Jessica’s Story – The Personal Side of a Journey with Dyslexia

By Fiona, Mum of Jessica

(This is a transcript of Fiona’s presentation given at the 2021 AGM)

Good evening everyone.  I’m going to talk about the personal side of what we have been through with my daughter, Jessica.  In a way, the understanding of what might be there, happened a bit with my husband.  At the time we were married, he was a carpenter and a sole trader.  I knew he didn’t read a lot, although if he wanted to read something he would persist if he wanted to learn something new.  I knew there were issues with spelling.  The shopping list had sections of it which were phonetic.  If you said it phonetically you knew what you were going to the shops to buy.

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So, I was aware there was something there, but I didn’t think about it being a problem for when we had a family.  There were two older children, both adults who had gone through high school and completed them with a sound record.  So, I wasn’t really thinking that we might have a child that would have a learning disability.  Alan himself wasn’t aware that he had one.

He went to school when there were over forty children in a class.  He quickly found that school wasn’t for him, but you had to stay in school until you were old enough to get a job.  So, he approached school as a place where he went to socialise with his mates.  He socialised with them, kept out of trouble with the principal and learnt as best he could to read and write.  Then went home to do what was most important to him at 3 o’clock which was get a hammer and nails out and work with timber.  He loved working with wood.  That became his saviour because it gave him a career path and it gave him a really big sense of accomplishment.

In his early teens, as soon as he was old enough to leave school, he applied for some jobs.  He left school and a while later was interviewed by the apprenticeship board.  He was offered an apprenticeship as a carpenter and shopfitter.  That’s where things at school that didn’t make sense like fractions, were sorted out.  They were part of carpentry.  Doing the real practical carpentry fixed up the maths side.  So, he’s really good at maths but he can’t spell very well.  But that’s alright because he’s a wonderful carpenter.

He’s done shops and pharmacies all over Brisbane where he has put cabinetry in.  There are schools he helped build classrooms in for the next generation of students.  There are a whole series of pubs he can tell you about, not only in Brisbane but also a pub at St George; he was part of the carpentry team that went and renovated those pubs.  He also worked on the Law Courts in the city; he was part of the carpentry team that put the wood panelling into the Law Courts.  Each courtroom was different.  They had to be very specific in how they built them because they had to be soundproof.  So, there was a lot of extra specialist work.  He really, really enjoyed that and he can tell you about it.

In his private life he was also achieving things.  When he was a young man, he and his mates enjoyed water skiing.  He obtained the plans for a ski boat, and he built his own fibreglass and wood ski boat.  We still have it decades after it was built.  As a young man he also wanted to provide for his family.  He designed and built his own house as an owner builder.  We are still living in this wonderful house that my husband built which is full of the quirky carpentry bits that a man who really loves working with timber puts into it.

So, while he had an undiagnosed disability, he didn’t really know he had it.  Occasionally, if there was paperwork on a building site, that would get him into trouble, but basically he had a fulfilling career.  If he put his mind to do something, he would do it because nobody told him that he couldn’t.  And these were the sorts of things years later I think about when we are dealing with Jess.

Jessy sailed through kindergarten.  Learnt all her alphabet, her colours and numbers.  Green light, good to go to primary school, no problems seen.  About six months in, the first report card showed Jessy wasn’t really keeping up with her peers.  The school spoke to us and they offered us some support and said “We think she needs some support; we can get her in to see the Special Ed”.  We were happy.  Jessy said “Don’t really want to do this. Don’t want to be seen as being different.”  But we told her she needed to.  I had a friend, who’s a teacher, who lives up country.  She came down about three months later.  She had a look at Jessy’s work and said, “She should have improved by now.  I can’t see any improvement.  There is something here that’s not just ‘a child who needs more support because she’s just a little bit young’.  There is something else going on and you need to get a handle on it because there’s a few years which are the window to teach a child to read.”

I kind of thought about it but didn’t act straight away.  There were a lot of other things going on back at home at that time with my mum.  It wasn’t probably until we got to the end of Prep that I realised just how wrong things were.  Jessy’s Prep teacher smiled, and told me Jess was an engaging child, tended to be easily distracted, and would then chat and distract other children in the class because she has a short attention span.  Jessy knew 30 out of the first 100 words that she needed to learn to enter Grade 1.  The teacher said, “It’s your job to teach her that over the Christmas holidays ready for Grade 1.”  I had no idea how was I going to teach my child 70 words ready for Grade 1.

My friend had told me do something.  Investigate the eyes, the hearing, all the basic things.  So over the Christmas holidays I slowly got myself organised and said, “Ok, I actually have to do something.  I can’t just pretend its not there.”  That’s when I learnt, when you need to see a specialist, you want the developmental paediatrician, you want the eye specialist, you make phone calls and you get told three/six months’ wait, six months being the normal waiting time. You want to hurry up but suddenly you can’t.  There is this whole big delay.  You have to learn patience and persistence to get your child in to see the specialist.

In our case, the eye specialist said Jessica’s got double vision.  So, the first thing we had to deal with was correcting the double vision, that had developed during Prep, before we could actually do any of the diagnostic tests to find out what the literacy problem was that she had. We were about eight months strengthening up the eyes and getting the vision settled down so we could then work with the school on the literacy.  The school did give us some help in Grade 1.  She again went to see the learning support teacher but that only lasted until the end of the year when her grades came up to a C at which point in time it ceased.  She wasn’t seen as needing support even though she was obviously behind.  We did eventually get in to see the developmental paediatrician.  There was also the psychologist because Jessica did, and still does to a degree, have issues with resilience.  It is easier to run away from something that is hard.  If she doesn’t get on with a teacher, “they’re dumb, they’re stupid and so is the subject”.  It’s still there.

