The Great Reading Mystery Explained

You may remember from a previous post that Eleanor has been really struggling with learning to read. After getting nowhere with her school, I scheduled an appointment with an occupational therapist. We had found out that getting Ellie evaluated for dyslexia would cost an obscene amount of money (think equal to a monthly mortgage) and not be covered by our insurance. All to evaluate for something we weren’t even sure she has. The OT, however, was covered by insurance and could take the preliminary step of checking what they called “foundational skills.” Things like Ellie’s ability to track with her eyes and other brain-related tasks that, if not present or developed to the point they should be, could be causing the difficulties she’s been having.

Spoiler: that’s exactly what was happening.

Ellie at OT, while the therapist went over the assessment results with me.

In summary, it comes down to a couple different things. First, Eleanor’s eyes don’t track appropriately. If you do the classic, “follow my finger with your eyes” assessment, she has to turn her whole head to do it. Secondly, the two sides of her brain aren’t communicating with each other quite as well as they should. This can be seen in things such as her “bear walk” that is significantly below age in ability. Or by having her scoop up a bunch of pennies in one hand and, using just that one hand, drop them one at a time back into a container. You can watch her other hand twitch as it wants to come over and help the hand doing the task. Thirdly, Eleanor is lacking in what they called “visual closure.” It’s the part of the brain that sees just part of your cell phone sticking out of your purse and fills in the blanks to tell you that it’s your phone, even though you can’t see the whole thing. The OT showed Ellie drawings of a shape, like a rectangle, and then had her choose the matching shape from three below it, drawn incompletely (like a parts of the line drawing had been erased). Anything beyond a very basic shape, Eleanor could not find the match for.

Tools like this allow Ellie to practice “reading” from left to right, training her eyes and brain to track appropriately.

Put all this together, and it’s no wonder the kid has been struggling. Frankly, I’m super impressed with the amount she’s been able to accomplish at all. It’s a testament to just how smart she is and how incredibly hard she has been working. She looks at an open book and basically sees a couple words on the left page, a couple somewhere on the right, and nothing in between and can’t make her eyes track along the sentence without great difficulty. The amount of effort that takes makes it greatly challenging to read with any fluency.

Some kids like Ellie have a hard time reading over a white background, so a tinted sheet like this can make it easier. As the therapist put it, “Nothing in nature you stare at is white. Even snow will cause you to go snow blind.”

This all applies to her handwriting as well, which was evaluated in a second visit with another OT. She informed me that kids like Eleanor typically need about eighteen months of weekly therapy at $300-$500 per visit. And that’s if we’re really good about working with her at home. Enter my great summer time-suck: jumping through hoops and red tape to apply for Medicaid. Our insurance covers nothing until we meet our very high deductible, and then they’ll only cover twenty OT visits per year. Idaho has a special form of Medicaid, called Katie Beckett, that is designed to cover prohibitively expensive medical costs for children, regardless of whether the parents meet income requirements for typical Medicaid coverage. We’re still in the process, but if we can get Eleanor qualified then the Medicaid would allow us to start OT with her.

In the meantime, I went to the elementary school on the day the office opened last week and delivered a letter saying I want Eleanor evaluated for an IEP immediately. I’m hoping we can at least get some accomodations and in-school OT time going – along with some acknowledgement of what she’s dealing with – before she gets so far behind that she can’t ever catch up. To say the least, it’s been frustrating, but knowing what is happening also leaves us with hope for the ability to help her. On Wednesday I had a very positive meeting with the principal and Ellie’s first grade teacher to discuss why her final report card had said Ellie was fluent at reading at grade level. Apparently it was just a typo; they all agree Ellie needs help. They have her red-flagged and marked as the top priority to get evaluated as soon as possible. I also learned she’s going to have an excellent teacher this year (we’d been crossing our fingers she would be in his class), who should be a great resource for helping her learn in the ways that she needs. I left the meeting feeling very optimistic about the coming school year for Eleanor. Now to just get that Katie Beckett in place, and then there will be no stopping her!

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