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My heroic, dyslexic son



There is a party trick that toddlers sometimes perform where they read something or identify letters. The adults coo in admiration and everyone agrees that this is exceptional. My son never did this trick.

Simulated dyslexia fontIn preschool, the teachers were impressed with his imagination, his vocabulary, and his humour. They did note that he had struggled a bit with writing his name, but assured us that it would come in time.

Boys sometimes take longer, they said.

By the time he was a couple of years into primary school, it was clear that something wasn't right. I had begun to laugh ruefully every time I heard someone unpack the old saw about kids who are read to, kids who grow up in 'language rich environments', and the other 'sure things' that guarantee a high level of literacy.

The day he was born, I happened to be rereading Shakespeare's King John. I read a couple of scenes to him at the hospital in the evening and haven't missed a night since.

His environment couldn't have been more 'language rich'. His mother and I were both English teachers. There were books everywhere. I was working on one about Shakespeare when he was a toddler. He acquired an imaginary dog called Hamlet and, as I have often recounted, gave me the premise for that book one morning in the car while I was explaining a problem I was having with the fictional aspects.

But the reading simply never came. There were occasional advances that weren't much noticed but took an enormous toll on him. Meanwhile, the other kids had started to pick up on his difficulties. He's a sensitive kid and this was devastating. His self esteem took hit after hit, leaving him confused and often unwilling to go to school in the morning.

He was tested, of course. The results told us what we already knew, and used a lot of jargon that threw us off course slightly. There was a suggestion that it might be developmental. It wasn't.


"When I phoned the person who conducted the tests, they admitted that it wasn't a word they used, but agreed that the term would apply to my son's condition."


The word for my son's condition did not appear on the report. For reasons I am only now beginning to understand, that term had gone out of use in some quarters. It might have been a matter of workplace semantics or perhaps an admirable but doomed attempt to avoid labels.

Whatever the case, it was a few more years before I took out the report again and realised that it was, in fact, a diagnosis of dyslexia. When I phoned the person who conducted the tests, they admitted that it wasn't a word they used, but agreed that the term would apply to my son's condition.

Last year, he got interested in Marvel comics. I made a deal that if he would read them aloud to me, I'd keep buying them. It worked pretty well and I think there was some progress. We have since moved back to books. Over the summer, he read S. E. Hinton's classic, The Outsiders, using an audiobook.

I got another of her books, Rumblefish, out of the library. He started off pretty well but after a few paragraphs, it was as though someone was moving the text around. He began to lose his place and miss words. The familiar tears of frustration appeared in his tired eyes. The story was interesting — gangs, trouble, knife fights — and he was desperate to find out what happened to Rusty James and his friends.

He adores stories. It's heartbreaking that he has so little access to them in written form.

So what happens next? We'll get him tested again, this time by someone who will use the word dyslexia. We'll start to work closely with the school to make sure he is not put in impossible situations and is given the chance to find some success.

The school has always been supportive but we live in a data driven age where tests matter. Even the finest teachers, and he has had a few, are compelled to teach to the vile Naplan tests.

Dyslexic kids — and the estimates suggest that as many as one in five might have it — are put through unbelievable stress with these tests. If deaf kids were compelled to do listening examinations, there would, naturally, be an outcry. I'm not sure if there's a difference.

I'm also not sure if the ever narrowing scope of education can still accommodate students like my son, despite all the talk about diversity and differentiated learning. From where I stand, as a parent and a former teacher, I can smell the unpleasant odour of the boardroom and hear the faint echo of neo liberal economics in education today. I hope I'm wrong.

Meanwhile, my son paints wildly abstract watercolours, makes stop motion films, watches ancient episodes of Doctor Who, and continues to excel in a variety of sports. His self-esteem remains fragile but his resilience is unquestionable.

Now in grade six, he grabs his bag and jumps into the car most mornings without complaining. On the way, we chat about music, travel, and our plans for the weekend.

As we draw closer to the school, he goes quiet and I know he is getting ready. I don't know how he does it. When he gets out of the car and walks towards the gate, he is facing certain frustration and a great deal of failure.

I think he's a tough guy. I think he's a hero.


Tony Thompson headshotTony Thompson is a Melbourne based writer and former teacher. His articles on education have appeared in The Age and he has written two books for teenagers which were published by Black Dog Books.

Topic tags: Tony Thompson, dyslexia



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Existing comments

Made me cry - my son's a hero too. Thanks for sharing Tony.

Fran Fish | 07 April 2016  

Tony, what a wonderful article. My son is my hero too - he has a language disorder and is going through much of what your son is. And every day starts with a smile. Such courage. Thanks for your article.

Sarah | 07 April 2016  

Your son is heroic! Thank God he has a great father who understands and can write about it to help others understand.

Rosalie Jones | 07 April 2016  

Be thankful you are not back in the 50s when teachers didn't use the word because they had never heard of it. Dyslexic kids like my brother were put in 'Opportunity Class' and taught to knit. Your son will have compensating talents, like manual ability or spatial awareness, and may become a great builder, architect, or inventor. That's how my brother became a multi-millionaire. You may need to expand your ideas on worthwhile career paths. And there has never been a more exciting time to be dyslexic: audio books, videos, etc. Good luck.

Solange | 07 April 2016  

Your son is brave every best wish to him for his future .

Mary Walsh | 07 April 2016  

Your son is blessed with parents who will support his creativity. Unfortunately the only thing that can't be 'lost' off your CV is that final school result (VCE score). From you he will learn to value the things he is good at. Love him, support him and teach him his gifts are of value.

