I was a young and inexperienced psychologist when my boss at that time sent a seven-year-old boy to me for treatment.

 

This boy attended First Grade in elementary school. It was his second attempt to handle the First Grade. A year earlier he had been placed in First Grade only to be deferred to nursery school a few weeks into the year, because of being unable to learn the letters. He overcame the pain of this disappointment very quickly and spent a nice year at nursery school. Full of joy, he started again in First Grade, trusting the word of the adults that now it would be very easy for him to learn the letters. He had the same painful experience that many other children do: The prediction of adults does not prove to be true. He was bothered by the same difficulties he had experienced the year before. His mother was practicing with him each afternoon with an inexhaustible patience, but Marc did not learn the letters; he consistently was mixing them up. Approaching Christmas time, Marc became more and more quiet and subdued. His mother was trying to get him caught up with his missing lessons with the help of a befriended schoolteacher, who herself was trained to treat dyslexia. Marc experienced very little progress, and could never catch up with the reading and writing abilities of his classmates. Marc started ailing even more, complaining of stomachaches every morning before going to school.

 The schoolteacher put more pressure on him by requesting more homework, which was already done in abundance. Marc spent his afternoons with reading and writing exercises. His handwriting was extremely neat, the pages of his school reading book he knew by heart, and with all that, he gave the impression of being able to read. But still, the weekly dictations at school were a disaster and full of mistakes. As hard as he tried, Marc could not write the dictated text. The teacher wrote little remarks underneath each dictation, such as: "Hard work necessary!", "You have not practiced enough!" or: "We have practiced these words so many times!" etc. Marc, of course, was desperate when his mother read these notes to him every Friday.

In February there was another big disappointment: On the half-year-report card, there was an overall mark of 'D'. In a dialogue between teacher and parents it was emphasized that it was necessary to involve the school-psychologist. The teacher also mentioned considering a transfer into a special school. This was the moment when the parents consulted my superior, head of the University Clinic for Children's Neuropsychiatry, who in turn sent the little boy to me for treatment of his difficulties in reading and writing.

So, there we were, a transparent, unhappy looking, but still friendly little boy, who had no idea of letters, and a young and inexperienced psychologist, who had no idea of this kind of treatment. The first round of the treatment was easy: psychological testing was the area of my profession with which I was already familiar. I was glad to notice that Marc was of above average in overall intelligence. Still, his profile of intelligence was extremely uncoordinated. His performances in the intelligence test varied a great deal: his educational level, his linguistic-abstract thinking, the memorizing of spoken words, his ability of criticism were all developed far above average and his information processing abilities were suitable for his age. Only his capacity for learning symbols was far below normal. Nevertheless, he reached an I.Q. above average, which was a contradiction to the schoolteacher's evaluation.

The results of the personality structure indicated a relaxed temperament, except for an anxious attitude towards performing at school, an inferiority complex, and anxiety of failing. There also was quite a tense relationship between Marc and his mother due to the long periods of practicing together. Otherwise, however, he was an emotionally differentiated and normally developed child. The best circumstances were in place for successful treatment: An intelligent, emotionally undisturbed child, co-operative parents and an enthusiastic psychologist.

During the nights, I was reading more about the disorders of learning to write and read, about dyslexia, and we both started working. We worked three times a week with the then-known treatment for such a disorder. I was surprised each time at how this little boy retained his eagerness and willingness to learn; he did not refuse once, and we really liked each other. With perseverance, he was drawing little flags, bent to the left or right, in different colors; encircled letters with color-pens, let letters crash together and repeated the long-spoken-words like reading from my lips. I got the impression that he was learning to read in a connected manner.

After twenty hours of training I wanted to give Marc a treat and to show him that he was able to read. I put out the letters M and O from the letterbox and asked him to read it to me. He beamed at me and said: "I know what's written there…HE!" He could see from the look in my face, which obviously did not hide my astonishment, that something was wrong. Because he liked me and wanted to please me, he corrected himself quickly by saying: "Oh no, it does not mean HE!" Very carefully I asked him to tell me how he discovered that. He said: "Well you see, HE - it's written like that!" For that he took the letters P and A out of the letterbox and put them proudly in front of me. By now I knew that my method of treating that kind of disorder was extensive, tedious, demanding, and in this particular case, inefficient.

At that time, research on basic functional disorders was at its inception and a main focus of our clinic. I could learn a lot from others who were dealing with that subject and attended any kind of workshop I could find. I tried to talk to experts in that field and was taking their advice; but my most competent teachers were the kids I was supposed to help. One of them was Marc.

More than 25 years have passed since my encounter with Marc. Since then I have intensively worked with children who suffer from dyslexia, dyscalculia, concentration problems, attention deficit, language development problems, and so on. I tried to approach this problem from the diagnostic and therapeutic point of view. To me it was always important to spread my knowledge, and the practical application and concrete support for these children and their surroundings was a first priority.

Of course Marc is an adult man in the meantime, and of course his name is not Marc. I am very grateful to him that he helped me in his childlike wisdom to take the way I have gone.

 

Brigitte Sindelar