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How do I spot if my child has . . . dyslexia?

Reassure your child that it is just part of who they are, it does not define them

What is dyslexia?

In simple terms, dyslexia is a learning difference, experienced by about one in 10 people, that can cause difficulties with education and with work.

The most common signs are difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, “and particularly where they seem at odds with a child’s abilities in other areas”, says the CEO of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland (DAI), Rosie Bissett. “That’s the big thing with dyslexia: it’s specific to certain skill areas and not an overall difficulty.”

It is recognised legally in Ireland as a “disability”, which means those affected have rights to various accommodations in education and the workplace. While individuals experience dyslexia differently, and to varying degrees of severity, there are common features.

“For most people the challenge comes from phonological difficulties — essentially that challenge between being able to map sounds with letters, visual symbols, efficiently,” says Bissett. There can also be challenges with memory, sequencing, speed at which you can process some types of information and how quickly you can become automatic in learning new skills.


At what stage is it usually picked up?

A child can be assessed from about Christmas onwards of senior infants but for most children it is not done until later, due to schools preferring to “wait and see”, says Bissett. While it can be difficult to be sure about those with milder dyslexia at that age, the majority of children, provided people know what they are looking for, could be diagnosed then. Like any condition, early identification and early intervention are crucial.

“Then you are not trying to unlearn bad habits; it makes their journey through education so much easier; also the understanding of themselves. You are not trying to rebuild confidence that has been shattered because they haven’t understood why this aspect of learning was so hard for them, yet they were excelling in maths or in other subjects. That internal frustration can be huge for them.”

Although a greater percentage of children are being identified in primary school, the DAI is still seeing secondary school pupils, college students and even postgraduates, for first-time assessments.

Can I rely on the primary school to pick it up if my child has it?

“Quite honestly no,” says Bissett. “It is getting a lot better but all teachers have not been adequately trained on dyslexia. The other aspect is that teachers and schools are sometimes cautious about alerting parents to problems at an early stage.”

It is difficult for schools to get children assessed by the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), which means parents would have to make private arrangements. As a result teachers tend, she says, to want to wait another year or two to see how the child progresses.

“We would advise people to trust their own instincts. If you feel something is not right, go and seek an assessment. Parents know their child better than anyone else — bear in mind teachers have up to 30 children in a classroom, they don’t get much individual time with kids.” Those who are quiet and show no challenging behaviour are particularly liable to go under the radar.

The fallout from school closures due to Covid is still being felt in two ways. On the one hand, through home schooling, parents saw their children with difficulties they either didn’t know were there, or were greater than they realised. On the other hand, schools are always afraid of misdiagnosing a child — more afraid of misdiagnosing than missing kids who genuinely have problems, asserts Bissett — so the possible impact of Covid is “being used as another reason to hold off on assessment”.

What do I do if I am concerned?

Talk to the school first. Even if teachers are not feeling the same urgency for assessment, it is important to register your concerns and see if they share them.

If you are in a school where teachers are trained, they may be able to do some initial testing or look at additional support for the child. They may even be able to look at putting the child forward for a NEPS assessment.

But if you don’t get the response you want from the school, don’t be put off the idea of an assessment and seek one privately if you can. You can find psychologists who do educational assessments on the Psychological Society of Ireland website. The DAI, which is run along the lines of a not-for-profit business, normally charges €550 for child/young person assessments but there are special rates for families on reduced incomes.

Does my child need to have an assessment and get a “label” if they are already being given support in school?

Your child’s school may say that an assessment is not necessary because supports can be provided without one, thanks to a more needs-driven approach to the allocation of educational resources. However, Bissett believes that identification of the condition “is really powerful emotionally for a child. It gives them a word to describe [their challenges]. It is not that they are bad, stupid or lazy — no, they have this thing called dyslexia, they learn differently.

“Yes some things will be harder for them but that doesn’t mean they can’t do them. They may need extra support, they may need accommodations, or technology, or do their exams in a different way but they can absolutely succeed.”

Identification is “not about labelling a child, it is about relabelling a child”, she says. “You’re getting rid of those negative words that they put on themselves or, God forbid, others have called them.”

How do I best help my child if they are identified as having dyslexia?

First, learn as much as you can about the condition in general as well as trying to understand how it is affecting your child. Link in with the DAI (, which offers courses for parents.

Then you will be in a better position to help your child understand how they can progress. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so it’s a matter of trying different strategies. Reassure your child that it’s okay to talk about having it but that it’s just part of who they are, it doesn’t define them.

You will also need to be your child’s advocate with the school, says Bissett, over issues such as homework, where set time rather than numbers of pages should be required. “Homework can be an absolute bugbear” as it tends to be challenging for children with dyslexia who are likely to be more tired by a day in the classroom than their peers.

Teach your child that getting something wrong is not a bad thing because mistakes are the best way of learning.

“Those kind of soft skills, social and emotional ways of managing, and teaching your child to be resilient, are some of the most important things parents can be doing,” advises Bissett. You also want their school to be doing that, for example not crushing the child’s confidence by focusing only on spelling in a piece of written work but giving positive feedback on content, as well as highlighting a few spelling errors.

It’s natural for parents who learn their child has a problem, to look at everything they can do to counteract it, but there’s a danger of over focusing on things that they are not good at. It’s a fine balance between supporting them in the challenges that dyslexia brings and finding and encouraging your child’s strengths. Enhanced right-brain skills and problem-solving abilities, improved pattern recognition and brilliant spatial reasoning are, it is argued, some of the “gifts” associated with dyslexics, who think in pictures rather than words.

Technology, such as audiobooks, can help them but it will never solve everything. “The most important thing to help children with dyslexia read in school is a teacher who is properly trained, who understands the science of reading and is following a structured, sequential, multisensory curriculum,” says Bissett. As a child reaches the stage where they flip from learning to reading, to reading to learn, spoken text will help them access information quicker.

Does dyslexia cause problems with maths too?

Your child’s reading difficulties may make maths problems extra hard — but that’s down to being unable to make sense of the words that frame the questions rather than the numbers.

However, dyslexia can go hand-in-hand with dyscalculia, sometimes described as the “maths equivalent of dyslexia”. This common coexisting condition causes challenges in processing numbers and understanding maths concepts.

How is my child with dyslexia going to fare in adulthood?

If the condition is picked up early and your child develops self-confidence; if they find the technology and strategies that work for them; if they are able to talk about it and advocate for themselves — “those individuals will be fine in adulthood in most cases”, says Bissett. They may face challenges in workplaces where there is no understanding that people with dyslexia are different. If there’s an insistence that all staff do everything, rather than playing to people’s strengths. However, with rising awareness of the positives that come with neurodiversity, your child will, hopefully, grow up to find their place in a more enlightened world.

How do I spot if my child has . . .

  1. Coeliac disease
  2. Heat exhaustion
  3. Diabetes
  4. Asthma
  5. Anxiety disorder
  6. Dyslexia
  7. ADHD
  8. Eating disorder
  9. Being bullied
Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting