Decoding Dyslexia: Lansing-based institute helps those with a common learning disorder

The myths and misconceptions persist.

They may range from a belief that the issue boils down to simply seeing a few letters swapped here and there, and they can run to an extreme end of believing the disorder doesn’t truly exist at all. It’s merely a phantom conjured from the imagination.

Unfortunately for what some estimates indicate is one out of every five U.S. residents, dyslexia is all too real; it is something they struggle with on a daily basis and there is no cure.

“I think many people still believe that dyslexia means writing backwards, someone confusing their B’s and D’s, writing from right to left and that’s all it is,” said Susan Medendorp, director of the Abrams Learning Laboratory inside the central offices of the Michigan Dyslexia Institute on Shiawassee Street in downtown Lansing. “A person who has dyslexia has trouble making the association between the speech sounds and the letters that make those sounds. They have trouble understanding what we call the alphabetic code.”

Developmental dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by reading difficulty in children and adults that is also typically accompanied by difficulty with writing and spelling. It is not related to or has any bearing on intelligence levels. There is no known cause for the disorder and no known cure. Those diagnosed with dyslexia have to adapt to a different way of learning, which is where the work of the Michigan Dyslexia Institute comes into play.

For nearly four decades, the Michigan Dyslexia Institute has provided more than 7,500 language/math evaluations and 1,100 medical diagnoses of dyslexia as well as trained more than 2,500 individuals to recognize and teach children and adults with dyslexia. In that same time, instructors at the institute have provided more than 405,000 hours of one-on-one teaching for those with dyslexia. In 2016 alone, the Michigan Dyslexia Institute instructed on average 161 students each month, totaling 8,273 hours of instruction for the year.

The institute was founded in 1982 by John and Kay Howell, two educators and researchers from Haslett, after their youngest daughter was diagnosed by dyslexia. 

“They were quick to learn there was not much out there to remediate dyslexia,” said Brandy Nelson, vice president of operations at the Michigan Dyslexia Institute. “What they did was take the methods available from the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners to train instructors to tutor students with dyslexia.”

The Academy of Orton-Gillingahm Practitioners and Educators created a standards and certification process in the treatment of dyslexia. The academy’s methods involve a multi-sensory approach to learning where all five senses are used to retain what is being taught. For example, the Michigan Dyslexia Institute uses a sand tray as a teaching tool where students can run their fingers through the grains while sounding out words. Nelson explained that the sensation of touch, combined with the aural experience, can aid in a student’s overall comprehension.

Still, it’s a long, difficult and uphill road. Receiving one hour of instruction two times each week requires a commitment of several years before students have the tools needed to adapt to the new learning methods.

“And I think that’s a minimum of two years. It is a long-term process,” Medendorp said. “It’s something you have to practice at to get good at it. I try to make it very clear at the outset that it’s not a quick fix.”

That fix can take much longer for those who are diagnosed with dyslexia later in life because they have built up years of bad habits that must be broken.

“They have to unlearn things like looking at the start of a word and then just guessing at what it is,” Medendorp said. “Starting younger is definitely better.”

Yet therein lies an additional problem: Some people don’t get diagnosed because they don’t realize they even have the disorder, chalking up their difficulties to an intelligence deficiency.

“A lot of times adults will discover it when they hear someone else talking about the signs and symptoms or they have a child having difficulties who they take in for testing,” Nelson said. “As they’re trying to figure it out, they think, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I have this too.’ When they find out, they feel very liberated. It’s very emotional.”

In addition to getting instructors certified in the Orton-Gillingham method, the Michigan Dyslexia Institute also reaches out to school districts to help train teachers in not only working with dyslexic students but also being able to identify signs and symptoms of dyslexia in those who may be undiagnosed. Some school districts pursue such training on their own; however, there is no statewide law or pending legislation that addresses dyslexia. Through her appointment by Gov. Rick Snyder to the PreK-12 Literacy Commission, Medendorp hopes to see that change.

“Michigan is only one of seven states that does not have legislation about dyslexia,” she said. “There’s nothing that says what schools need to do. There is no education policy for assessing it, dealing with it or about accommodations for students with dyslexia.”

Nelson said increased awareness and education about the disorder will help to spotlight its wide prevalence and develop an understanding of the need to address the issue.

“There are actually people out there that think dyslexia doesn’t exist,” Nelson said. “So many people have this. The International Dyslexia Association says that 15-20 percent of the population has a language-based learning deficiency, and so many others out there are undiagnosed.”

Headquartered in Lansing, the Michigan Dyslexia Institute has four satellite centers in the state in Berkley, Flint, Harbor Springs and St. Clair. To learn more about the Michigan Dyslexia Institute and the services it offers, visit dyslexia.net.

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