Family & Wellbeing

Learning that your child has dyslexia can be very challenging. But the label can also be liberating. Suddenly your child is no longer just the struggling kid in the class. Rather, they have a learning difference – or preferred way of learning – that can be dealt with constructively. 

The concept of preference is about recognizing that dyslexic individuals think differently, receiving and retrieving information in a different part of the brain to neurotypical, word-based thinkers. They tend to think in pictures rather than words. And often prefer to receive and present orally or visually rather than via the written word. 

Dyslexia does not just affect reading and writing – it can impact auditory and visual perception, planning and organising, motor skills, short term memory and concentration. On the upside, dyslexia can deliver powerful creativity and the kind of ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking that is becoming increasingly important in an IT led world. This can be a real positive when children have support from their family to achieve their full potential. 

Most schools are now using a Structured Approach to literacy. The DFNZ supports this type of approach, such as the Better Start Literacy Approach from Canterbury University.

However, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The idea that if we can teach children to read accurately through the use of phonics the ‘problem’ of dyslexia will disappear ignores the fact that dyslexia is not simply an issue with reading and writing skills.  Difficulties with basic skills are merely symptoms of dyslexia, so addressing this needs to take into account that the dyslexic brain is wired differently. 

DFNZ believes Structured Literacy should therefore be taught alongside a Notice and Adjust strategy. ‘Notice and adjust’ is about implementing personalised and individual learning strategies based on noticing what is not working and making simple changes, for example using visuals, colour and real objects as props through to reducing classroom noise and distractions.

If your child has been taught literacy – reading, spelling and writing – using a  Structured Literacy Approach and they are not making sufficient progress, it is worth investigating other muti-sensory and meaning based approaches. If you are worried about your child’s learning or the school has alerted you to a concern, the first thing to do is to organise a meeting with your child’s teacher.

For further help in supporting and advocating for your child click here for our downloadable booklet.

Seeking Professional Support? 

Unlocking the potential of dyslexia and neurodiversity is a not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Core beliefs formed in childhood can fundamentally impact the journey, and the effects of early classroom experiences can linger into adult life. If not properly supported from an early age, dyslexia and neurodiversity can create underlying self-esteem challenges, and a range of emotions, limiting beliefs and conditions including guilt, shame, blame, a deep fear of failure, anxiety and depression. 

Sometimes it can be appropriate to seek professional support – and this page outlines some of the support available to explore emotions, limiting beliefs and conditions that may have deep roots in experiences with dyslexia/neurodiversity. Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand is not in a position to recommend therapists per se, instead this provides an overview of different types of therapy available.

Firstly, though, some words of caution. Therapy and personal counselling can be a complex area, and some mental and emotional health professionals (ie. psychologists, psychotherapists, counsellors, and life coaches) may be less well equipped than others to support people with dyslexia and neurodiversities. Undiagnosed dyslexia can be a root cause of psychological issues, such as anxiety and depression, and it may remain undiagnosed – leading to inappropriate treatment being recommended – should the therapist not have an awareness and understanding of dyslexia and neurodiversity.  

In the therapeutic process, frustration may ensue if therapists do not consider difficulties that some individuals may have in processing information, and/or provide the time and space for this to happen. Dyslexic or neurodiverse individuals may become retraumatized as they struggle to understand, process and connect with their therapist and if the therapist does not accurately understand them. This can bring up past traumatic memories and cement painful emotions. In contrast, if a therapist is dyslexia/neurodiverse aware, then some past experiences can be reframed in the context of challenges and associated emotions that have arisen through understandable/natural struggles with learning. 

In addition, if an individual is not able to find words for, or process what they feel, the struggle they are having may be interpreted as something other than dyslexia/neurodiversity. Subsequent treatment may incorrectly be provided that is overlooking important aspects of the root cause. An example would be where a therapist suggests a list of positive actions an individual could make to move forward, but the individual feels overwhelmed and unable to concentrate or make a start.  

We would like to thank individual and family therapist Jane Kjersten, MCouns (Hons), NZAC, MSACC (US) for assistance putting together the information on this page.

Separately, DFNZ has also partnered with internationally acclaimed neural coding experts Amanda and Sarah Foo-Ryland to provide access to a simple belief change process that explores and unlocks limiting beliefs. 

Click here to find out more

Mental and Emotional Health Professionals 

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialised in psychiatry.  They have particular strengths in understanding the biological side of mental health problems and generally prescribe medications like anti-depressants, stimulants for ADHD, anxiety stabilisers and other such drugs for mental and emotional issues.  They can diagnose mental health issues and disorders and help to manage them.  They will prescribe medications in collaboration with a GP.  Some have an interest in psychological therapy and provide counselling.

