Dyslexia makes learning difficult, but help is available in Asheville

DIFFERENCE, NOT DISABILITY: “It's not comprehension,” says Rachel Friel about her daughter Carmen's dyslexia. “If I read to her, she can tell me back every detail of what I've said. It's just her ability to see the words as they are on the page." Photo by Clarke Morrison
DIFFERENCE, NOT DISABILITY: “It's not comprehension,” says Rachel Friel about her daughter Carmen's dyslexia. “If I read to her, she can tell me back every detail of what I've said. It's just her ability to see the words as they are on the page." Photo by Clarke Morrison

When Carmen started first grade, it was apparent that she had a problem. Despite being a bright child, she struggled to make sense of the words on a written page.

“She’s my second child,” says Carmen’s mother, Rachel Friel of Asheville, “and I could just tell from reading with her when she was in the first grade that her brain didn’t work the same way that my older child’s brain worked. I went to the school and said to the teacher, ‘Something’s not right here.’”

Friel’s concerns were dismissed, so she had Carmen tested privately. It turned out that Carmen has dyslexia, a common learning disability afflicting as many as 17 percent of U.S. schoolchildren, according to experts.

“It’s not comprehension,” Friel says. “If I read to her, she can tell me back every detail of what I’ve said. It’s just her ability to see the words as they are on the page. [Carmen] has a lot of the classic things, like instead of saying the word ‘was,’ she would say ‘saw.’ She would say it backwards. Or she would confuse Bs and Ds, or she would confuse the numbers 6 and 9.

“It’s not necessarily that [dyslexics] see things backwards; it’s just that the way their brain decodes things is different from the way other people’s brains decode things,” Friel says. “It can also be a problem with numbers because [dyslexics] have this way of seeing things differently.”

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, dyslexia is a lifelong challenge that people are born with. It can hinder reading, writing, spelling and sometimes even speaking. Dyslexia is not a sign of poor intelligence or laziness, nor is it the result of impaired vision. Children and adults with dyslexia simply have a neurological disorder that causes their brains to process and interpret information differently.

Dyslexia occurs among people of all economic and ethnic backgrounds. Often more than one member of a family has dyslexia. According to the National Institute of Child and Human Development, as many as 15 percent of Americans have significant trouble with reading.

Carmen, now an 11-year-old sixth-grader, says having dyslexia makes learning more difficult. “It makes it hard for me to read and write,” she says. “I don’t really know why. The words didn’t come out right. It was kind of like the words were backwards.”

This past summer, Carmen made progress during four weeks at Camp Spring Creek in Mitchell County. Approaching its 15th season, the camp helps children from around the world, ages 7 to 15, overcome their disabilities. Spring Creek Director Susie van der Vorst says the goal is to empower children with dyslexia to become confident and inspired achievers.

“At Camp Spring Creek, they are really gaining self-confidence and independence skills because they are away from their parents,” she says. “It’s easy to give up on yourself or give up on a project when it gets too hard. But when you’re away at summer camp for a minimum of four weeks, you have to push through the hard things. By accomplishing that, they get more pride in themselves because they accomplish things that they might think they couldn’t have done.”

Camp Spring Creek utilizes what’s called the Orton-Gillingham approach in helping children with dyslexia. In use since the 1930s, it’s an intensive, phonics-based system that teaches the basics of word formation before whole meanings. Orton-Gillingham utilizes the three learning modalities, or pathways, through which people learn — visual, auditory and kinesthetic.

Friel is a believer. “Orton-Gillingham, in a nutshell, is that if children can see things and hear them and touch them — have some tactile way of learning something — that’s the way all children learn best, but especially children with dyslexia,” she says. “[Carmen] was tutored every single day, one-on-one with a tutor, in addition to getting to do all the fun camp stuff. She made some really good progress.”

Van der Vorst says students at Camp Spring Creek can progress further than in a regular school setting because all they are working on is language skills. “They don’t have to worry about science and social studies and math and all those other subjects,” she says. “Last year we served 52 total students from as far away as Kuwait and Australia and as close as Spruce Pine and Asheville.”

