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Diagnosed with dyslexia at age six... now Belfast woman Eleni has a Master's degree

 

After Penny Lancaster’s revelation that she had only been diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 46, Eleni Crockard, from Belfast, tells Stephanie Bell how finding out she’d the condition at an early age meant she got the support she needed to attend university and now works helping young people with learning difficulties.

As a child with undiagnosed dyslexia TV personality Penny Lancaster’s teacher told her dad she would never amount to anything. The former model who is married to Rod Stewart revealed just last week that she had been diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 46.

The Loose Women presenter also confessed that she had always been terrified of reading aloud. Despite the late diagnosis, Penny was always aware of her condition, particularly during her days at school where it severely knocked her confidence.

Her father, Graham, would take her to extra English tuition to try and improve her reading and writing, but came up against unsympathetic teachers, who told her that she would ‘never amount to anything.’

Belfast graduate Eleni Crockard was fortunate to be diagnosed with dyslexia when she was just six and her parents ensured she received all the support she needed.

Today Eleni works in a college helping other young people with learning difficulties and she marvels at how Penny coped with not being diagnosed until the age of 46.

She says: “I was very fortunate that it was picked up early for me and that my parents had the means to search for help and get me that help.

“If they hadn’t, I’m sure it could have been a very different story.

“I think if a person is only diagnosed when they are older, then there has to be that sense of what they could have achieved if they had of known earlier and got the support.

“Penny Lancaster has obviously created coping strategies without realising that she has done so to help get her through.”

Eleni knows only too well how much more difficult life can be coping with dyslexia and is a perfect example of how with the right support it should not stop you achieving.

It is estimated that one in every 10 to 20 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia. The condition isn’t related to a person’s general level of intelligence and children and adults of all intellectual abilities can be affected by it.

The exact cause of dyslexia, which affects reading and related language-based processing skills, is unknown, but it often appears to run in families.

The severity can differ in each person but it can affect reading fluency, decoding, reading comprehension, recall, writing, spelling, and sometimes speech and can exist along with other related disorders.

Eleni found school difficult which makes her academic achievements all the more remarkable. She graduated from Northumbria University in Newcastle last year with a masters degree in psychology of education after achieving an honours degree also in psychology.

She now works as a disability advisor in Newcastle College, supporting young people with learning difficulties, including many with dyslexia.

It is not the career she had planned but her own experience has enabled her to understand what the students are going through.

She was in primary two when her teacher recognised the signs. “I was more fortunate than many others because it was picked up so early and I was able to get support.” Eleni recalls.

“Mum and dad were able to go ahead and get me an official diagnosis and that helped with secondary school and university.

“School is hard enough but definitely a lot harder when you have dyslexia. You do need to put in far more time working. For me, repetition really helped.

“I was also lucky that my parents were able to search for support and provide it for me. If they hadn’t been able to afford extra tuition it could have been a different story for me and that’s why there needs to be more support for people who can’t afford to pay for it.

“I hated maths and mum arranged for me to do Kumon after school.”

Rather than offering conventional maths and English tuition, Kumon instructors guide students through work that is set at just the right level for them, keeping them engaged and making progress. They support and encourage students to work out answers by themselves.

“I found it really helped me with my GCSEs,” says Eleni.

“Mum also found practical exercises which she did with me at home. They were aimed at helping develop your brain capacity and gets your neurons all working together. And she also started to work from home for a couple of years, so that she could give me the extra support I needed in primary school.

“It was a shock for my parents when I was diagnosed and while obviously you would prefer not to have it, it is not the end of the world.

“There are more ways to help children now and things have changed in the last 20 years. There is now a better understanding of dyslexia and how we can support people”

Eleni did get support in primary school but felt that in the classroom setting with so many children, teachers just didn’t have the time to focus on kids who needed extra help.

She says: “We didn’t have a teaching assistant then and, of about 30 kids in the class, there were about five of us who needed that extra bit of support. However, the system is quite results driven and tended to work better for the kids who were already doing well.”

A teacher did arrange for extra work to help Eleni through her 11-plus and she secured a place at Lagan College. As a young teenage, however, she didn’t want to be labelled and refused any extra help in secondary school.

“I struggled to do my 11-plus but I got into the school I wanted,” she says. “I didn’t want to be seen as being different from everyone else at secondary school.

“I think that is the same for kids today and I think the answer is in discreet group support which we provide in the college I work in. The fact that kids don’t want to be labelled is something we are very mindful of.”

Her diagnosis meant that she was allowed extra time during exams which she said made all the difference. She achieved 10 GCSEs and three A-levels.

Looking back she says her school years were very tough and has found that life since leaving the education system is much easier.

She had hoped for a career as an educational psychologist but feels that she has found her vocation in her current job helping young people in college with learning difficulties.

She says: “What I am doing now is not what I left school thinking I would do but I love it and I think that this will be my career path.

“A lot of the kids I work with have dyslexia and we deal with everything from mild learning difficulties to the most complex. We offer different types of support, it depends on the person and what their needs are.

“I get so much job satisfaction from it. Even from something as simple as getting someone to speak up in class — just knowing that you have helped them to get the confidence to do that is brilliant.

“There was this one woman who was in her 40s who was doing a degree and like Penny Lancaster she had always suspected she had dyslexia.

“I got her through the assessment and when she was diagnosed she didn’t take it very well. I had to do a counselling session with her and remind her how much she had achieved.”

“I still think there is a stereotype and people think if you can’t read you must be stupid or that if you have dyslexia you won’t achieve very much,” Eleni adds. “Unfortunately I feel we still have a long way to go in recognising it and getting people the proper support.

“In my everyday life now it doesn’t really affect me but in

education you are very aware of it.

“School is hard enough, never mind making your way through it with a learning difficulty.”

What to do if you think your child has dyslexia

If you think your child may have dyslexia, the first step is to speak to their teacher or their school’s special needs co-ordinator (SENCO) about your concerns. They may be able to offer additional support to help your child if necessary.

If your child continues to have problems despite extra support, you or the school may want to consider requesting a more in-depth assessment from a specialist dyslexia teacher or an educational psychologist.

This can be arranged through the school, or you can request a private assessment.

Adults who wish to be assessed for dyslexia should contact a local or national dyslexia association for advice.

If your child has dyslexia, they’ll probably need extra educational support from their school. And with the appropriate help, there’s usually no reason your child can’t go to a mainstream school, although a small number of children may benefit from attending a specialist school.

Techniques and support that may help your child include occasional one-to-one teaching or lessons in a small group with a specialist teacher.

Phonics— a special learning technique that focuses on improving the ability to identify and process the smaller sounds that make up words — can also work well.

And technology can really help, for example speech recognition software may make it easier for your child to read and write when they’re a bit older.

How to look out for the signs

These usually become apparent when a child starts school and begins to focus more on learning how to read and write.

A person with dyslexia may

  • read and write very slowly
  • confuse the order of letters in words
  • put letters the wrong way round – such as writing ‘b’ instead of ‘d’
  • have poor or inconsistent spelling
  • understand information when told verbally, but have difficulty with information that’s written down
  • find it hard to carry out a sequence of directions
  • struggle with planning and organisation

However, people with dyslexia often have good skills in other areas, such as creative thinking and problem solving.

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