“I had lost face before the other parents, but look, I am the one shining now,” says Lucie Waitherero Gitonga confidently.
“When other parents spoke highly of their children in school, I had nothing to say even though I love my children very much,” recalls the mother of two dyslexic sons.
Dyslexia is a learning disability characterised by difficulties with accurate/fluent word recognition, reading and poor spelling abilities.
Notably, it is the long and painful journey to this discovery that led Ms Gitonga and her husband to discover that dyslexics are highly gifted. Indeed, they have told their boys that they are very special because not everyone is as gifted as they are.
“We told them about Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, and a few other great personalities around the world who are dyslexic,” Ms Gitonga shares. “We are very proud of our children. We support and encourage them so that they will amount to something with their special gifts.”
The Gitongas’ journey began with the birth of their first child, Jeremiah, five years into their marriage.
“Our first-born son was diagnosed with complicated jaundice at birth.
“Complicated jaundice is a condition in which the skin and mucous membranes turn yellow due to the accumulation of bile pigments in the blood and their being deposited in body tissues; it affects the liver and the brain.
As a result, Ms Gitonga had to remain in hospital for 10 days to enable the doctors to closely monitor her son. They were then discharged and went home. Her son grew up into a very playful and happy child.
One-and-a-half years later, she conceived again and history repeated itself when their second son, Nehemiah, was born.
But it was when Jeremiah joined pre-school that the Gitongas noticed that something was amiss.
“He was very playful, he had a very short attention span and his teachers frequently summoned us to school as a result,” she says. Their son also frequently engaged in fights. “This did not seem normal, so we took him to a neurologist to check whether he had a brain disorder,” she reveals.
The neurologist diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
“That explained his teacher’s frequent complaints that he was hyperactive and jumpy,” she says. Their son was put on medication, but after two weeks she noticed that he had become moody and lethargic. “I withdraw the medication and decided I could deal with his jumpiness,” she says with a chuckle.
Their younger son, who had just joined school, was equally troublesome. “Their teachers would call every week. Our boys would continue playing even when break time was over. We didn’t know how to handle it,” she says.
The situation at home was no better. “They were hyperactive and would fight. We rarely visited neighbours or friends since our sons would break things and injure themselves and their playmates,” she says. And in church they distracted her so much that she could not listen to the sermon.
Ms Gitonga was near breaking point when she decided to research on ADHD. “I discovered that people with ADHD could lead nearly normal lives. That helped me achieve a level of acceptance,” she says.
But not before their older son, then in Standard One, dropped the bombshell: “Mum, why can’t I read when everyone else in class is reading sentences?” he asked one Saturday morning.
That question made her realise that their son needed help had been struggling: he was almost always at the bottom of his class every term.
“I assured him that all would be well and told myself I needed to act,” Ms Gitonga recalls.
His question reminded her of a friend who had told her that she had problems reading. “She had told me she always had to keep referring to a book to remember anything,” Ms Gitonga says.
She easily connected this with her son’s tendency of confusing letters p and q, and w and m, among others. She called her long-time friend, who told her that she had dyslexia.
That prompted Ms Gitonga and her husband to begin researching on dyslexia. They joined an online group in Australia that supports parents of children with dyslexia. “We downloaded audio materials containing a programme on how to help children with dyslexia deal with hyperactivity and increase their attention span. We applied them and made some progress,” she notes.
But the programme needed the support of their sons’ teachers. However, years of dealing with the boy’s disruptive behaviour had taken their toll on them.
“I had noted that as a new academic year started, the would-be class teacher would tense up if they discovered that either of our sons would be in their class,” Ms Gitonga says. Meanwhile, she and her husband discovered that their son had been failing his exams simply because he could not read.
But things got worse when their younger son joined Standard One. “He was more hyperactive and even less attentive than his brother. The teacher was not supportive and would beat him for not paying attention,” she recalls. So, feeling victimised the boy hated school with a passion.
Their home tutor, too, was equally frustrated. It seemed as if they just couldn’t learn anything, Ms Gitonga says.
Then in November last year, she mentioned the issue to her boss since her performance at work had also been affected. Her boss referred her to dyslexia specialist and teacher, Ms Esther Muchiri Wamae, the principal of the Kenya Community Centre for Learning (KCCL) off Thika Road in Nairobi.
She contacted the school, and after assessing her sons, it diagnosed them with dyslexia; they joined the school in January this year. “The most amazing thing is that within a month, their self-esteem climbed from zero to 100,” she says happily. “My little boy can now read letters A to Z while the older one can read complete sentences. It is amazing,”
And since KCCL strives to educate the whole person, the boys are slowly discovering their talents. “The older boy is gifted in IT. At just 10 years he can dismantle a computer and reassemble it,” says Ms Gitonga. “He is also doing serious art sketches and reading story books. And he has very high self-confidence since he is encouraged to believe in himself. His hyperactivity has also gone down,” she says.
