Dyslexia is a lifelong learning disability, but with the right support and learning tools, dyslexic individuals can become highly successful.

Tears. Crying kids. Crying parents. Tears of frustration and hurt are a common theme among families affected by dyslexia in the early days, weeks, months and sometimes years. But the journey can take a drastic turn. Happy kids. Happy parents. Tears of joy and hope take over as students gain self-confidence and parents see smiles on their children’s faces.

Dyslexia isn’t just a diagnosis. It is a learning difference that is with a person for his entire life. It looks slightly different from person to person. As an inherited condition, it often effects the entire family – multiple siblings can be diagnosed with dyslexia, or a parent is also dyslexic.

The First Steps

For a family at the start of their journey, it can be challenging to see the sunny skies ahead. “We are very much still in the ‘put your head down and figure things out’ stage,” says Natalie Sarnat. Her first grader was recently diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. “Literally, within the first two weeks of school starting, we realized we had to get her tested to see exactly what was going on.” Sarnat says that her daughter’s PreK teacher had made some minor observations and comments about Nora having some difficulty with letters and sounds, but they didn’t think much of it. “Then, in kindergarten, the difficulties continued,” notes Sarnat. “Honestly, with the pandemic thrown in, we weren’t sure how much of this was really a learning problem until the results of her psych-ed eval came back.”

Armed with their test results and the help of a consultant, Sarnat and her husband have been able to tour a few schools and begin the application process. “While it has been overwhelming for us, we knew it was the right thing to do when one night at dinner Nora looked at us with tears in her eyes and said she didn’t want to go to school because she wasn’t as smart as everyone else,” notes Sarnat. “This is a young kid already starting to realize she’s not the same as her peers in some way, so we know we have to find the right school for her.”

According to Ben Owens, a father who is 10 years into his family’s dyslexia journey, Sarnat is on the right track. “If you don’t know where to turn to get help, you can feel like you’re on a journey into the unknown,” he says. “A psychologist can help you get a diagnosis quickly and then point you in the right direction from there.”

He also recommends following your gut and listening to hints teachers may be giving you. “Years down the line, I realize that there were signs along the way,” Owens says. “My daughter received speech therapy as a preschooler, which I now know is a key indicator of needing to be tested for dyslexia.”

Finding Your Footing

Paying attention to signs and intervening early is a game changer for children with dyslexia. “Typically, independent schools refer kids to a specialty school like Schenck sooner than public schools,” notes Janet Street, Director of Outplacement at The Schenck School. If it is best for your family to be in a public school, advocating for your child and understanding their learning profile is key to their success. “Even if you plan to stay in public school and get an IEP, I’d recommend using an independent consultant for the psych-ed eval,” says Lou Brauer, who has a dyslexic child. “It speeds up the process a lot and helps you understand more.”

Many dyslexic learners are gifted in other areas, such as math and the arts and are often very smart. “The fundamental thing is that students need to be able to read fast enough and accurately enough to gain comprehension,” says Street. “Schenck uses the Orton-Gillingham program to teach students how to master reading in a way that it doesn’t exhaust their brains, leaving nothing for understanding or next steps.”

The Swift School also utilizes Orton-Gillingham. For fifth-grader Mackenzie Owens, who is in her second year at Swift, it has been transformational. The program has taught her to decode words for pronunciation and comprehension. “She knew she wasn’t a good reader, but she didn’t know why, so she didn’t want to try,” says her dad. “Now, she has the tools she needs, so she’s willing to try. It’s great to see!”

At GRACEPOINT School, their academic program for dyslexic learners focuses on morphology. “They learn how words are built,” says Kevin Williams, Director of Student Life and dad of two dyslexic learners. “They study Latin and Greek, so the kids can build words and understand their meaning.” For his family, GRACEPOINT has been life-changing. The Christian standpoint of the school helped Williams’ two children see their dyslexia as a gift, and it was an especially huge turning point for his daughter Chloe, now a junior at Mt. Paran School.

“She came to GRACEPOINT late – not until seventh grade – after trying tutoring paired with the public-school setting,” says Williams. “At public school, she didn’t feel like she was in the right place. She was always exhausted and frustrated. After one day at GRACEPOINT, she came home and said, ‘Dad, I think I found my people.’”

