Ottawa’s Shaylyn Hewton, 13, is a nationally ranked swimmer. She is also dyslexic and takes out her stress in the pool.
The list of accomplished dyslexics is long and distinguished and includes basketballer, Michael Jordan, Boxer, Muhammad Ali, racing car driver, Sir Jackie Stewart, and golfer, Adam Scott. All these high achievers are dyslexic.
And just as dyslexia didn’t stop them from reaching the top of their field, Shaylyn Hewton, 13,says it won’t stop her. The Grade 8 student in Ottawa, is one of the top five backstroke swimmers in Canada in her age group and aspires to be on the Canadian team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“That’s definitely where I want to be,” says Shaylyn. “Every time I swim, it’s an amazing feeling I have, and I just take out all my stress in the pool. If there’s a big test coming up, I forget about that test and I swim through it. If something happens, I swim through it. I swim through the pain.” Shaylyn’s talent doesn’t surprise Susan Barton, a California-based dyslexia expert. Barton says superior physical ability can be one of the “gifts” of dyslexia, as can superior musical and artistic ability, people skills and logic, among many others.
In 1998, Barton, 57, left a 20-year career in the IT industry to help her nephew, who was 16 and still unable to read when his dyslexia was identified. She founded Bright Solutions for Dyslexia, an organization that educates teachers and parents about the condition and develops research-based solutions. Barton says people hold many misconceptions about dyslexia, including the idea that dyslexics see things backward, that they can’t read at all, and that it’s rare. In fact, about 15 per cent of the population has dyslexia although only five per cent are correctly diagnosed, says Barton. People with dyslexia have a larger right hemisphere in their brains than those of most readers, says Barton, which also accounts for their strengths. She says if adults know what to look for, dyslexia is easy to detect early on. If a child doesn’t have 10 to 12 words by 12 months, that’s a sign; if a child doesn’t have a clear preference for one hand or the other by age four, that’s a sign; if a child frequentlymixes up the sequence of syllables – pasghetti instead of spaghetti – that’s a sign.
Shaylyn displayed signs of a learning disability early. She was unable to hold a crayon at three years old, for example. She was able to get early intervention for what was eventually diagnosed as severe dyslexia and can now read at a Grade 6 level, though she still struggles more with spelling.
Barton says with hard work, even adults whose dyslexia has never been diagnosed can acquire reading, writing and spelling skills.
“There truly is no reason why they have to be slow readers, embarrassed about their spelling and reading their whole life. That part we know how to fix,” she says, adding the oldest student she has ever worked with personally was 63. “But the earlier we pick it up, the better.”
Shaylyn says that while she’s not ashamed of her difficulties, she generally keeps quiet about them because of other people’s reactions. She says she has friends on Facebook or who text her with comments on her spelling.
“I keep it secretive because some people take it differently,” says Shaylyn.
“But my close friends know about it.”
Barton says there’s no perfect method for helping every dyslexic, but there are many good ones, each with their own strengths.
Children with dyslexia can often possess superior physical strengths and attributes. Sometimes I hear parents say a child will have to give up their sporting pursuits to focus more on learning to read and spell and to improve their grades at school. It is important to remember there must be a balance. Children must be able to define themselves as successful in some way whether that is as a gymnast or a good reader. It is all about having the personal confidence to be resilient and give life a red hot go on every level. Who knows your child may be the next big thing at a future Olympics.
Wishing you and your child every success