Raising a family is always a balancing act, especially if you have more than one child. If one of your kids has a learning disability, but the others do not, you may wonder how to manage their different practical and emotional needs. In her book, The Human Side of Dyslexia, author Shirley Kurnoff explores this topic (and many others) through interviews with 142 parents, siblings and college students, who share their experiences and coping mechanisms.

Shirley Kurnoff: Why – and How – I Wrote This Book

I don’t profess to be an expert in dyslexia but I do know what it is like, as a parent, to face the obstacles of educating a child with dyslexia… I didn’t have a book like this one and I really needed it… I wanted to know more about the journey our family inevitably was going to take. What I found, though, was a plethora of information on how the student learns, suggested medication, multi-sensory programs, the legal system, scientific studies and academic analyses. But there wasn’t a book written on what really matters most: the human side of dyslexia.

So, I embarked on a mission to fill that gap. The Human Side of Dyslexia is a book about real people with real stories, 142 of the 210 people I interviewed; a book with emotions and courage, common sense and tenacity…. It’s also a book about coping strategies that work. My goal with this book is to make your journey as a parent a lot less painful and a lot more light-hearted.

The following are excerpts from The Human Side of Dyslexia.

What Siblings Say

27 siblings (young children, teenagers and young adults) contributed to this section. None of the siblings have dyslexia. I asked them about their relationship with their dyslexic sibling, with their parents, and their feelings about dyslexia in general. Their interviews reveal a number of interesting patterns, not only regarding birth order, but also age, gender and parental attitudes toward dyslexia. Let’s look briefly at them all.

Birth Order

From what siblings told me, birth order absolutely alters sibling relationships. An older sibling often tends to be more protective over a younger child with dyslexia. They want to have input into the parental decision-making process surrounding homework and family issues related to dyslexia. They also appear to be concerned that their sibling doesn’t conform to their preconceived standards. Instead of feeling comfortable with their sibling’s differences, they can’t understand why he/she doesn’t fit into the “normal” box. The respondent’s age and the parental attitude toward dyslexia may have contributed to this negative thinking about their sibling’s futures.

Without a doubt, the younger, non-dyslexic siblings are less concerned with different learning styles. In fact, they seem to see their brothers/sisters through rose-colored glasses, almost completely eschewing any negative feelings. More importantly, they applaud their accomplishments. For them, “different” doesn’t mean “better” or “worse.”

Age

The age of the child affects how they perceive their sibling’s different learning style. College students respect differences and see promise in their sibling’s future. Often, they are close in age and have witnessed a track record of mini-successes (non-school related) from their dyslexic sibling. They also no longer are in a parenting role.

Teens, meanwhile, with a younger dyslexic sibling say that grades are most important and are the only measure of success. They have some strong concerns about differences.

At the other end of the scale, 9-12 year olds don’t seem particularly concerned with differences. In essence, they see only the positive side of their dyslexic sibling. Young kids also lack the intellectual understanding or depth of experience to make supportive comments. Essentially, they take their brother or sister at face value.

Gender

The child’s gender seems to have an impact on his/her thinking and to strongly reinforce birth order. Teenage girls who are older siblings, for example, take on a protective, parental role, a behavior that appears to come from love and caring.


Family Views and Influences

The home atmosphere significantly affects kids’ attitudes toward dyslexia. In families where there is calm and a sense of control, optimism prevails. Where there are concerns about differences and academic limitations, where the family’s issues regarding dyslexia haven’t been mapped out, where there is parental confusion and uncertainty, the non-dyslexic child seem to be worried and confused.

It seems that, if parents get “their” plan under control early and keep any concerns to themselves, the family has an easier time coping with the challenges. Just like the rules surrounding dating, drinking and friends sleeping over, the parameters of dyslexia must be discussed early on. It’s just one more part of the daily routine.

While birth order, age, family views and influences are important in this section, other factors surfaced along the way. These included sibling feelings, relationships between children and their parents, and relationships between siblings. Let’s start with the research data.

My sampling included 27 siblings (non-dyslexic) between the ages of 9 and 28. The following is data I gathered from their responses:

  • 67% don’t resent their parents helping their dyslexic sibling with homework or projects.
  • 92% do their homework independently and don’t need help on a daily basis.
  • 35% help their dyslexic sibling with homework or do a “homework exchange”.
  • 56% are confident about their sibling’s future
  • 76% are more understanding of students with a disability because of their experience with a dyslexic sibling.
  • 92% had not read a pamphlet or seen a video on dyslexia.

