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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Widemire Smith

Meltdowns, Stuttering, and Invisable Walls

I have two children, 7.5 and almost 9 who are dyslexic. I am dyslexic as well. Now I didn’t know I was dyslexic until my son was diagnosed and 10 seconds later I got hit with all kinds of questions that had me reeling. The expert in front of me was reading MY mail. But hey cool. Now I know why I dropped out of college and it had nothing to do with how smart I was.

I’m an ambitious person. I want to learn everything about everything. And now that I know I’m dyslexic I know how to avoid the pitfalls of reading and can study the crap out of any topic I want. So I set my sights on dyslexia. This study by MIT finally made it all make sense. Now I’m a medical jargon junky but I am not a medical professional. Medicine makes sense to me and I find it fascinating. So when I read studies like this. I naturally understand a lot about what they’re saying. But I also see ways of it applies to my everyday life and can talk about it differently. I’ve helped a lot of fellow dyslexic moms with their kids but if any of you scientists out there read it and find it wrong please shoot me a message and explain how. I’m going to do my best:

So here goes my layperson explanation and why I think this is important enough to spend my time writing it out and sharing for you to read.

Thanks to a lot of researchers and MRI scans (And Yale university) we already know that the dyslexic brain is larger than the average brain. We also know that the left and right hemispheres are the same size and both are dominate in dyslexics. In average brains one side is slightly larger than the other and the biggest side is in charge—this makes them a left brain or a right brain thinker. Dyslexics, however, are both. This is something that is both really cool and very hard. Sport activities that require hands and feet to cross the midline (baseball) are both difficult on dyslexics and great sources of occupational therapy.

It’s also one of the reasons dyslexics stumble over their words, create new ones, and stutter. We got one mouth people but we got two brains sending words to it.

When a dyslexic is creatively thinking of a way to ask a question or state a sentence but is also needing to explain a memory or a sequence or use a specific term. The left and right sides of the brain have to work together to formulate the words. This is tricky since the midline between the left and right side is deeper and wider in dyslexics and there aren’t as many neurological bridges for the communication to go back and forth. So the left and right brain send the messages to the mouth and things get jumbled. Words get merged. New words get made up. Stuttering, or starting again from the beginning happens.

“Hey mom….”


“Hey mom did you…uhm…”

“Hey mom did you know that…uhm…?”

“Hey mom did you know that at school….uhm…”

“Did I know what?”

“I’m can’t think of the words….”

He thinks longer, “Hey mom…”

I’m going to be here all day.

I’m sure a scientist is reading this thinking oh my gosh there’s sooo much more to it, and he’d be right but this is for parents who struggle to stay patient with their kids when they want to scream, “Spit it out!” I’m not giving a medical lecture…I’m only wanting to understand it to the point where I can expect it, and work around it.

Another thing that plagues us parents and makes us want to pull our hair out, ground our children for all eternity for the meltdowns and insults they throw at us during homework time is a little something called, diminished plasticity:

We do everything right. We get a snack out. We set the table up with all the tools we’ll need. We sit down together with our child and we think, “this is going to be it! The day we’re going to knock out homework like champions!” You’re all pumped and hopeful. You look at your child,

“Lets begin with reading. You need to practice. I’ll help you if you get stuck.”

“Ok mom.”

“There once were three little bears. One bear was the daddy bear. He was the biggest bear of them all. Then there was the mommy….”

He looks up at me with a question.

“Keep going you’re doing great.” I say.

He points to the word he’s just read 4 times. “What’s this word, mom?”

“Oh you know that word. You just read it here.” And you point to the all the places he’s just read it.

Tears begin to roll down his face. He’s staring at the page like it’s a ghost. His skin begins to crawl with goosebumps. His breathing begins to labor. His ears turn red. His knuckles turn white. Suddenly he slams the book closed, throws it across the room and screams, “I hate homework! I hate school! I hate reading! And I hate you for making me do it!”

He runs from the room before you can catch him and slams the door “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

Yep… been there done that. In fact, I was that kid too.

I am just as guilty of doing this to my child as my mother was guilty of doing it to me. If you are nodding your head or even crying, thinking, “You just described my every afternoon.” Let be the first to encourage you. Have grace for yourself! Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know and let me tell you why this is happening….

MIT in 2016 did a GROUNDBREAKING study. They used big medical words to describe it so here’s my layperson version: Researchers exposed dyslexic and average brains to repeated stimuli while scanning them with an MRI. Now the average brains over time showed very little responses to the repeated stimuli, like for instance, the sight word, “house” was taped to the top of the mri. A researcher would say, “Read the sight word up above.” The scan would show the visual cortex light up and then diminish. Over time the visual cortex lit up less and less bright. The brain didn’t need as much energy to make the connections to what it was and began responding on autopilot so to speak.

The dyslexic brains, however, they never showed a diminished response! Each time the brain saw the stimuli the brain acted like it was seeing it for the very first time. Not only that, the researchers began to realize that other parts of the brain would light up first. <<< That’s a huge discovery! You see, a sight word requires the visual cortex to recognize it. But if the auditory processing center is receiving the information first, they can’t recognize it. They’ll try to sound it out audibly. Which can’t be done.

The research suggests that dyslexics use different parts of their brain to process the world around them at all times. This explains a lot but two very important very cool things in particular: 1) This is why we are outside the box thinkers. Each time we approach a problem we are using different parts of our brain to assess it (that makes me smile a devilish grin each time I think about it). 2) This is why one second the child can read the word, “bear,” and the next second he can’t recognize it.

After we parents or teachers call attention to the discrepancy the child still cannot recognize the word but now recognizes there’s something wrong with him. The fight or flight response activates, and your child will a) fight you or b) run away from you. Total meltdown mode.

What’s the solution? For homework time, read the homework for him. If he wants to read it himself and stumbles on the word, fill in the blank don’t call attention to the last sentence. For long term solutions, seek out dyslexic methods and tutoring to teach them how to work around it. It will get better with time and personalized dyslexic specific methods.

Have grace!! Be kind and loving no matter what but especially during meltdown modes.

Meltdowns are a sign that you’ve just stumbled into dyslexic territory that you didn’t know existed. Back up momma. Think. Try something different. I always read for my kids unless THEY say they want to read. I always write for my kids or have them type out homework on a computer, unless THEY ask to write. These two things have alleviated 90% of meltdowns in my house at night.

If a meltdown occurs let them get through it on their own pace. Let them cry. Let them throw things—in their room of course. Then shove them out the door to play outside. Remember the meltdown is stress leaving the body. Let it! Don’t discipline it during the meltdown you’ll only make it worse.

After the meltdown. After the emotions have worn themselves out, you can ask them to tell you what went through their head and remember to listen to them. Meltdowns are not the result of bad character in your child. They are the result of being pushed into an invisible wall and getting a metaphorical bloody nose and being angry at you for shoving them into it. You didn’t see the wall. You didn’t know it was there. But you, more than likely, did shove them into it. So think outside the box. Don’t go on instinct. Dyslexia is counter intuitive to traditional parenting and teaching methods. If you don’t understand dyslexia you’re going to make soooo many mistakes. Study it! Read everything about it. Practice grace.

The more you know….

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