little girl—like singing along to the soundtrack of The Sound of Music, playing with baby dolls and listening intently while my mom read me bedtime stories. I’d imagined that like me, M would excel in school and that learning how to read would come effortlessly. Reality gradually began to intrude, as I soon noticed that M preferred dancing (hip hop!) to singing, Legos to dolls and coloring to reading books. But nothing prepared me for the shock of being told my daughter was struggling academically. Of all the things I had worried about, her learning to read was not one of them.
Yes, the teachers had made a point to tell me how advanced her self-portrait was (“Look! She even included nostrils—two!”), but I felt they were just trying to soften the blow of the really important and utterly devastating information about her ABCs, which in the moment was all that seemed to matter. Don’t get me wrong—I was happy that she seemed to excel in certain other areas, but overall, I was crushed. My imagined child had disappeared, and the girl who stood in her place had a real problem, one that couldn’t be solved by a quick trip to the Lego store. I became depressed, and for quite some time, I tried to convince myself that an extra year of pre-K would solve everything.
A few months after that painful parent-teacher conference, I was talking with a friend about M’s academic difficulties, and she told me that M’s tendency to forget previously learned material reminded her of her teenage daughter, who had been identified years ago as having dyslexia. So the idea was in the back of my mind when, by pure coincidence, a new documentary was released: The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia. Watching the film, I learned that the particular neurological wiring that causes difficulties with reading for people with dyslexia also carries with it a flip side that results in particular strengths, including empathy, creativity, problem-solving skills, and strong visual/spatial and artistic abilities. It turns out this particular brain architecture explains why so many wildly successful entrepreneurs, inventors, sculptors and artists are also dyslexic.
Although I still didn’t know whether M was dyslexic, I was 100 percent certain that she had many of the strengths described in the film. The most obvious, and the one we discovered first, was her artistic ability, which actually began to emerge when she was still in diapers and could draw a perfect circle. (The “Amazing Artist-Baby” became our favorite party trick at family gatherings). But it didn’t stop there. Her capacity for understanding and relating to others made her so popular that sometimes I wanted to wear a hat and big, dark glasses when I picked her up from preschool so I could avoid the onslaught of little friends tugging at my shirt, inviting themselves over for a play date. And if it’s not “creativity,” then I don’t know what to call all those egg carton-toilet paper roll-string-duct tape-tissue box “inventions” which I was not permitted to throw away–“EVER.” When M came home from visiting a lake and sculpted an exact, three-dimensional clay replica of a swan, purely from memory, we knew she had a special gift. My eyes opened to M’s amazing talents and the idea that she might also have a learning problem became easier to think about.
Facing Challenges Head On Together
By kindergarten, almost everyone I encountered—teachers, friends, relatives, doctors—was still telling me she was “fine,” that she’d “grow out of it.” But I couldn’t deny what I was seeing. She was almost seven now, had received over two years of excellent instruction in phonics, and she was still having trouble linking letters with their sounds. She also continued to have tremendous difficulty finding words when she was talking. She’d say, for example, “Can I have a sandwich with… um… uh… that… stuff on it?” I’d throw out several guesses—peanut butter? cheese? turkey?—and wait until we had a match. “Yes, that’s it,” she’d say matter-of-factly, “turkey.” She also continued to be confused by concepts that seemed to click with other kids her age, such as the meaning of words like “before” and “after,” and “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” The days of the week continued to elude her. She could recite them in order when connected with a little song, but she had no understanding of the fact that they made up a week, or that they repeated themselves every seven days.
I requested a free evaluation with our school district. Although it took some internet research, a series of meetings and tests, and quite a bit of determination on my part, the district ultimately acknowledged that M had a “specific learning disability” in reading, and further private testing confirmed that dyslexia was the cause. Armed with this definitive explanation for her challenges, I was able to begin developing a comprehensive educational plan while simultaneously exploring activities and outlets to nurture her gifts.
None of this was easy. When I first learned my daughter was struggling in school, I was heartbroken. I didn’t want to believe it. But as time went by, I began to recognize and appreciate her amazing strengths. This recognition turned out to be the secret psychological weapon against my denial, depression, anger and a host of other negative feelings. Seeing her strengths also gave me confidence about her future and allowed me to see her as she truly is: an amazing, unique person, totally different from and separate from me. I have my own challenges, to be sure, and she has hers. But with a new sense of purpose, we face these challenges together.
Today, when I look at M, I do not see a child with dyslexia. I see a beautiful, kind and creative little girl, who at the tender age of seven, is already beginning to discover who she really is. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Jenifer Kasten is a Georgetown law school graduate, policy analyst and mother of two children. She is a member of the board of directors of Raising Special Kids, an Arizona nonprofit organization. She is also a co-founder of the new Phoenix, Arizona affiliate of the Parents Education Network, a coalition of parents collaborating with educators, students and the community to empower and bring academic and life success to students with learning and attention differences. A former litigator, she is currently an inactive member of the bars of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Arizona.
A message from Jen to parents in Arizona—I know the importance of local resources in the journey that parents take with their children. Here are a few suggested Arizona resources (mostly near Phoenix) that have helped my family. You can also join the conversation with other local parents on Arizona’s Parents Education Network.