SPECIAL REPORT: Braving the Odds: How Nigerian parents are coping with care for dyslexic children – Premium Times

Ben Akripo
When 64-year-old Ben Arikpo realised, in 2012, that his son has learning challenges, he was devastated.
An applied psychologist, Mr Arikpo was then living in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, with his wife and their three children.
Although his wife had complained to him years back about their son’s reading difficulty, he never paid any serious attention to the concern.
“You are putting too much pressure on this boy!” Mr Akripo often told his wife instead. “He will outgrow it,” he would tell her whenever she talked about their son’s academic challenges.
But the problem dawned on him during a reading exercise with the boy. “Now, spell house,” the father of three recalled asking the nine-year-old.
However, to his disappointment, the boy misspelt the word, starting it with the letter “K.”
Mr Akripo was enraged but controlled the anger.
“Okay, watch my lips, housseee,” he pronounced the word again.
“Instantly, I realised something was wrong at that point,” he told our reporter.
‘’My wife was the first to discover our son’s learning challenges, and I was unconcerned because I had other children who were doing well in school,’’ said Mr Akripo.
‘’She said he could not read or spell and was reversing his letters by writing d for b and 9 for six,” he added.
‘’We began looking for one therapy to another, until after two years of struggling to look around,” Mr Akripo said. “Then on a family trip to the USA, we came across a programme called the Brain Training Programme, where he was actually diagnosed. The diagnosis was done. And the result proved that he had dyslexia.”
According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a neurologically based condition that is often hereditary and results in problems with reading, writing and spelling.
Mr Akripo, a former lecturer in sociology and psychology at the University of Calabar, and his wife, Felicia, a linguist, had agreed to relocate to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial nerve, in search of a solution to their boy’s learning challenges.
The outcome of the diagnosis further revealed that the boy has low cognitive skills.
“Despite the fact that the boy was 12 years old at the time, the result showed he had the cognitive skills of a five-year-old,” he stated.’
That part of his dyslexic traits made it easier for the boy to play with children younger than his own age, the father told our reporter.

“We had his cognitive test, but when the result came up, I was shocked that he was weak in all seven cognitive skill areas.”
The diagnosis also revealed that the boy suffered a traumatic brain injury, which could essentially explain his dyslexia. Mr Arikpo then remembered his son getting a cut in an accident when he was four years old back in Calabar.
“In fact, he has about eight stitches on his forehead. But we didn’t know that even though we treated the surface wound, it already affected the brain.”
Mr Arikpo’s son was diagnosed with another neurological disorder known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
“I was told dyslexia is a brain condition that makes people unable to read, write, spell and comprehend, and I was informed again that he (son) has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is ADHD, another major condition of the brain,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
ADHD is a neurological disorder that causes behaviour problems such as difficulties with attending to instruction, and lack of focus and concentration; but the exact causes of the disorder remain unknown to scientists, according to healthline.com.
People with ADHD, or ADD, lack focus, lack concentration, and are impatient and forgetful. They are in isolation and are distracted because they are always thinking.
Theresa Unaam, a Lagos-based fashion designer, was sad about her daughter’s struggle with writing and spelling.
She had first noticed the girl’s learning challenges when she was about four-five years old in nursery school. But she did not realise the cause of the problem until the girl started junior secondary school.
‘’We noticed she wasn’t writing well at her nursery school level,’’ Mrs Unaam recalled. “It could take hours for her to write a few notes from the chalkboard.
“I could remember one holiday, I spent an entire summer timing her on her readings to be fast and all. But all that didn’t work. We were just taking up measures from our understanding to help her,” she added.

After years of enrolling the girl on private tutorials, the mother said she finally found a brain training programme when the girl clocked 14 years. The six-month training programme offered the girl two to three hours of training in a week; held two days a week and one weekend.
‘’My daughter’s case was mild so we were recommended to do a six months training,” she said. “So we shared it in parts; including two to three hours a week. And the lowest hour we were told we could do in a week is two or three. So that helps us plan which of the days suits better.
‘’We were also told that in the process of the training of the brain, she might start experiencing headaches and we were advised not to take medications for it because It is like that part of the brain is opening up.”
At the end of the initial six-month programme, the girl was advised to undergo another assessment to determine her cognitive growth.
According to her mother, the result from the second assessment showed she needed another three-month training term that included evaluation and instruction.
‘’After six months, we did another assessment to know the improvement. Because what we were told during the first assessment was that there is a part of her (daughter’s) brain that was blank.”
The brain training programme started sometime in 2019 and lasted through 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted social and economic activity. It ended in 2021 when the girl was issued a certificate of compilation.
“The lockdown came with a slew of difficulties, as we did both school work and the brain training programme online,” Mrs Unaam said.
Dyslexia is considered the most common learning disability for both children and adults that persists throughout life. It is the most common of all neurocognitive disorders.
