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Making progress on understanding dyslexia

Special to the Sunday News

April 21. 2013 12:34AM

Aileen Comier, director of the Children's Dyslexia Center in Nashua, traces a letter in a dish of sand, a method of engaging different senses to learn letter sounds. (BARBARA TAORMINA)

Twenty-six years ago, New Hampshire made history when the state Department of Education ordered the Henniker school district to pay $17,000 to cover the cost of teaching a student how to read.

Karen Morse was president of Henniker High's Class of '84, president of the student council, a member of the National Honor Society and a star athlete. She also was severely dyslexic.

Morse's dyslexia - the learning disorder hinders the ability to read, write and process language - went undiagnosed until she was a junior. After 11 years of school, her reading skills hovered at a first-grade level.

Henniker school officials agreed to pay for a year of remedial reading education at a special school in Massachusetts but balked at paying for a second year, leading Morse's family to sue. The Department of Education decided in the Morses' favor.

The case was hard on the family, the Henniker school system and the town as a whole, but it underscored the public school system's responsibility to provide every student with a basic education.

It also introduced Henniker, the rest of New Hampshire and people around the country who followed the story of the honor student who couldn't read to a new view of dyslexia, a disorder that wasn't well understood 25 years ago.

It still isn't - not thoroughly anyway - but today there's much more scientific information about dyslexia, as well as more options for kids and adults who struggle with reading and writing.

There's also more awareness that dyslexics are often visual or spatial thinkers who have perceptual skills that verbal thinkers often lack. Dyslexics often have natural abilities in art, design, construction, mechanics, chemistry, engineering and other fields that require originality, creativity - the ability to picture three-dimensional forms and how they fit together.

Many of the skills needed for jobs in today's economy stem from natural abilities that seem to be the flip side - the positive side - of dyslexia.

Wired differently

Neuroscientists have found that dyslexics have different brain circuitry from those of "neurotypical" people. They processes information and ideas on the right side of the brain, which deals with images, spatial relationships and patterns, rather than the left side, which handles the logical and sequential sounds and symbols of language.

The alternative brain wiring has no effect on intelligence, coordination, or other abilities, but it does cause difficulties with reading.

And, according to experts, 15 to 20 percent of the population has dyslexic tendencies ranging from mild to severe.

Rewired readers

The Children's Dyslexia Center on Main Street in Nashua is a bright, welcoming - and free - tutoring center located in a spot that used to be occupied by a bank. There's a vault with a massive door in the back where the staff members store supplies.

Part of a network of 55 centers funded by the Scottish Rite Masons, the Nashua facility works with students ranging from early elementary through high school.

"We have 30 students each year," said director Aileen Cormier. "They come two days a week, after school for one-hour sessions."

Cormier opens the door to a small room where kids are tutored on a one-to-one basis. Inside there are books, posters and other learning materials set around a long table with a shallow dish filled with sand and glitter.

"We use the Otton-Gilligham approach; it's multisensory," said Cormier, using a finger to trace the letter "R" in the glittery sand.

Tutors present letters, sounds and words to students in ways that engage by different senses.

"They see (language), hear it and feel it," said Comier, explaining how the multi-sensory approach reinforces information.

The program builds reading skills in incremental steps with lots of repetition. Successes are continually acknowledged.

Cheryl Orgutt, executive director of the Windy Row leaning Center in Peterborough, also uses the Otton-Gilligham approach to tutor kids with reading disabilities.

Orgutt said she hopes after-school tutoring programs are becoming a resource for schools that are unable to provide one-on-one reading help for students.

"Our program is a different system of learning," she said. "Why do we think all children learn the same way?"

Orgutt warns against sweeping statements about dyslexics, saying that while most have above-average intelligence, it's not a given that a dyslexic will have natural abilities involving visual and spatial understanding.

"Dyslexia is a spectrum, and it's very hard to draw generalities," she said.

Utilizing imagination

Michelle Siegman runs Creative Learning Solutions from the home that her husband built in the woods in Mason. Her instruction follows the Davis Dyslexia Correction program.

"It's a two-part program, and the first part is an intensive week that involves learning techniques to focus your attention and to control your imagination," she said.

Ron Davis, the creator of the program, coped with both autism and dyslexia as a child. He knew from experience that imagination and daydreaming provide an escape route for dyslexics, who become frustrated with trying to decipher words, rather than simply read them. He also knew from experience that dyslexics, who tend to think in images rather than words, are capable of particularly powerful daydreaming.

For that reason, Siegman said, "The first part of the program involves getting your imagination in the optimum place."

The second part of the program, she said, involves using small clay figures to learn letter sounds and abstract words such as "the" or "through."

To demonstrate another reinforcing technique, Siegman held up a sheet of paper as she spoke, the typed words on the paper matching those coming from her mouth. She slowly pronounced each word, running her finger under the typed line as she read. The exercise is intended to enable the listener to take in information in relaxed fashion and achieve ownership of it.

"Dyslexics are very intelligent, and the Davis approach gives them strategies to cope while they get used to the words," Siegman said.

Once they've mastered reading and language, she added, they are better able to tap the abilities that often come with dyslexia.

Notable dyslexics

Ron Davis and others who see dyslexia as a gift often refer to a long list of famous and successful dyslectics. The list includes Albert Einstein, Da Vinci, George Washington, Alexander Graham Bell, Picasso and Cher.

Other notable dyslexics, including Henry Ford, Charles Schwab and Ted Turner, have thrived in business. Some attribute such entrepreneurial success to the roll-with-the punches coping skills some dyslexic children develop as a means of staying afloat in a verbal world.

Back in the '80s, Karen Morse said copying other students' test answers and deftly changing the subject when she didn't understand the question were a couple of the tricks she used to hide her dyslexia. Experts hope that as more people come to understand the disorder, fewer dyslexics will be compelled to hide their struggles, confusion and self-doubt, and instead let their abilities fully emerge.

"The world is changing so fast, and we need all gifts and all contributions," said Siegman.

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