Children and Their Parents

While less than a third of the siblings indicate they are “put out” by their parents doing homework with their dyslexic brother/sister, those who were affected – mainly 9-year-old boys and girls, and teenage girls – voiced their opinions loud and clear. For example: Jessie Riving, 9, yearns for a time when her mom will work on a project with her. It seems mom always is working with Jessie’s older brother, Charles, who has dyslexia. Nicole Courser, 14, sees that a lot of time is focused on her younger brother with dyslexia, sometimes to the detriment of her emotional needs.

Only 2 out of 27 children had read a pamphlet or seen a video on dyslexia. Instead, most siblings were given fleeting accounts by their parents, often incorrect statements, about this learning difference. One child says “dyslexia is not a disease, rather it’s like a kind of illness that doesn’t go away.” Another believes “dyslexia is when someone writes his/her numbers or letters backwards or even upside down.” Now, with so much more information on LD websites or on-line newsletters, I’m hoping that families with dyslexia will be better informed.

Sibling to Sibling

Only 1/3 of the siblings help their dyslexic brother/sister with homework, sometimes on an exchange basis. Brendan Manning, 9, trades math strategies with his dyslexic brother, for paper editing. Talia Laurance, 10, collaborated on homework with her dyslexic sister, 12, until Talia started to get ahead in math and language arts. In most cases, though, siblings prefer to work independent of each other.

Friends seem to be OK with dyslexia. Still, there is occasional teasing. For example: Jessie Riving, 9, says a neighborhood kid circles his finger to indicate her brother with dyslexia is a “thick head.” Nicki Carlson talks about her brother being teased for drooling. (He has facial muscular problems.) Overall, most kids didn’t feel it was an issue.


How Siblings Feel

The majority of siblings I met, consider themselves very fortunate not to have to struggle in school. Debora Rosen, 12, feels bad her sister got “stuck” with dyslexia. Patrick Morgan, 10, feels guilty his brother doesn’t attend the same public school. Andrew Browne, 20, waited a long time for his younger brother to join him in the G.A.T.E. program, but that never happened. The stories go on and on. All in all, the non-dyslexic siblings realize how fortunate they are when it comes to family genes.

For the most part, non-dyslexic children understand their brother/sister with dyslexia. They start to comprehend their frustrations and they learn to become less critical and more tolerant. Talia Laurance is outwardly jealous of her sister getting compliments on her artwork. But, at the same time, she acknowledges that her sister needs that because she reads at a 2nd-grade level, can’t tell time and is 12. Tyrone Begley, 19, sees his brother, Liam 20, struggling with college reading material. This is the same brother who is a computer whiz, who takes computers apart and then reassembles them, and sets up new software programs without reading the instruction manual!

For Andrew Browne, it isn’t until he arrives at Stanford University that he really begins to understand his brother’s challenge with dyslexia. In one math class, it’s as if the light bulbs are going off around him, and Andrew can’t grasp the new math concept. He realizes then what his brother faces every day, every week.

For other siblings, living with dyslexia in their family makes them more aware of this LD. Kate Spencer, 17, does a term paper on dyslexia for her 11th-grade biology class. She wants to know how it impacts the family. Kate concludes that the problem lies in the emotional, not medical, side of this learning difference. Her brother, Andrew 16, has dyslexia. And, finally, because of 12-year-old Maria Accordino’s experience with her older brother, Sal 16, she knows when her reading buddy, a 2nd grader, is guessing at words and making up the story line. Maria suggests to her teacher that her reading buddy gets tested for dyslexia. And, there are more stories like these ones.

I sensed a need for sibling opinions. They are integral to the family yet so little has been written about how they feel. It’s as if research focuses on the dyslexic child and sibling attitudes are set aside. I wanted to know if they felt left out, not special, and what it was really like growing up with a dyslexic brother or sister. From their straight forward, say-as-it-is interviews, I gained new insight and I hope you did, too. Thanks to all those young people who gave me their time.

Pointers for Parents

  • Recognize “pressure points” that may crop up with your non-dyslexic child. Then be extra attentive with him or her. This may happen in elementary school when you first find out your child has dyslexia. It may occur in middle school with teenage daughters who may feel neglected with too much attention focused on the dyslexic child. And, it certainly happens when SAT preparation and the college search is in progress.
  • View your child’s learning experience with his/her LD brother/sister as a bonus in character building. Sensitivity, compassion and patience can’t be learned from textbooks.
  • Consistently compliment your non-dyslexic child for understanding the family’s LD situation, working independently on homework and being a team player.
  • Be aware of the time and attention you are giving to your dyslexic child. Then, listen to the needs of your other kids. If it means bringing in a college student to help with a project, hobby or sport, just do it!

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