Similarly, her younger son has developed very high self-esteem and is the school’s top dancer. “He uses building blocks to create skyscrapers. I see an architect in him,” she says. “Surprisingly, both of them are gifted in mathematics, and sports like swimming, football, basketball, skating, dancing, chess and drama. They are also very creative,” Ms Gitonga adds.
Although she has found inner peace, knowing that her children will lead fairly normal lives, she says the Kenyan education system should develop a curriculum that accommodates children with special needs in all public schools since this will not only lower the cost of education for such children, but will also make it easier for them to access education.
She suggests that teacher training colleges lay greater emphasis on special needs so that children can be diagnosed early. “This will allow early intervention and ensure that children and their families do not suffer unnecessarily trying to figure out what the problem is,” she says.
“Children with special needs have low immunity and are, therefore, susceptible to frequent illnesses,” she notes.
She has also discovered that some foods can trigger hyperactivity in dyslexic children.
“I avoid sugars and processed foods. I also avoid white bread,” she says.
“Whole-meal ugali, brown rice, and organic foods work best to lower hyperactivity.”
She also keeps the boys busy with outdoor activities like swimming and walks to stabilise their energy levels.
She advises parents not to beat their children who cannot read.
“It is beyond them. Love them the way they are and just find solutions that can make them independent adults,” she advises.
It is honourable to have a child with special needs, she says.
“To be a mother of a gifted child means that you are one of God’s best soldiers given a tough responsibility,” she says.
Ms Gitonga runs a support group on Facebook, Parents of Dyslexia, for parents of dyslexic children and as well as parents of children with other special needs.
Handling children with dyslexia calls for a multi-sensory approach
DYSLEXIA IS A LEARNING DIFFICULTY that affects one’s ability to read and write. It is characterised by the inability to differentiate certain letters since the brain cannot recognise the direction these letters should face, for instance “b, p and d”, “w and m”, “u and n”, and “f and t”. As a result, people with the condition read the word incorrectly, or reverse the letters, says Ms Winnie Ngala, a special needs teacher at the Kenya Community Centre for Learning (KCCL), off Thika Road, Nairobi.
To re-align dyslexic pupils’ reading to the thought process, the teacher helps them read aloud and listen whether what they are reading is in line with the context of the sentence. It can be a slow process since it depends on an individual’s ability to process information.
Children with dyslexia also have a low attention span. To ensure that they grab their attention and make them concentrate, their teachers use a multi-sensory teaching approach to enable them to use all their senses. If a child can read out a word but cannot write it down, they let him or her draw it; with time the child will learn to write it.
The teachers also capitalise on the children’s key strengths because they express themselves very well artistically. “If you allow them to express themselves the best way they know, it brings out their creativity.” says Ms Ngala.
But it is breaking learning into short, simple and manageable tasks that works best for dyslexic children because their brains tend to process information slowly. Modifying learning to include play or discussing each paragraph of a story on its own corrects any misunderstanding there might me,” explains Ms Ngala.
The Kenya Community Centre for Learning (KCCL) screens children to assess their reading abilitiy and progress. The students sit for the International General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations, but with modifications. For instance, they have readers, people read the questions for them to ensure that they understand what is required. The learners can write down or draw the answers, but if a learner cannot do either, he or she is allowed to give it verbally while the reader writes it down.
“We assess the learner’s comprehension and not their ability to read, so having a reader does not compromise the effectiveness of the examination,” says Ms Ngala.
She emphasises that the reader is an enabler, since the learner has a problem with reading, not understanding.
She advises teachers not to measure a child’s ability by the way they read and write as this tends to focus only on one side of the brain, and not their artistic side. “A teacher should never dismiss a child because they cannot read as there are many other things that a person can do,” she says.
With experience in more than 15 different schools, Ms Ngala has seen many dyslexic children achieve their full potential. “They are renowned photographers, performing artistes, entrepreneurs, painters and fine artists,” she says, adding that dyslexics have a way of turning their gifts, creativity and passion into a livelihood.
Consequently, she says, parents of dyslexic children should invest in their child’s talent since there is very little one can do regarding a child’s ability to read. They can consider enrolling the child for courses like fine art, music, IT among others, depending on the child’s gifts.
“If this is not done, such gifted children will sit on their talent, which can stand in their way of achieving financial independence,” says Ms Ngala.