Studies show that about 85 percent of people in prison have a reading or language disability, says van der Vorst, while about 35 to 40 percent of entrepreneurs have such disabilities. “If you don’t succeed in our conventional ways of learning, you find other things to be successful at, and sometimes it’s illegal things,” she says. “We don’t want them to end up in prison.”

The emergence of the written word in society changed things for people with dyslexia, says van der Vorst. “Before we were reading and writing and spelling, people with dyslexia were considered the top of the hill because they were the problem solvers, they were the engineers, they were the think-tank people,” she says. “It wasn’t until we put the printed word in front of them that they went down a little bit.

“Now with technology the way it is, they’re taking off again, and colleges are actually looking for children with dyslexia, especially at schools of engineering, because engineering is simply problem-solving. And our kids are very good at problem-solving. They’re not good at regurgitation, and regurgitation is the lowest form of comprehension.”

Dyslexia affects people throughout their lives, but its impact can change at different stages in a person’s life, according to the International Dyslexia Association. Dyslexia is referred to as a learning disability because it can make it very difficult for students to succeed without phonics-based reading instruction, which is unavailable in most public schools.

The group says the exact causes of dyslexia are still not completely clear, but anatomical and brain imagery studies show differences in the way the brain of a person with dyslexia develops and functions. Most people with dyslexia have been found to have difficulty identifying the separate speech sounds within a word or learning how letters represent those sounds.

“With proper diagnosis, appropriate instruction, hard work and support from family, teachers, friends and others, individuals who have dyslexia can succeed in school and later as working adults,” the association says.

According to Decoding Dyslexia North Carolina, the state is one of just 11 in the country that doesn’t require screening for dyslexia in public schools. The group advocates for a universal definition and understanding of dyslexia in the state education code. It also would like to see requirements for mandatory teacher training on dyslexia, its warning signs and appropriate intervention strategies; mandatory early screening tests and remediation programs, which can be accessed by both general and special education populations; and access to appropriate “assistive technologies” in the public school setting for students with dyslexia.

“I think it’s really sad that our legislature has not embraced the fact that we have these kids who think differently and that we need to help them,” van der Vorst says. “We need to try and grab them before they fail. I don’t know why we’re in a system where we have to wait for a child to fail before we help them. I think we should be doing at-risk assessments at the beginning.”

Tutoring children with dyslexia is one of the ways that the organization OpenDoors of Asheville works to help families in poverty. The group’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty for kids through education, enrichment and advocacy, Executive Director Jen Ramming says. Many children with dyslexia aren’t properly diagnosed, Ramming says.

“With poverty, there are so many other issues that play into whether a child can succeed in school that it was hard to discern,” Ramming says. “Kids in multigenerational poverty in Asheville often live in public housing, so we partner with the Lee Walker Heights after-school program called Useful Hands. We have been bringing tutors into that setting.”

OpenDoors of Asheville also trains classroom teachers to use the Orton-Dillingham method with their students. “They kind of weave it into the way they teach in the classroom,” Ramming says.

“In the past people have talked about dyslexia as if it was just people who weren’t able to learn to read. But it’s not that they are not able to learn to read; it’s that they’re not being taught in a way that they can learn. They’re actually very bright. Most dyslexics are above-average ability, but they just learn differently. We call it learning differences instead of learning disabilities, because that’s really more accurate.”

Van der Vorst points to successful public figures such as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who suffered from dyslexia. “Lots of [dyslexics] have invented things … because they have a new way of looking at things, and they’re not just trying to recreate the same thing in a different way,” says Van der Vost.

There are other advantages, too, Carmen adds. “I observe more things that a lot of other people don’t really see, like small objects that people won’t really see so much detail in.”

And that special way of thinking and decoding the world may well lead students like Carmen to incredible achievements, just like Steve Jobs.

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