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ADHD and dyslexia makes kids hate reading, right? Wrong!

Award-winning author Rick Riordan shares his experience with turning his son with learning disabilities into an insatiable lover of literature.

Percy Jackson

By Rick Riordan

My 16-year-old son Haley recently came into my office and announced that he’d finished a 600-page manuscript. I suppose that would be unusual coming from any 16-year-old, but given my son’s background, it’s especially stunning.

Haley is ADHD and dyslexic. At 7, he hated school. He would hide under the dining-room table to avoid reading or doing his homework. My novels about Percy Jackson began as bedtime stories for him — a father’s desperate attempt to keep his son interested in reading. That’s also why I made Percy Jackson ADHD and dyslexic, and made those two conditions indicators of Olympian blood.

Over the past nine years, so much has changed. Percy Jackson became a five-book series. Haley took his own hero’s journey from reluctant reader to an avid devourer of books. Now, as I launch a new series, The Heroes of Olympus, that returns to Percy Jackson’s world, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve learned about getting ADHD/dyslexic kids to read. I can’t promise that every child with learning differences will become a novelist, but I do think all children can become lifelong readers. Below are four essential things I’ve learned as a dad and a classroom teacher:

  1. Model reading at home. If the parents are too busy to read, it’s a safe bet the children will feel the same way. Set aside time for family reading each night. It doesn’t matter so much what the kids read, as long as you provide them space for reading and a sense that it is a valuable part of your daily routine. Sometimes the Riordan family will read books together. Sometimes we’re all reading different things. But we value books, and we have great conversations about our favorite authors and stories.
  2. Match your children with the right books. By the “right” books, I mean the ones that will leave them wanting to read more. Every child’s taste is different. Don’t worry if they’re not reading War and Peace at age 12. First, build a good foundation and a positive attitude about reading by letting them pick the stories they enjoy. Make friends with a bookseller or librarian. They are a wealth of information on finding books that kids enjoy.
  3. Create a productive environment for reading. Usually, this means few distractions. Reading with music or TV? Not such a great idea. On the other hand, many ADHD kids can focus better if they can have something to fiddle with like a stress ball, an eraser, or some other small object that absorbs their kinesthetic energy. Let your child participate in finding the most comfortable space to read — a chair, a sofa, a loft, a patio.
  4. Most important, keep the long view. Your child will grow up to be a successful person. ADHD and dyslexia really are differences, not disabilities. A disproportionate number of millionaires are dyslexics. ADHD adults are valuable in the workplace because they can focus like a laser on things that really interest them. Kids with learning differences naturally become out-of-the-box thinkers, because they have to find different ways to solve problems. If we can get these kids through the school years, they will excel.

Take it from this dad. It seems like just yesterday my son was hiding under the table to avoid reading. Now he’s writing books longer than mine!

For more on The Heroes of Olympus, go here.

This essay first appeared at Reprinted with permission.

Rick Riordan is the award-winning author of the Tres Navarre mystery series for adults and the number one New York Times-bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for children.

Comments from readers

"This is very inspirational for parents of reluctant readers. But it is OUR JOB to help them get hooked, as Rick says. Not easy, but worth it! "
"Also, think of subscribing to MUSE -- it's a children's magazine and it's truly amazing -- my daughter just pores over it when it arrives. I really can't say enough about how wonderful it is."
"Indeed an inspiring and informative article for both parents of children with ADHD and dyslexia, as often some give up on these youngsters because they do not have the skills and knowledge on how to address these learning differences. "
"Thank you for this wonderful book series ! My son is almost 40 so did not have the exposure to an ADHD hero like Percy. However, I kept a list on his door of people like Bruce Jenner and Einstein. I'd be wealthy if I had a dime for every time I said 'different is NOT a synonym for wrong ! That;s much like your # 4."
"There is an additional method to help kids with these issues to begin to enjoy reading: kids magazines. There aren't a lot of quality magazines for kids, but the ones that are out there are great. The articles are not too long so even if the reading is difficult, if the article is interesting, the child can see an end and is more likely to finish. There are several Ranger Rick that are grouped by age groups, starting with toddlers, and ranging upwards. There used to be a magazine called Dogs for Kids, but, sadly, they discontinued it. Several others are Sports Illustrated for Kids, Discover Kids, and National Geographic Kids. If you can find a couple magazines related to your child's interests, then the child can also look forward to their arrival each month. Since most younger kids love anything about animals, those work well. Magazines for kids can help with reading for any number of childhood issues, and are great for any kid."
"Great tips. Parents should be aware if their kids have learning disabilities and every child has a different learning phase. "
"Great tips. Parents should be aware if their kids have learning disabilities and every child has a different learning phase. "
" My son always loved stories and we are a reading family (I'm in two book clubs). At seven when he was first tested, he had the vocabulary of a teenager, but was stuck at a kindergarten reading level. Books on tape, CD and Ipod were a blessing until his reading skills got stronger. Listening to books gave him access to literature that met the needs of his intellect and imagination. I remember the joy we felt when he could read 'real' books on his own. Still, at sixteen, if he has his headphones on he's usually listening to a book."