Psychologists specialise in offering symptom and behavioural focused treatment.  They usually work with both acute and chronic mental health issues.  Psychologists use various techniques, but most commonly use evidence-based therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  They can help people overcome addictions, manage chronic illnesses, as well as anxiety and depression.  They use tests and assessments to help diagnose a condition or evaluate cognitive strengths and weaknesses, vocational abilities, personality and neuropsychological functioning.

Psychotherapists work with people for a short term to help them process a specific goal or they work for a long period to address severe mental illness and emotional problems.  They most often work with the deep issues that arise from childhood trauma, early childhood experiences such as insecure attachment with primary caregivers, and the role of emotions in shaping behaviour.  Their focus is often on the unconscious patterns that have been established from these early life experiences and which are re-enacted in current relationships and within the therapeutic relationship.  A psychotherapist can assist people with conditions such as stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, bipolar disorder, affect disorders, borderline personality disorder, and other mental and emotional disorders.

Counselling most often focuses on regular life problems rather than severe mental health disorders.  Counsellors draw on a range of skills and interventions that help people to grow in self-awareness and explore challenges in their life.  Counsellors assist people to work through problems such as anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, abuse, financial stress, domestic violence, divorce, relationship issues and loss.  They may specialise in working with individuals, couples and families.  Some people use counselling for vocational guidance, personal development, or life transitions.  Counsellors most often help clients talk about their feelings and find effective ways to resolve the problems they are facing.

Life Coaches 
A life coach is a professional who helps people maximise their potential and reach their desired goals.  Coaching primarily aims to help “healthy” clients to utilise their abilities more effectively than they have previously. They generally assist people with work-life balance, career choices, identifying and achieving personal goals, and to develop skills and attitudes that help them gain greater fulfilment in their daily life.

An Overview of Dyslexia and Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity refers to differences in the way our brains are wired and process information. Neurodiversity spans a spectrum from neurotypical individuals through to conditions such as ASD, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, ADHD, Traumatic Brain Injury, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. DFNZ, based on international occurrence, conservatively estimates at least 10% of the New Zealand population have dyslexia, and at least 20% collectively have some other form of neurodifference, so almost one in three (about 1.5 million) New Zealanders.

Neurotypical people use the ‘verbal’ left side of the brain to process information, making them word-based thinkers. Dyslexic individuals in contrast use the ‘visual’ right side of the brain. In short, they tend to turn words into pictures to understand them, and then turn the picture back into words to respond – a process that can require extra effort and time. Properly understood and addressed, dyslexia offers strengths in right brain thinking – big picture concepts, lateral thinking, enhanced visual/spatial understanding, high level conceptualisation, innovation, problem solving and empathy. Many dyslexic individuals also excel in engineering, design, architecture, arts, mathematics and sciences. 

Other neurodiversities also reflect differences in brain wiring and processing – for example Dyspraxia involves many different nerves and parts of the brain that impact physical co-ordination; in Autism, social development is impacted, and with Asperger’s a different part of the brain engages when the individual assesses facial expressions. 

Dyslexia and Neurodiversity Propensities

The effects of neurodiversity range from mild to intense. On one end of the spectrum or in a particular environment, individuals may be high functioning performers who appear to easily engage with their neurotypical counterparts. At the other, individuals may experience one or more of a range of challenges: anxiety and nervousness, decreased spatial awareness, slower cognitive processing speeds and comprehension, impaired or heightened auditory and visual perception, issues with auditory processing, high sensitivity to light and sounds and sensory overload, poor short-term memory and variable concentration, reduced ability to understand procedures and follow instructions, inability to comprehend cause and effect and/or consequences, difficulty making eye contact, easily distracted, poor time management/time keeping and so on. 

Common to a range of neurodiversities are different degrees of comprehension and (dis)comfort in social situations, along with behaviours that might be perceived as hostility, or acting out. In reality, these are often coping mechanisms for the individual with neurodiversities and have no pejorative meaning. Most importantly, avoid jumping to conclusions and assuming individuals are trying to be ‘difficult’. 

Lack of eye contact is a commonplace characteristic. Eye contact can be unpleasant and very confronting at a deep level, creating anxiety, nervousness, and overwhelm. There are also cultural considerations in that while eye contact is considered important in Western culture; for many others – including Maori, Pasifika, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American cultures – significant eye contact can be seen as inappropriate, be subject to gender rules and in some cases be considered intensely disrespectful.

Answering ‘yes’ quickly and frequently to questions, whether they are understood or not, is another neurodiverse coping strategy to bring an uncomfortable situation to an end.

Sensory overload can come from too much sensory input, whether visual, auditory or olfactory, ie bright long run/fluorescent lights, loud noises, small spaces, strong smells (including food or perfume).

Fidgeting or tapping are another common characteristic of neurodiversities. Whilst this is indicative of anxiety or nervousness in the individual, it can be misinterpreted as guilt, disinterest or belligerence. In reality, fidgeting and tapping can be a calming repetitive action that aids focus and concentration.