Experts say the severity of dyslexia can vary from mild to severe and can go undetected in the early years of schooling.
While it is considered a neurological condition with no cure, experts also say dyslexia has no relation to intelligence; as it does not result from vision or hearing problems, mental retardation or brain damage.
According to a report by Dyslexia and Brain Training Centre, about 32 million Nigerians are struggling with these learning challenges.
Temitope Amodu, the head of the Department of Special Education/Speech Pathology at the Federal Neuro-psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos State, in a phone interview with PREMIUM TIMES, said a dyslexic child may tend to have dyscalculia mathematical problems
”Because if there’s a problem in comprehending things when that child wants to do brainstorming or mathematics that involves reasoning, there would be a problem,” she said.
”It is a language-based disorder,” said Akin Benjamin, a Lagos-based education consultant. ”They show short attention span, letter reversal, left/ right confusion, poor understanding of letters, words and poor speech sound skills.”
Adult dyslexics, on the other hand, have a hard time focusing and keeping on projects in the workplace. They may also be unintentionally late for meetings, appointments and catching flights because they misread the time.
They also have tendencies to miss deadlines for written documents because it takes them longer than average to read and write; their written work may be riddled with errors because they are unable to detect typos, according to a post published by Dyslexia Nigeria, a Not-for-profit organisation.
Mrs Amodu said adult dyslexia can be managed strategically by working on interests and strengths.
”Perhaps, if the person loves football, they use processing information from that area like reading a newspaper.
”Other measures include accommodations, encouragement and praise,” she added.
Unlike ADD, where the source is unknown, dyslexia has several likely causes, according to a report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). These include genes and inheritance, which typically run in families; and delayed development, which occurs in preterm babies.
“And there’s brain anatomy, where the brain may look different from the brain of people who do not have dyslexia,” Mrs Amodu said.
A report published on WellHealth.com, a US-based health platform, said dyslexia is usually categorised according to the cause, which can be either developmental or acquired.
‘’Both primary dyslexia and secondary dyslexia are types of developmental dyslexia. Primary dyslexia is caused by inherited genes or a genetic mutation that leads to dysfunction in the left side of the brain. Secondary dyslexia is caused by neurological issues that begin during the prenatal period (in the womb)
‘’Acquired dyslexia occurs after injury or illness, such as stroke, brain trauma, or dementia. Subcategories of dyslexia include phonological, surface, double deficit, visual, deep, and rapid naming deficit,” the report stated.
Unlike Mr Akripo and Mrs Unaam who undertook assessments and brain training programmes to determine their children’s learning difficulties; Ganiyat Tijani-Adenle never had a scientific examination for her child.
She discovered her son was dyslexic when he was eight years old after combining research and private queries regarding treatment options to fix his speech impairment.
“Out of my three children, he is the only one who has dyslexia and he is my first child and first son. He is 11 years old and now enrolled in JSS1,”
Mrs Adenle, a journalism teacher at Lagos State University’s School of Communication, disputed scientific explanations to PREMIUM TIMES about her son’s dyslexia being caused by a genetic mutation or an injury or accident.
‘’I don’t think my son’s case was hereditary because I am not dyslexic and neither is his father,” the 38-year-old mother.
‘’I thought I did everything right because I just left journalism to join academia before I got pregnant with him. And as soon as I got my employment letter, the school was on strike,” Mrs Adenle told our reporter.
But when he was 18 months, she discovered he had delayed milestones with his speech, which raised her concerns. She started therapy to fix his speech, but she could not cope with the cost of the therapy.
‘’We started going to Ear Nose and Throat (ENT), and paediatrics clinics, it was then we learned that he had Adenoids, which we treated with antibiotics as prescribed by doctors,” Mrs Adenle recalled.
Adenoids are small patches of tissue located at the back of the throat. They are similar to the tonsils and located right above them, according to healthline.com.
But when he got to age 3-4-5 years old, his situation got a bit intense ‘’because by then, he wasn’t saying a lot of words compared to people at his age,’’ she said
Like Mr Akripo’s son, Mrs Adenle said her son also had challenges with reversing letters in his writing.
‘’His name is Abdullah. But when he wants to spell his name, he reverses it. If he wants to write the letter “B” he writes “D”. He also writes “9” as “P” and as well jumps the line when reading.
‘’So instead of writing Abdu, he would write “Abu” and that sometimes annoys me, that at his age he should be able to write his name. But when you breathe on his neck, he will write it correctly.”
Asked if it was just a matter of bad handwriting, she insisted that those are the traits of a child suspected to have dyslexia. “From my research, if someone writes 9, for P or letter B for D or vis a vis, then that’s dyslexia.
‘’Dyslexic people mix up the alphabets. Or when they are either reading or writing, they jump from one line to the next line,’’ she said.