Margaret McDonald | 07 April 2016  

Your story hit close to home for me because it describes my son too. I wanted to share what helped a lot for us: putting my son in a private school with a very low student-teacher ratio (10 kids, one teacher) and mixed age classes (so kids are at all different levels anyway). And one on one educational therapy using lindamood bell multi-sensory phonics instruction. My son is making tremendous progress and though it is costing us a fortune I feel it is worth the investment. One more thing I have found to be transformative: the Amazon kindle's "immersion reading". We started at Christmas and I cannot describe the joy I felt when he sat down with it and I saw him really lose himself in a book for the first time. He is 11.

Christy | 07 April 2016  

I could so related to this article.My wonderful grandson is dyslexia.He struggles with writing and reading .However a wonderful course called Multi lit developed by Macquarie University has worked wonders and I highly recommend it. He now reads every night but struggles with writing.

Carol | 07 April 2016  

Oh Tony. How bloody awful is the system! How strong you two are!

Brian Cotter | 07 April 2016  

Learning Ally. It's a service that allows all books to be in audio format. They have a website. I know of the deep pain this can cause. But as long as your son knows he has you, you can show him how to cope. And books on "tape" allow for what is called ear reading. It's still reading. Keep up the great work! You guys are fab parents! And school isn't for much longer!

Shannon | 07 April 2016  

Multi-lit is great. Reading Doctor is another resource developed by Australian Speech Pathologists, which can also be purchased as an app, in sections. Have you thought of using the Speak function of an iPad to read aloud, especially when doing research to reduce his stress? A specific learning disorder (i.e. dyslexia) should offer the opportunity to have someone read his assessment papers, so that he is not disadvantaged. The school is required to make adjustments for children with these issues. Teachers can also access a Dyslexia learning module online which is a brilliant resource with numerous resources. There are many ways your son can be supported. Even researching famous people such as Richard Branson and his achievements will help your son realise he is an intelligent amazing person with much to offer.

Jenn | 07 April 2016  

I was born dyslexic but I was lucky to have a mother who was a psychiatrist and then specialised in children's learning problems. I was rehabilitated and if fact did commerce law at university. I now am in a number of bookclubs and enjoy reading though I am still slow.

Bernadette Nicoll | 07 April 2016  

Hi there, a friend of mine in journalism is dyslexic. Of course you know that means if she's spelling a headline, she can make horrible errors and not notice. It could have got her fired I suppose but there was always someone to bail her out. Luckily she didn't hide the problem so we could help and cover up. And she's also an artist who runs a popular gallery with her sister now. So I think it probably helped with her creative skills. I think her parents treated her normally and she has great self esteem so apart from a few struggles like everyone has in some way or other (like some people being bad at maths etc), I don't think she's had any major issues and is quite adjusted. Maybe you should treat it normally too.Instead of making him into a tragic figure. Like being a leftie or having short sight. I'm sure he'll have adapted, and probably will more if he's not made too selfconscious about it. Then he'll use other skills at his disposal to get round the problem. Cheers and all the best Shana

SHANA MARIA VERGHIS | 07 April 2016  

There are some great teachers and some good schools trying to meet the needs of all their students. Keep talking to your son's teachers and principal while you guide and support him as he accepts and tackles his reality and his dreams. In outback Queensland we met an artistic creative cattle farmer. He ran his huge station, addressed meetings of local farmers, attended parent meetings and awarded prizes at sports carnivals. His sculptures were erected in the Main Street of the nearest country town. He was a charming , articulate host, began a host farm accommodation business and entertained overseas couples and families. He also happened to be dyslexic. There are luckily in this world, many ways to achieve positive outcomes . Good luck Tony to you and your family as you all enjoy the unique beauty and talents of your child.

Celia | 08 April 2016  

I don't care how large his class is, or how many different problems the teacher has to cope with. Your son should not have to be in a situation where he is consistently 'failing' because his learning style is different from the average. The system is broken, not your boy, and poor teacher education and poorly resourced schools are part of its brokenness. But with parents like his - he'll be right! Really.....

Joan Seymour | 08 April 2016  

My son is a hero too. Your article made me cry. I hear your son's frustration. As a parent, I find it painful to watch and frustrating that all my son's potential, his creativity isn't able to be expressed in paper.

A-L | 08 April 2016  

Have your son had a Colour Overlay Eye Test? My son now uses colour overlay sheets to read, amazing difference!

Carole | 08 April 2016  

I am a special ed teacher (retired) & have created an excitingly effective remedial reading program. Program is so successful for it is founded on my personal struggles with Dyslexia. Program very comprehensive - has unique decoding method, develops comprehension skills as it gives its forerunner skills the attention they deserve; addresses homework, study skills, promotion, modifying a curriculum when necessary, social and emotional development, etc... For further info, go to www.abcofreading.com. You will not be disappointed. Cheers, Minna

Minna Trower | 09 April 2016  

My son's story exactly - especially the confusing & jargonistic diagnosis and refusal to use the word dyslexic. His high school years were beyond awful but by year 11 & 12 he had a better choice of subjects & there was a light at the end of the tunnel. He is now an accomplished & sought after tradesman who excels in his field.

El | 13 April 2016  

Tony, there are so many apps in assistive technology so that your son could use to access the curriculum. I am a special education coordinator in a catholic secondary college. We have many dyslexic students in our school who successfully access the curriculum. Your son is very bright, and can have a wonderful future. Differentiated learning is imperative for him!!

Kathie | 17 April 2016  

Speaking as a dyslexic and teacher I appreciate both sides. Seeing dyslexic students develop at secondary school and their persistance is one of my motivators for my job. Keep reading and playing sport his real friends will show themselves and he will value them. Like my mother did, never give up.

Dave Faris | 12 May 2016