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On raising a child with a learning disability.

One of the ironies of my life is that my high-verbal spelling-bee-winning gold-stars-for-spelling-getting self birthed a child who is very likely dyslexic –and not in a light way.

(Note that we can't say she's dyslexic until she's been formally diagnosed, and at nine she's still a bit on the young side for that. Hence "learning disability.")

I noticed early on that there was something wrong with how Trollkin was processing written language. She was fast at memorizing specific words (like her name) and phrases, but new ones would completely befuddle her. She'd switch up words when reading and could absolutely not tell "b" and "d" apart (which is...still an issue).

Her preschool (in Paris) said it would likely fix itself, which sounded reasonable since she was so tiny. But the (Surrey) school she attended next wrote me off as a pushy heliparent when I raised my concerns. Or that's how I felt at least.

So Trollkin switched schools again for the 2015 academic year for her "Year 1" when she was five going on six. Though at first they took a "wait and see" approach, she formally joined their SEND program towards the end of "Year 2" (~ 1st grade). Now, she's just started Year 4.

We're lucky with Trollkin's school. She gets tailored 1:1 support during school hours (though of course she has to miss "fun" classes like art and music in exchange), and we get regular progress reports. The teachers for other subjects are understanding of her condition and she's generally assessed on the content of her work and not her spelling.

But though I work hard to sympathize, I struggle to empathize with her. Word-stuff is generally easy for me. It's a big part of my job to see mistakes in spelling and grammar, and (though I'm working on it) it's hard for me to look at Trollkin's work and not point out that she's left out most of the vowels and wrote the same word in three different phonetic ways in the same report (think Aegiptns; Agptns; adjipshuns). Or at least point it out in a way that doesn't devastate her.

Her SEND teachers praise her good attitude, but at home she cries "because I can't write and I can't remember what the words look like and it's so, so horrible." She cries about being jealous of girls who have it easier, and of the guilt she feels over feeling jealous.

So what can I do?

Beyond encouraging her to foster her non-spelling-related abilities, I tell her to own it. If a less-than-kind (or oblivious at best) girl says "you can't spell" or "that's not how you write that," I've suggested that she says "I have trouble spelling. That's why I go to special classes with [SEND teacher]" (though, of course, she doesn't actually say it).

One of her SEND teachers suggested memorizing high frequency words as a coping mechanism. We're working on it, but it's a long list. And while Trollkin's good at memorizing the words for her weekly spelling tests (because we practice and practice and practice), we're still working on getting the spellings to stick for the long term.

Reading, fortunately, comes easier to Trollkin. But when reading out loud she has a habit of switching out words for synonyms, which makes me think that her brain does this as well when she reads in her head. Which isn't great for comprehension tests, and we're starting to wonder if the "please note that Trollkin's standardized test score results don't reflect her abilities" comments we see in her report card every year will ever change.

Of course we're lucky. We're lucky that we have the resources to send her to a school that recognizes her abilities beyond her special needs, and that gives her the support she needs. We're lucky we don't have to drive her to specialist tutors each afternoon (which would be pretty challenging since we both work full time). We're lucky the teachers are so great. We're lucky that she's only had a handful of instances (that she's told me about at least) where another girl mocked her for her orthography. We're lucky that she's otherwise healthy.

Still, I can't help but worry. Secondary school applications are drawing closer, and it's a competitive business even without handicaps. If spelling starts to be a permanent source of anxiety for her, her mental health could become affected. So over the coming weeks and months I'll have to start working closely with the school to coordinate next steps. Formal testing. Which schools to go for. What support they can give her.

And there's guilt. Guilt over the times I – as a child, a teenager, but also well into my twenties – immediately classed fellow students who had trouble spelling (or grasping concepts) as intellectually beneath me and hence not worth my time. (Though I'm not fatalist enough to think that Trollkin's situation is any type of karmic retribution.)

Guilt over my impatience with Trollkin and the anxiety I feel over her, because not every day is a good day and some days I get frustrated when she misspells words in her reading record which she could easily double-check by looking at the book.

Guilt over making her spending too much time studying spellings when she could be having fun; guilt over not getting her more tutoring support outside of school; guilt over not pushing her enough and letting her settle with complacency every time she refuses to fix a spelling mistake that I point out.

It's fundamentally bizarre that so much of how we define success depends on a person's ability to spell words in the agreed way. But I've benefited from it extensively, and spelling and word choice definitely matters to me. And the criteria won't have shifted by the time Trollkin finishes Primary School, because that's just 2.5 years away.

So we're going to continue to help her study. Being patient. Talking to the school about next steps. Trawling the British Dyslexia Association's website, and the International Dyslexia Association's, for resources, news, and information.

And I'll try to document our journey in the hopes of stumbling across some kind of inspiration for how to make this situation better, for my little troll but also for other kids in the same boat.


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