“How My Son’s ADHD Masked His Dyslexia for Three Decades.”
“Imagine my surprise when, in a phone call with my now 30-year-old son, he informed me that, while I’d gotten lots of things right about ADHD, I had completely missed his dyslexia.”
By all available measures, we had successfully addressed and navigated my son’s ADHD.
We caught it early in kindergarten and made changes immediately. I spent his elementary years finding and using methods to equip him both academically and socially. I put motion into his learning, created systems that would help him track multi-level activities, and found rewards that motivated him to focus when his distractibility pulled hard on his attention.
We role-played vital social skills, got him involved in ADHD-friendly sports, and most of all, we learned to delight (not despair) in his differences. At the time, I thought we’d really nailed it.
So, imagine my surprise when, in a phone call with my now 30-year-old son, he informed me that, while I’d gotten lots of things right about ADHD, I had completely missed his dyslexia.
Insert cricket sounds.
While I sat there squinting and open-mouthed, he shared with me the symptoms he had exhibited that lined up perfectly with dyslexia. And with a backward glance over the years, I realized he was right. How had I missed it?
The Dyslexia Signs I Knew About
Some of the signs were obvious, in retrospect. He was a late reader. He had significant struggles with spelling. A word could be spelled five different ways and they all looked just fine to him.
But here’s where I went off track: I wrongly assumed that these issues were due completely to his ADHD distractibility. So many other things had landed in that bucket, why not this? I believed at the time that, as he matured and learned self-direction, he would eventually catch up.
The Dyslexia Signs I DIDN’T Know About
Perhaps if I’d been aware of some of the lesser-known indicators of dyslexia, my radar might have caught it sooner.
Some surprising indicators of dyslexia can be. . .
- Trouble learning to tie shoes — or any activity requiring a strong right/left understanding
- Trouble telling time on an analog clock
- A struggle with rhyming
- Extremely messy bedroom or desk
- A history of chronic ear infections
- Delayed speech
- Difficulty memorizing any sequence of steps (assembling something, steps in a cleaning task, math)
- A great gap between verbal abilities (his were always impressive) and writing abilities
Almost no child has all of these issues. But even two or three symptoms should encourage parents to get more information about dyslexia and determine if their child could use additional support.
How I Helped Him Hide His Dyslexia
Children with dyslexia will often use other skills to compensate for their reading struggles. This is not a form of cheating – it’s the most natural thing in the world. If my right arm is injured, almost without thinking I’ll begin to favor and use my left arm.
But here’s the problem: I gave my son lots of good, useful tools and employed many strategies to accommodate his ADHD. They were best practices for a distractible child. And every single one of them gave him yet another way to compensate for his dyslexia. The more he could compensate, the easier it was for us to miss the organic struggle to read.
Death by Reading & Writing
When a child shows difficulty in a particular subject, a very common tactic is to just have them do more of it. We’re advised to include a bit of writing or reading in every single assignment to bolster weak skills. We make sure that math is heavy on word problems, and then we require that the student writes full sentences for their answers.
It sounds logical, but I’ve come to call this strategy death by reading and writing.
By forcing a child with dyslexia to read and write in everything they do, you are forcing them to move through every subject at the speed of their weakest skill.
They will never know that they are good in math, or that they love history, or that they have a gift for the sciences. They will believe they are only as smart as their reading or writing can prove.
So, I’m thankful that we stuck to our guns when it came to making sure my son had many options to demonstrate his academic learning. It turns out he really was a whiz at math and engineering. Had I forced him to prove it only by writing, we (and more importantly he) might never have known.
So, What Was Actually Needed?
I wouldn’t change a thing about how we navigated our son’s ADHD. But what we didn’t know we needed was the addition of a dyslexia program.
The Orton-Gillingham approach is recommended for children with dyslexia and reading struggles. There are several programs that qualify (some of the better known are Barton, Lindamood-Bell, Slingerland, & Wilson), and there’s bound to be a practitioner in your area (quite a few, like me, provide this service online). But if your child also has significant distractibility, you should be sure your tutor has some strategies of their own to accommodate this.
One out of five students will have mild to severe dyslexia. Of those, approximately one-half will also have ADHD.
When choosing a tutor, ask the following questions:
- How well does this program anticipate and accommodate the highly distracted child?
- How is motion incorporated into the lesson?
- Are there motivational programs (charts, awards, recognition) to keep discouragement in check?
- Can you provide an example of teaching a program concept from many angles, employing many senses? (visual, kinesthetic, auditory)
- How often will the lesson include a game?
- How might you handle a child who has a complete meltdown?
Don’t miss the signs like I did by believing all challenges stem from your child’s ADHD. Screening for dyslexia can now be done early, even in kindergarten. If you have any concerns at all, get the testing and rule it out. Or in. And avoid a future call from your 30-year-old saying you missed it.
Dyslexia Signs: Next Steps
- Symptom Test: Could My Child Have Dyslexia?
- Read: Overview of Dyslexia in Children
- Read: How to Detect Reading Problems in Your Child
Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.
Updated on February 23, 2021