MAKKAH: Dyslexia, a learning disorder characterized by difficulty with reading, is common but for many years there was a widespread lack of awareness about it in Saudi Arabia. As a result people with the condition often did not get the help they needed.
This has changed significantly in recent years thanks to community-awareness campaigns, through which Saudis have learned more about the condition. This is helping with early recognition and intervention but challenges remain.
This month is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and to mark the occasion advocates and campaign groups in the Kingdom are stepping up their efforts to educate the community and show how knowledge is key to changing the narrative about people with learning difficulties.
According to specialists and people with dyslexia, media awareness campaigns in the past few years and the decision by Saudi authorities last September to officially classify it as a learning disorder have helped to improve the rights of people with the condition. They also said that modern diagnostic techniques mean that official figures for dyslexia in Saudi Arabia are much more accurate than they once were.
The condition was identified in 1881 by Dr. Rudolf Berlin, a German ophthalmologist in Stuttgart. A pioneer in his field, he was the first to describe it, and give it a name, in his paper Eine Besondere Art der Wortblindheit: Dyslexie (A Special Type of Word Blindness: Dyslexia), which was published in 1887. This formed the basis for all subsequent research, thanks to his systematic description of the condition.
Dr. Muhannad Al-Ali, a neurologist at King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah, said that dyslexia is a newly prevalent disorder in the Kingdom, meaning that until recently it was not classified as a condition. The amount of research carried out since the 1990s globally remains modest, he added.
Many people with dyslexia are unaware they have condition, he said, since the amount of time we spend on traditional forms of reading has declined. As a result, it can be difficult to accurately diagnose.
“Dyslexics find it difficult to comprehend what they read,” Al-Ali told Arab News. “They can read the first line but get tired and lose focus when reading the next.
“It is possible for a dyslexic to be able to read WhatsApp messages, for example, but unable to read a book or articles.” He further explained that because dyslexia does not have clear, consistent medical criteria associated with it, there is no specific, definitive test to diagnose it.
This can result in years of suffering by patients who later in life finally discover they have dyslexia, Al-Ali added.
“It arises with the child’s upbringing and often has roots in the area of the brain that handles comprehension, reading and cognition, and there are studies showing genetic and hereditary factors, but there is no clear and direct reason as to why a person has dyslexia,” he said.
Recent studies have clarified the significant role of functional magnetic resonance imaging of brain activity in determining the nature of the condition, Al-Ali explained.
This could be promising since cognitive behavioral therapy — in which a therapist provides a model for an appropriate behavioral response to a situation and the patient tries to copy that, receiving feedback on their attempt — has had significant benefits for some people with dyslexia.
Ibtisam Al-Samali, who is dyslexic and works as an engineer, said that community awareness is still at an early stage, but the situation is improving thanks to the good work of campaigners.
But she added that accurate figures for the number of people with dyslexia in Saudi Arabia are not available as the country lacks a unified, accredited body to identify and monitor people with the condition.
Al-Samali said she only learned about dyslexia when she was at university. Describing it as an invisible disability, she praised the efforts of civil society institutions and businesses to make a difference to people with the condition. She highlighted in particular the efforts of STC Pay which, as part of a community partnership, is helping to raise awareness of the condition through messages posted on social media.
“The road ahead is still long, as support is needed to establish the Saudi Dyslexia Society in preparation for setting up specialized schools for future dyslexic students, especially since dyslexics can pass this hereditary disability down to their children,” she told Arab News.
Dr. Yahya Al-Qahtani, an expert in special education and learning difficulties at Sultan bin Abdulaziz Humanitarian City said: “Dyslexia includes stuttering, difficulty and boredom in reading and following numbers and letters, and difficulty in focusing on, listening to and understanding the question. It is a disability that can be overcome through innovative educational strategies and methods.”
He added that although it has been identified widely since the 19th century, the disorder is still not clearly defined and not enough attention has been paid to a number of aspects of it, including medical questions concerning the nerves and behavioral effects.
Al-Qahtani added that Saudi Arabia lags some other nations in identifying people with dyslexia and that diagnosis and evaluation differs between schools, which often rely on older testing methods are not always effective.
A response-to-intervention assessment tool is already in use in some schools in Saudi Arabia and comprises three levels, Al-Qahtani said. The first level includes intensive teaching, to which 80 percent of students respond. The second level employs alternative teaching strategies and methods, which helps 15 percent of students. The third level is the provision of special education services, to which the remaining 5 percent of students respond.
He also highlighted the lack of accurate figures on the number of people with dyslexia in Saudi Arabia. About 400,000 students in the country have learning difficulties, he noted, and dyslexia affects about 40 percent of them.
Mohammad Bahareth, who is dyslexic and the founder of the Saudi-based Dyslexia Initiative, thanked the Human Rights Commission and its president, Awad Al-Awwad, who he credited for the official classification of dyslexia as a learning disorder and obtaining the Ministry of Information’s endorsement of the website www.dyslexia.sa as a source of information for people who want to learn more about the condition.
He also said that Arab News was one of the first newspapers to support the initiative.