There are also subjects which she has learnt to flourish at and she loves them.  Over the time we went from teaching her to read, she came from being a couple of years behind to being in excess of six months in advance of her fellow students with her reading.  She has maintained that.  When we finished the reading intervention we were lucky the city council library had a Gold Star Reading Program in progress.  When we went down to the library to get another set of books, Jessy was able to get books that were young for her age but right for her reading age.  Every time she completed a book she got a star from the library.  When the books were finished in the Gold Star program, all the kids came to the library for a party and received a reward.  There was Jessica like any other normal kid getting her Gold Star Reading badge.  It was normal but it was wonderful because unexpectedly finding that this program was on at the local library made her feel normal and it got her to read on her own because she wanted to.  We now have all the Harry Potter books; she is on her third time of reading Harry Potter.  She has also got a set of books about dragons that she loves and collects.  So, she reads quite avidly.  There’s still issues with spelling but she reads really well.

School work.  It’s probably only now that we’re into high school and just completing year nine that the grades have started to improve from mostly ‘C’s and an occasional ‘B’ in a language like Japanese, which is her favourite, to regularly include ‘A’s and ‘B’s.  She has loved Japanese since primary school.  She also picked up Band (Instrumental Music) in primary school.  Her father plays guitar and Jessy also has the musical trait.  We have let her lean on her strengths of loving Japanese and music.  We have continued music into high school.  She has also picked up a second instrument because she wanted to, not because I wanted her to.  So we now have flute and violin each week.  She has been at violin for 12 months because she wanted to.  So we let her because Alan did what he wanted which was follow his love of carpentry. So I am letting Jessica follow her love of music and Japanese.

About two years ago the maths fell over very badly in the first and second year of high school. That’s when we said “Ok, now we have something else we need to look at.”  We went back and got her assessed; she also has dyscalculia.  Again, we have gone down the path of intervention with the maths to try and sure that up, because maths was always ‘dumb and stupid and didn’t make sense’.  And mum couldn’t each her anything because Mum was ‘dumb and stupid’.  Well, mum knows a lot but parents are always dumb; you will always be dumb when it comes to your children because you’re the one trying to help them to read, which they hate.

Visits to parks, visits to other things and stickers on a board help a lot when they’re young. “If you behave at the lesson today, when you do five days (stickers) then you’ll get a treat”.  Anything to get them to concentrate and focus on, whether it was the eye exercises to correct the vision problems or to be able to learn to read.  Little stars in boxes with a reward at the end of the week and maybe after four weeks of doing well a bigger reward which she chose from a group of things we made a list of.  She had some control over the reward but she didn’t get them if she didn’t behave.  Four or five nights a week of eye exercises and then the literacy program is a lot for a little one, but she got through it even though she’ll pretend it didn’t benefit her.  You can see it did because the grades became more solid in primary school.

We have just completed the maths support; we started it last year during Covid.  There’s been a break because of COVID and then the last semester we have been going once a fortnight instead of once a week.  It means I actually have had lots of time away from work which isn’t always easy, but the benefit is there because her scores in the last 3 semesters have improved.  A couple of weeks ago she received a Merit Certificate at the Academic Awards because she had three ‘A’s, four ‘B’s and one ‘C’.  The ‘C’ was Phys Ed because she’s not keen on Phys Ed.  All of the grades in the last 12 to 15 months have started to improve and the maths has come up as well.  She gets ’B’s now for her maths.  On Monday she is going to graduate with her Junior Certificate of Education from Year 9.

Where’s Jessy going to go?  I don’t know yet.  She has chosen her own Year 10 subjects.  She’s still doing Japanese, she‘s picking up music as a subject, not just Band (Instrumental Music) as an extra subject in school.  For Instrumental Music lessons at high school you actually leave your normal class for half an hour each week. It’s a different subject each Monday that you miss a half hour of to go to flute lessons.  Despite missing half hours of multiple subjects she has still achieved really good grades and maintained them over the last 18 months.  She’s now maturing and the grades are improving.  We’ve helped with the maths so the pressure on the brain needed to focus on the maths has been taken off.  Now everything else is beginning to improve.  I don’t know where she’s going next.  My job is to give her options, keep her learning and keep her engaged at school until she decides where she’s headed.  Being engaged with school and being happy, makes dealing with all the extra support work much easier, but first of all we need a happy child.

Now she is at high school she still doesn’t like being seen as different but there are a lot of her friends at high school who are different.  She even has friends who tell you,  “Yes, I’m dyslexic, too, and I have trouble with maths.”  So now she’s not this strange, one-off kid who’s dyslexic. There are more kids in high school with learning difficulties that she’s meeting.  The high school gave us support when we advised them she had problems.  They offered extra maths classes before school for students on Tuesday mornings for an hour.  That helped improve the maths as well as the extra support we got outside privately.  There are a lot of things, if you’re going to support your child, that are private and that require time and commitment.  You do it because you love your child and because you know if you can give them a nudge in the right direction when they would rather run away and hide, they can actually achieve their full potential.

That’s where we are at with Jessica; giving her support and trying not to be the helicopter parent that she tells me I am at times.  Keeping her moving so while she’s actually doing things that she enjoys and she loves, she’s also achieving. What parent wouldn’t be happy with the Certificate of Merit that she has received and she earned that all on her own.  She doesn’t tell me what subjects she has assignments in.  She sits and does them all on her own.  She doesn’t want help from mum, she doesn’t even want me to know what she’s got to do.  She just works on them all by herself, so, what she has achieved in the last year is because she decided to do it.  So now I am looking forward to Year 10.

I have no idea what the next two years will be but Jessy will choose her own Year 11 and Year 12 subjects.  I’m pretty sure she will follow her strengths and desires in choosing her subjects.

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