As a child, Heman Tan was the proverbial troublemaker who failed every academic subject in school.
“I could not spell or read a proper sentence. My Mandarin was terrible, too. In those days, people didn’t know about dyslexia. They just thought you were naughty,” says the secondary-school dropout.
Now an accomplished chef, artist and triathlete, Heman has beat his learning disability into submission by developing his own coping strategies.
In his 30s, Heman picked up the English language on his own, with the help of Google and his trusty dictionary, which he takes with him wherever he goes.
“Previously, you would not be able to conduct this interview with me in English,” says the father of three, 49, who published a book titled The Iron Man Chef’s Guide to Life, where he shares his experience living with dyslexia and other life struggles. He has the cofounder of Iron Supper Club and was the honorary treasurer of the Singapore Chefs Association.
Outside of work, Heman is a proficient ceramic artist, having trained under the late sculptor Ng Eng Teng.
He excels in sports, too; the avid runner has completed three Ironman triathlons and numerous marathons.
About 1 in 10 have dyslexia
It is estimated that one in every 10 people have dyslexia. In Singapore, about 23,000 preschool, primary and secondary school students have it severe enough to warrant intervention, according to the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS).
A few like Heman, however, have turned that learning challenge into a strength.
More than a third of successful entrepreneurs in the US are found to be dyslexic, shares Geetha Shantha Ram, director of the Ministry of Education-aided DAS Literacy Programme and Staff Professional Development at DAS. Among them are Virgin group founder Richard Branson and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (watch Jamie talk about dyslexia in the video below).
“I call it the power of dyslexia,” quips Heman, whose 11-year-old son was also diagnosed with the condition.
“We may take much longer to pick up certain skills but, once we do it properly, we do it excellently. Just look at my ceramic, pottery and sporting achievements.”
So, just what primes dyslexics for success? Young Parents finds out.
Habit #1: They embrace their learning differences
Rather than focus on the negatives, the successful dyslexic embraces his learning differences and views them as an asset.
Geetha of DAS says this group of people are particularly gifted in big- picture thinking, according to Drs Brock and Fernette Eide in their book, The Dyslexic Advantage.
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is one dyslexic who uses this to his advantage. In his 2012 book, Like A Virgin, the self-made millionaire calls dyslexia his “greatest strength”.
He shared in several interviews that he has learnt to work around his learning difficulties, developing a management style that suited him. For instance, he would focus on things he is good at, like creative and strategic thinking, while delegating tasks he was weak at to others.
What you can do
Refrain from writing your child off as lazy or slow. Geetha advises parents to “embrace dyslexia completely” and be fully aware of what their kid is struggling with.
Instead of adopting the “wait and see” approach, she also advises seeking professional help early if you notice any warning signs (see sidebar).
There is currently no cure for dyslexia. Neither will your child “outgrow” his learning difference. But it is possible for him to cope and do well in school with the right strategies, says clinical psychologist Vyda S Chai of Think Psychological Services.
Research has shown that intervention is most effective when given at an earlier age, at six years old rather than at nine, adds Dr Hugh Catts, professor and director of the School of Communication Science and Disorders at Florida State University.
If you wait too long, it becomes more challenging to help the child cope with their learning issues.
“Moreover, by the time you wait until the kid is older, he would have missed out on opportunities to acquire vocabulary and knowledge from books,” says Dr Catts, who has spoken on the topic at a talk organised by DAS.
The DAS conducts free screening tests. If you suspect that Junior has dyslexia, you can send him for a screener to see if he needs additional support, says Geetha. But note that your child can only be diagnosed after he is exposed to reading and writing.
Habit #2: They have a healthy self-esteem
In general, people with good self-esteem are likely to perform better in school and at work, shares Vyda, who also works with adult dyslexics. She adds: “When your child is confident about his abilities, it is easier for him to plough through his learning differences.”
But studies show that children with dyslexia tend have a higher risk of low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
The lack of confidence often jeopardises your child’s efforts to learn, say the experts.
When he struggles with tasks that seem simple for his peers, anxiety and an inferiority complex may set in, prompting him to avoid such tasks, says Geetha.
“The more he avoids them, the less likely he will succeed at it, causing the gap between him and his peers to grow wider,” she adds.
What you can do
Offer plenty of encouragement and acknowledge his effort, no matter how small the achievement may seem, advises Geetha.
Reassure him of his potential by sharing success stories. Geetha suggests: “You can describe the similar struggles of other individuals with dyslexia and how they achieved great success in their fields through hard work.”
At the same time, involve your child’s teacher in supporting his learning, too. Research has shown that a supportive school and home environment are important factors – in addition to quality intervention – in boosting self-confidence in dyslexic kids, she adds.
Habit #3: They work on other areas of strengths
If he had simply focused on the paper chase, Heman would probably feel like a complete failure in life right now.
Instead, he discovered other strengths outside of school and thrived on them; his talent for ceramic art redeemed his self-esteem, while excelling in competitive sports added on to his list of achievements.
Heman, who used to have childhood asthma, has completed three Ironman triathlons and nearly 20 marathons.
“Every day, I wake up at 4am to run and cycle as the exercise sharpens my mind. I feel it is important for a dyslexic child to be exposed to other types of learning and activities, other than academics. That helps them to be more confident, too,” he says.
What you can do
While learning to read, write and spell is important, so are other non-academic pursuits. Does Junior seem to have a knack for sports, visual and performing arts or an unusually good sense of business acumen?
Help him find his own unique strength and provide opportunities for him to grow his abilities, says Geetha.
Habit #4: They try and try and try
Many successful dyslexics share one common trait, Geetha points out: they have grit, which serves them well in the face of challenges.
While Heman admits that it takes a longer time for him to learn something new, he hardly ever throws in a towel once he sets his mind on a task. “I’ve experienced a lot of failure in my life, but I don’t give up,” he says.
What you can do
A child with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia may have poorer working memory or processing speed. But this does not mean they are any less intelligent, says Vyda.
Not all dyslexics have the same learning difficulties, but you may notice your child taking a longer time to process information, instructions or complete a task. He may also appear more disorganised than his peers.
To compensate for this, children with dyslexia are usually encouraged to “over-learn”, shares Vyda. That means, you will need to reinforce new skills repeatedly.
But rein in your tiger- parent instinct. This method should be done in a fun and positive manner, not scare your kid off learning, adds Vyda. Get tips from your young one’s teacher or therapist.
Structure and routines are also tremendously helpful for the disorganised dyslexic.
“A structured schedule will help Junior know when to concentrate on work, and play during different times of the day,” says Vyda.
Watch Jamie Oliver talk about dyslexia:
Photos: Young Parents, 123RF.com and The Straits Times (Lee Kuan Yew photo)