When my seven-year-old son was diagnosed with visual-perceptual disorder I found myself seeking answers, hoping not only to understand the diagnosis but to find ways to understand what my son needed from me. When we first received Josh’s diagnosis, I didn’t know what “visual-perceptual disorder” was, and in the midst of the confusion I was not given any guidance about therapies or treatments for it.

However, I knew he was “mirror writing,” upside-down and backwards, with both numbers and letters. As much as we tried, he also couldn’t seem to learn left from right, how to tie his shoes, or how to tell time. I researched the symptoms (pre-internet), and determined it must be dyslexia (or something very similar). Very little was known about dyslexia in the 90’s, and dysgraphia and dyscalculia had really not even surfaced yet as legitimate disorders. Thus, I decided to teach him using the strategies one would use for a person with dyslexia.

From my research and former education, I knew I had to provide multisensory instruction in order for the brain synapses to fire and connect, increasing memory and retention. I thought in terms of using all five senses when working with letters and numbers. I learned that I should begin with large, gross motor writing that begins with the whole arm and later progresses to small motor writing with a pencil. I made the choice to begin working through all of our language arts subjects without paper and pencil instead, we used a variety of objects and materials found inside and outside our home. This was a creative challenge for a newly homeschooling mom!

Because we lived in the country, I took full advantage of schooling outside as much as possible. Most mornings we went to the sandbar by the creek to write letters in the sand with a large stick. We also worked math problems and practiced spelling on the sandbar. Jake, my younger son, enjoyed these lessons as much as Josh and I felt it was good reinforcement for both. After all, these neurological glitches run in families, so I wanted to be on the safe side and do a little preventive work. I implemented several multisensory strategies beginning with shaping letters and numbers with rocks in the driveway, usually with an emphasis on one letter and one number per day to limit confusion. We added clay, shaving cream, rice trays, and chocolate pudding to include the sense of smell in our multisensory experiences. For the kinesthetic component, we added exercise and stretches to form the letters with our bodies. The boys and I always loved these fun activities, enjoyed spending time together outside, and simultaneously gained a strong foundation in pre-reading and writing skills.

I never talked with Josh about my reason for homeschooling or his learning disability; it didn’t seem necessary since we were learning at home and making all the needed accommodations. Interestingly, many years later, he was in an architectural design course at the university, and was required to draw a historic building to scale. When he presented it in class his professor called him to his office and asked Josh if he had dyslexia. It turned out that he had drawn the building in perfect scale, but mirrored (completely backwards). My 19-year-old son called home to ask me if I had forgotten to mention that he is dyslexic! We had a good laugh and then I proceeded to explain it academically. Josh is an avid reader, has a strong vocabulary and can spell better than I can, so I’m pretty sure he is not dyslexic, since dyslexia is a language based disorder. However, I believe he has a very strong case of dysgraphia because he still has many of the symptoms, such as illegible handwriting, struggle to communicate in written form, and poor spatial planning. Josh now teaches high school agriculture and finds that his dysgraphia doesn’t get in his way of success.

Dysgraphia is a disorder that still gets very little attention and is not included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual yet, but is gaining in awareness and understanding. You can learn more about dysgraphia and dyslexia on the HLA website.

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Welcome to our “First Glance” blog series written by Trudy Abel! Over the next few weeks we will be featuring different Special Needs topics – introducing you to each concept through the lens of Trudy’s initial experiences with various diagnoses.

Trudy Abel holds a M.A.Ed. in Gifted Education and a Ph.D. in Special Education from University of Southern Mississippi. She has taught students of all ages within general, gifted, and special education in public, private and homeschool settings. She has also served as a special education professor in four different universities, recently retiring from University of North Alabama.

She homeschooled her two sons at different points in their education to accommodate their learning differences (dyslexia, ADHD, and giftedness); homeschooled two nieces for a couple of years; and taught history in a homeschool cooperative. Before homeschooling was widely accepted, Trudy opened a consulting business for homeschooling families to provide academic support, testing and accountability. Later, she co-founded a non-profit school for children with dyslexia.

Most of her career has focused on educating future teachers and parents about special needs. Her passion in working with families of children with special needs is to increase understanding, provide support, and equip with needed resources to ensure success.