She also disclosed certain characteristics in her son’s handwriting. She said he began with a left hand, but that despite her informing the school authorities, he switched to the right hand, which hampered his writing.
‘’My son’s handwriting later became poor, so I withdrew him from the school and re-registered him at his old school because many schools do not know how to teach neuro-disadvantaged students; they can only teach the regular curriculum.
“He was also fond of shifting his hands from left to right whenever he was eating,” she added.
Indianavon Dangaru, a therapist, said that when teaching word problems, schools should ensure the teaching focuses on images to help them learn better.
Mrs Dangaru, a special needs consultant at Little Me Preschool in Gaduwa Abuja, where both neurotypical and special needs children are taught, noted that when it comes to word problems with oranges, photos of those fruits should be included.
She explained that schools should adopt assessment screeners and manuals to help them get a diagnosis of a learning-challenged child, as well as an integrated curriculum for their scheduled learning.
“The school follows the British Curriculum in general, but the Special Needs Unit follows the integrated Curriculum.”
The therapist also told our reporter that they teach special needs children by giving therapy tailored to each child’s individual needs. “Each class has a Special Needs therapist, and we offer a Sensory Room for differentiated learning and therapy,” she said.
Speaking on the government’s efforts to aid inclusion for children with special needs, Mrs Amodu said the Lagos State Government has developed an inclusive unit for children and adolescents with learning disabilities in public schools in the state.
”Presently, we have 34 inclusive units across each LGA. In Igando Ikotun LGA, we have two; Ajeromi Ifelodun LGA, we have two; and in Ikorodu we have four.
Unlike Little Me Preschool where they practice full inclusion for all students, Mrs Amodu told PREMIUM TIMES that the government centres were created as a unit in public schools.
”In each local government where there are government public schools, they are provided with classrooms for people with dyslexia and people with special needs,” she said.
Mrs Adenle said her art background never stopped her from learning more about dyslexia and how to help her son. ”I read Mass Communication. I am not a scientist and I never liked Biology.
”I think parents need to widen their knowledge and be prepared to go all the way in helping their children. Parents can research and gain knowledge so they can help their children. Do not put complete trust in the school or private teacher because money doesn’t solve everything.”
She said with her tutoring and training, her son was the one who wrote and read the speech at his school’s last valedictory service.
”I downloaded a lot of materials that focused on alphabets on how the child can pronounce, how to place their tongue and or bring out a lot of words that start with that same word and he would have to repeat it. Speech therapy is all about repetition.
”From there we go to words that have an alphabet A in the middle, after that we go to words that have S at the end,” she said.
Mrs Unaam who said her daughter completed two circles of brain therapy, described the sessions as impactful because her daughter’s grades improved significantly.
“Teachers kept wondering what the magic was,” she said.
“Parents should not look at the challenges,” she said, advising parents to focus on their children’s future rather than considering the cost of training their children.
“For me, I could have used the money to buy a piece of land but my child is more important, ” she said jokingly, emphasising that all she did was invest in her child. ‘’It was a financial hardship for us because we had another child and other money-related initiatives,” she told our reporter.
Mrs Unamm’s day begins before sunrise. She has a business to run, a husband and two children to care for, school runs to do, and her eldest daughter who needs extra attention in her studies to attend to.
Being a mother and a wife is demanding, but she described her journey as fulfilling despite her tight schedule and the heavy traffic in the Sangotedo axis of Ajah.
For the Akripos, their child’s diagnosis changed their lives as parents – pushing them to shift careers to enrol him in a brain training programme in the United States. They were then granted permission to establish a foundation to assist their child and other parents of children with learning impairments.
When the son started his programme, combined with the regular school curriculum, it took them less than six months to notice the impacts.
‘’The aim was to see him read, and yes it took him about four to five months to see him read properly,’’ Mr Akripo said.
‘’Before the programme, he would come back with Fs. And after the programme started, he come back with grades. So it was not just the programme, but also what the lesson teachers were doing.”
Narrating part of the signs of his son’s progress, Mr Arikpo said he once spotted him watching a Yoruba movie on the television while his focus was on the translation angle of the screen, a development he described as intriguing.
‘’He was watching a Yoruba movie,’’ he said. ‘’And he doesn’t speak Yoruba. But I said to him what are you doing? And he said, ‘I’m reading the subtitles.’ So now, he has begun to read with understanding because he’s no longer reading Chappie.”
Mr Arikpo urged parents to provide an environment that is conducive for their children to read.
’Otherwise, you’re introducing reading as a punishment. No television for everybody in the house, when it was time for him to read. We made it a collective duty as a family.
‘’Now my son is in the university, a private institution in one of these southwestern states in Nigeria. He is doing well. We want to make him the face of our foundation but he says he is not yet ready, and we are going to give him all the time he wants until he is ready.”

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