Counselling the Dyslexic, A Personal Experience

This article is an overview of the research I’ve done into Dyslexia, how it impacts the individual in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. My own personal experience of dyslexia and what counsellors and psychotherapists should be aware of when dyslexia enters the therapy room.

I was diagnosed with dyslexia in the early 1980’s. I was in my early thirties then and had taken a career break to attend UCD as a mature undergrad student studying an Arts Degree in History & Politics. I had always suspected that I had a learning difficulty, I found school both primary and secondary difficult. I was held back a year in secondary and was taken out of language classes to attended remedial class and after many years of being told I was thick and/or stupid and that I wouldn’t amount to much, I internalised and became a very frustrated and angry young man.

After my diagnosis, I vividly remember finding a quiet corner in the Arts block in UCD which isn’t easy and crying with relief. I wasn’t stupid, I wasn’t thick and there was a reason why school and learning was so difficult for me. I received counselling from the Student Counselling Service for the anger and frustration as a result of my diagnosis. I graduated with my Degree and felt very proud of myself. However I didn’t feel fixed or at ease with my dyslexia. I had a degree, but still felt insecure within myself and returned back to the public service job I had left three years earlier. I was now terrified that I would be found out, that I would make a mistake, be exposed and shamed and belittled in the way I had been in school, I worked very hard to hide my dyslexia and deny it to myself. It was only when I returned to education to study for my Hdip and Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy that I finally started to come to terms with the impact dyslexia had on my life.

Of all the special learning disorders (SLD) e.g. Dysphasia, Dyscalculia amongst others, Dyslexia is the largest, accounting for Approximately 80% of all SLD’s (Bender2008). Dyslexia affects girls and boys equally, 15 – 20% of school children in the English speaking population are estimated to experience difficulty acquiring basic reading skills according to the International Dyslexia Association (2007) and some 30% of children with dyslexia also have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It should be noted that Dyslexia, ADD & ADHD are dissimilar conditions and require differing interventions and or treatment. 30% of dyslexics ’always’ feel down or depressed, with 21% believing that they did not receive the support they needed in school, The Prince’s Trust (2012), Burden (2008) also found issues of depression, withdrawal, feeling lonely, isolated and being excluded. Burden, Burdett (2007) pointed out that dyslexia is not just an academic difficulty associated with reading and writing alone but in school it impacts negatively on the child’s self-concept and self-esteem, with the child not seeing themselves as competent. Self-Concept has an academic component and a general component where it is related to school achievement, with Murray (1978) finding low self-concept scores in dyslexia students who participated in an intervention programme.

The dyslexic is continuously faced with hurdles to surmount. Learning, retaining, mastering academic skills, faced with situations beyond their control, students feel helpless whether in or out of the classroom, home or work environment. With modern societies placing value and importance on literacy as being highly skilful, it therefore follows that children who experience difficulty in reading would not be able to meet expectations of teachers, parents and society, Learner & Jones (2009). For the dyslexic, efforts don’t yield the expected results and they are unable to make sense of this. When questioned by teachers or parents as to why they are not performing academically, the dyslexic becomes frustrated, internalising that frustration as something being wrong, that they are stupid, leading to sadness, despair, delinquency and truancy.

Chinn (2004) points out that it is paramount that dyslexic children are supported appropriately from a psychological point of view by educators and counsellors who UNDERSTAND THEIR PREDICMENTS. Harter (1996) indicated that psychological interventions was more effective in improving self-perception than education interventions. Bender (2008) explains that such children with SLD are drawn into a vicious cycle of failure and negative emotions, reacting to this failure such that emotional difficulties would outweigh the learning difficulties. Miles (1998) points out that addressing the child’s self-esteem FIRST is the most important element; by addressing the emotional and psychological feeling of derision, poor self-perception and anxiety, only then can academic intervention be taken on board.

In childhood, dyslexia is associated with phonology and reading. The adult dyslexic has difficulty with information processing and in particular working memory, leading them to experience high anxiety, unable to go into the office, develop psychosomatic tendencies and illness, with beliefs that they are viewed as uncooperative or disagreeable, being touchy, aggressive, morose or withdrawn Moody (2009). The adult dyslexic experiences living a life in general chaos when not diagnosed. For the non-dyslexic, life over time is about transition, however for the dyslexic and the adult in particular, moving from school to college or work is more demanding. Change demands psychological energy that enables coping and adaptation. This can prove stressful, magnifying the difficulties associated with dyslexia for the individual. It is in these circumstances that the individual when not achieving success, and feeling overwhelmed in their workspace that they may seek an explanation to the issues they are encountering in their everyday lives from a counsellor.

However, it is not all doom and gloom for the dyslexic. By working through their experiences with a counsellor, the client can see that failure is not always negative, sometimes it can have an impact on one’s resilience, motivation and provide a positive challenge Tanner (2009), studies of successful adults with dyslexia indicate they have used adaptive coping skills to deal with their difficulties. They are aware of their dyslexia but not defined by it Goldberg et al (2003). However, without a diagnosis it is impossible to set the correct goals and help reappraise the dyslexics self-understanding, where there is comfort with the demands placed on them, being on the right course, at the right college or being in the right job. The Dyslexic does not follow a typical career path, they are less linear.

Once I understood and accepted that Dyslexia was a part of me, I began to function effectively, I went beyond my previous expectations. By knowing that I was dyslexic, I begin to feel more confident and started participating more in social situations, I had no need to be ashamed or embarrassed. I faced my fear, am now controlling my dyslexia, it is not controlling me. By addressing my dyslexia in counselling, it allowed me to build on positive attributes, it empowered me to develop coping skills by focusing on my strengths, overcoming my negative self-image, dealing with the anger, frustration and shame, minimising the anxiety and maximising my feelings of success.


The Gift of Dyslexia Ronald D Davis

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