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“My Brother Doesn’t Read, Because He’s Dyslexic,” and Other Excuses Siblings Give

This month continues a short series we began back in November, featuring interviews with neurotypical siblings of dyslexic individuals. Quite a bit of time is spent in understanding the childhood experience of an individual with dyslexia, but not much is heard about their siblings. How are non-dyslexic siblings affected by the struggles of their brothers or sisters? What insights can they offer to parents who are currently rearing both dyslexic and non-dyslexic children under the same roof?

Emailing with me during a break from his busy Freshman year of college, Andrew Millar

answered some questions about growing up as the older brother of a dyslexic sister, Emma, who thrives as an 8th grader at Journey Middle School in Madison.

Andrew, five years older than Emma, has a great deal of respect for how very hard Emma has worked, and continues to work on academics, which come easily for Andrew but not for Emma. Her work ethic and refusal to throw in the towel until she completes her work makes her older brother proud.

An incident from Emma’s kindergarten year of school stands out in Andrew’s mind as the event that made him aware of Emma’s learning difference. Emma and her mom had spent the afternoon going through ABC flashcards, hoping Emma would be able to master some of the letters’ names. To relieve his mom, Andrew sat down with his little sister and the flashcards. After going through the flashcard pack with Emma several times, he recalls slowly realizing that Emma was not able to remember a single letter’s name, or even that she had seen the letter previously, despite both his and Mom’s efforts. Although Emma had little to show for it, even at the young age of a Kindergartener, Emma displayed a tenacity for the task at hand that Andrew admired and appreciated.

Emma had Orton-Gillingham tutoring and small group instruction during her early and middle elementary years, but Covid interrupted that for Emma as well as countless other students. Andrew remembers his mother homeschooling Emma during Covid. His memory of that was hours of his mother reading the textbooks to Emma, and then explaining what had been read in a way that clicked with her. Andrew, a history buff himself, helped out by engaging Emma in long conversations about the history lessons, patiently answering Emma’s many questions about the whys of history. He found the oral discussion and questioning helped Emma master the material, and enjoyed Emma’s thoughtful discussion of a mutually interesting topic.

Reflecting on the amount of time his parents devoted to Emma’s extra study needs, Andrew reports never feeling cheated. He credits his parents with being very open about dyslexia, a characteristic shared by Emma and her dad. By listening to Emma and her dad discuss their dyslexia and the way it affected how they saw things or took in information, Andrew came to understand both of them better. While Andrew and his mom are not dyslexic, the frequent and open conversations fostered an understanding of why extra study benefitted Emma, as well as why Dad loved audiobooks so dearly!

In some advice to siblings of dyslexic learners, Andrews encourages brothers and sisters to stand up for their dyslexic family members. There is nothing wrong with learning a different way, and nothing wrong with that sibling! Andrew recommends reflecting on how very hard they are working, perhaps harder than you ever work. Recognize your dyslexic sibling as uniquely made by God, with a purpose every bit as crucial as any mainstream learner. Taking a tip from Emma’s study strategies, Andrew reports that he sometimes uses digital study cards to help with some of his college courses’ memorization.

When asked for advice for parents of dyslexic children, Andrew credits his parents for

embracing Emma’s dyslexia diagnosis, never feeling it labeled or limited her. He recalls

dyslexia being part of their family’s story, with each member supporting and helping Emma. Andrew respects how much not only Emma, but the whole Millar family learned about grammar, spelling, and reading from Emma’s tutoring lessons. The Millar phrase for Emma’s situation was, “She just learns differently.” Leading by example, Andrew and Emma’s folks made sure the whole family embraced the truth that there is no one “right way” to learn, but each needs to use the strategies best suited to them.

A final tribute to Emma from Andrew plumbs the depths of the admiration he feels for his sister for persisting despite learning difficulties. This quote is directly from Andrew. “I remember Emma wanting to read so badly, yet she couldn’t. Because of all the hard work, she now reads all the time. I believe the hard work you put in will result in success down the road. It may take a long time to see the prize, but just like my sister, Emma, you’ll look back and appreciate your hard work in the end.”

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