This month begins a short series 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 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?
Taking a break after a busy day as a first-year teacher, Rose Valdez answered some questions about growing up as a neurotypical child in a family with dyslexic and ADHD folks. Rose gives some valuable insights for teachers, parents, and dyslexic students alike.
Rose is the second of nine siblings. Four of the siblings are biologically related, while the other five joined the clan through adoption, mostly during Rose’s teen years. Her family was always close, with much of their social lives centered around church activities and friends. During her early elementary years, Rose was unaware of any learning struggles experienced by her siblings.
A favorite family activity during Rose’s childhood was listening to audiobooks together. Rose remembers the Lord of the Rings series being a particular favorite. After listening to the audiobooks, the older siblings began reading print copies of the books, enjoying discussing them with each other. Rose’s first inkling that the experience of reading was different for her siblings than for her came as she noted that she quickly and effortlessly plowed through the now familiar stories in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, while her older sister, and particularly her younger brother took much longer and seemed to enjoy reading them less than she did.
A shift from attending public school to being homeschooled by their professional educator mother meant Rose was sometimes in the same or similar classes with her siblings. She recalls trying to help them with assignments, and feeling frustrated when her younger brother, J, was unable to quickly see solutions that seemed obvious to Rose. It was hard for her to figure out why school seemed so hard for him compared with her experience.
J’s learning struggles warranted some psycho-educational testing, and when he was identified as severely dyslexic and ADHD, Rose’s mom took Orton-Gillingham training at the Associate level. This is when the entire family began to understand what dyslexia is, and how it affects learning. Mom applied the strategies of the O-G approach to homeschooling most of the children, but J was enrolled at a local school specializing in dyslexic learners. Mom began working part-time as a 1:1 tutor at the school.
During her teen years, lots of both parents’ time was devoted to the arduous task of providing a solid, multi-sensory homeschool education for the other two dyslexic siblings as well as assimilating the adopted siblings into the busy household. Rose reflects on this period as particularly significant for her personally in a couple of different ways. Firstly, Rose reports noticing she simply required less of her parents’ time than the other kids in the family. The dyslexic siblings truly needed extra instruction, but Rose didn’t. She recalls her folks taking steps to ensure that she had regular 1:1 time with a parent throughout those years, which helped her feel seen and loved. Special time with Mom and lunch dates with Dad ensured Rose felt just as treasured and loved as everyone else in the clan.
Secondly, Rose noticed that her siblings’ view of her was different from their view of each other. The dyslexic siblings would look at Rose and aspire to be like her, rather than being content with themselves. This troubled Rose, and she took pains to point out to them through words and actions that everyone has different skills and talents, and each of them was equally admirable in their own right.
Now that Rose is a young adult and able to reflect on the lessons she learned from being an intimate observer of the struggles dyslexia dealt to her sisters and brother, Rose can see she developed an empathy for those who work hard yet have very little visible results. As a teacher with her own classes, Rose takes the knowledge of the spillover effects of dyslexia into account as she teaches. She intentionally gives printed lecture notes to all of her students, offers audio options for required reading, and frequently checks in with students individually to be sure they understand the lesson concepts. Rose knows from watching her sibling’s education that these simple measures make a big difference for the dyslexic learner.
When asked to provide some advice to families in the thick of child-rearing, Rose suggests reminding non-dyslexic siblings to extend patience with their dyslexic brothers and sisters. Parents who take time to explain why it is difficult for an individual with dyslexia to perform language tasks will help foster patience more than parents who give simple platitudes about how learning is harder for the dyslexic sibling. Rose sees the culture of reading that her parents cultivated in their home as a key to kindling an interest in all the kids to read fun book series. When required writing was hard for her dyslexic brother, Rose looks back and sees it was a natural thing to help him not only with the present task but for her mom to have a clear plan to help the task of writing itself become easier. From this Rose feels she learned the dual pronged approach of immediate help coupled with a longer-term plan to build needed skills and the importance of realizing when to bail out a struggler and when to skill build.
Rose sums up her reflection with the observation that growing up in a household alongside dyslexic siblings taught her to look past the learning differences to the gifts and talents inside each individual.