Reaching the Summit

Lou Brauer had a similar experience with her son Max, now in his final semester of his Quantitative and Computational Finance Master’s Program at Georgia Tech. “The Schenck School was our happy place,” she says. “They put Max together.” Brauer says she always knew her son was smart, but without the right tools, he struggled in school and began doubting himself.

“I started at Schenck in fourth grade, and it changed my life,” says Max Brauer. “The biggest thing I learned was a sense of confidence. I hated school and thought I was incapable of learning anything, but once I knew that I just learn differently, it changed the trajectory of my life.”

Street notes that The Schenck School replaces about 40% of their students each year through outplacement. “Our students are smart, so they can handle anything once we get them reading,” she says. “When I work with families on outplacement, a big concern is being sure that their student won’t lose the self-confidence they have built while with us.” Eighty-five percent of students from The Schenck School are accepted or waitlisted at their first-choice schools; Street attributes that to the academic program at Schenck and the willingness of families to choose schools that will best support their student’s needs moving forward. “Some  students have co-morbid conditions, such as ADD/ADHD, that we have to take into account.”

Brauer graduated from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School with 23 AP credits and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Computer Science from Georgia Tech in three years. He says that learning how to problem-solve and advocate for himself were two of the most important life skills he learned while at Schenck.

Williams echoes this sentiment. “My son, Eli, is in eighth grade at GRACEPOINT. The tools they are giving him, are equipping him for a brighter future,” he says. “Not just the tools for scholastics, but for self-confidence. He now knows that there are tools for solving problems and advocating for himself. It’s helped him become a leader at school and embrace his natural talents of drawing and creating things.”

“When I was growing up, dyslexia was a bad thing,” says Williams, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult. “I always thought it was just a few kids who see letters backwards. To see how schools are changing the trajectory of kids’ lives now is amazing.”

Specialized Education in Metro Atlanta:

Full Immersion Dyslexia Schools:

Schools Specializing in Learning Differences, Including Dyslexia:

  • The Bedford School
  • The Cottage School
  • Mill Springs Academy
  • The Howard School

“Schools Within a School” – Schools with Dyslexia Support Programs:

  • Mt. Paran Christian School
  • The Walker School
  • St. Martin’s Episcopal School

Dyslexia Dictionary

  • Co-Morbid Conditions: Health or behavior conditions that can exist along with dyslexia; can include ADD/ADHD, impulse control challenges, fine or gross motor delays, language processing disorders.
  • Dysgraphia: Challenges with a set of skills dealing with writing; can include typing, handwriting and spelling.
  • Dyslexia: Common term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols.
  • Individualized Education Program (IEP): A legal document that is developed for each public school child in the U.S. who needs special education or learning support; it outlines a child’s unique abilities and how that child will be able to access curriculum.
  • Orton-Gillingham: A direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing and spelling does not come easily.
  • Phonemic Awareness: The ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in spoken words.
  • Psychoeducational Evaluation (Psych-Ed Eval): Process in which a trained professional works to assess a child to identify how he/she learns.

Four Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me

1. Observe your child and follow your gut. “Having an older child helped us realize sooner that something wasn’t quite right,” says Sarnat. Trusting your instincts and testing early can help you get the right supports in place sooner, which can prevent not only a delay in learning and – maybe more importantly – emotional distress for your child and you, as a parent. “Seek out the resources your child needs,” says Owens. “I was relying on the school system to provide a diagnosis, and it wasn’t happening.”

2. Be aware that there are schools for dyslexic kids. “Atlanta is lucky to have so many specialty schools for these kids,” says Williams, who moved from Washington. Atlanta boasts nearly a dozen schools that support dyslexic students and help them thrive academically, socially and emotionally.

3. With the right tools and support, your child will be successful in school and beyond. “Dyslexia better prepares you to problem solve and think outside the box,” says Max Brauer. “Especially in college and life. It may be very tough at times, but things do get easier with the right people around you, the right tools and the right environment. With the right mindset, it won’t matter that you’re dyslexic.”

4. You are not alone. This is the most important. “It’s an emotional roller coaster,” says Lou Brauer. “Share your stories and lean on others.” Statistics show that dyslexia affects a lot of families, so reach out and find support and resources. “Asking for help from friends was a game changer for us,” says Williams. “It’s how we found GRACEPOINT.”

-Tali Benjamin

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2021 issue.

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