My name has been called. It was my turn to read aloud. I lifted my pointer finger to serve as my guide through the hazy maze of letters. They danced, stared and mocked me as I stuttered and stumbled my way through them. Lost in the clouded fog of a seemingly white, glossy page, I looked up to the teacher. My eyes begged for her to call on another student.

This harrowing experience didn’t occur once, rather it repeated itself throughout my educational career. Still, at 17 years old, I can’t think of anything more terrifying than reading in front of a live audience. My slow monotone and hesitant reading voice seems to put the whole room into a trance as my audience stares at me wondering why it sounds like at any moment I might burst into tears. My learning disability, known as dyslexia, sometimes seems like a curse.

If your child has dyslexia, he or she may have shared some of my feelings and experiences. Symptoms of dyslexia include difficulty associating letters with sounds and decoding words, as well as poor spelling and reversing letters when encoding.

Dyslexia is defined by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) as “a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin.” But dyslexia is not an educational death sentence for students and their parents. In today’s world, research conducted on learning disabilities helps us understand the most effective way to teach students who struggle to learn how to read.

Parents and teachers are usually the first to notice that their child or student is struggling. It is critical that parents be aware of the warning signs of dyslexia and proactive about getting their child tested and diagnosed. Some common signs in dyslexic students are difficulty learning letters and numbers, switching letter and number patterns and slower rapid recalling of information from text. By looking out for these signs, you are giving your child a better start to his or her educational career. If you suspect your child has dyslexia, the first step is to request via letter your child receive an educational evaluation by the local public school. Public school testing is free; however, you can also pay for a private company to conduct a neuropsychological evaluation. Private company testing is rather expensive, but if you truly want accurate and unbiased scores, then you may consider spending the extra money on a private company evaluation.

If you choose to have testing done by a public school, hiring an educational advocate may be in your best interest. Educational advocates are professionals who have experience in the special education field and can advise you regarding services and accommodations that will help your child succeed, and can help represent your child’s needs at meetings with the school. My educational advocate has caught many mistakes during evaluation meetings. If it were not for her, I may not be receiving the services I am today.

If your child is in need of special education services, the next step is to develop and create an IEP with the school district; this will allow your child to receive accommodations and/or services for his or her learning disability. Some examples of accommodations for dyslexia include extended testing time, preferential seating, access to scaffolding and notes, testing in a separate classroom and clarification on tests. Reading services for dyslexic students should include a program with explicit, multisensory instruction, such as Orton-Gillingham (OG) or the Wilson Program. Unfortunately, many students who have access to these accommodations or services do not use them. As a parent, encourage your child to use them as often as possible. Yes, sometimes it’s embarrassing to get up and sit at the front of the class or to walk down to the special education classroom for a test, but it would be much more damaging to a student’s self-esteem to fail a class.

Parents should not feel self-conscious if their child has a learning difference. Some parents struggle with getting their child tested because they feel their child will be “labeled.” In reality, there is no greater gift to your child’s education than understanding his or her learning profile and equipping them with the help he or she truly needs. I’ve heard parents say, “I don’t want my kid on an IEP, they will be seen differently.” When I hear that, all I can think is that they are holding their child back from his or her true and full potential. A child’s education does not revolve around the parent’s concerns about what others may or may not think. The truth is that if a child needs an IEP and receives the services and accommodations he or she needs and is entitled to, there is a much better chance of succeeding academically.

On the other hand, if a struggling student is not allowed to use the resources needed, he or she may be labeled and seen as the slower learner in the class. This can be detrimental to the child’s self-esteem and confidence.

It’s also important to teach dyslexic children to advocate for themselves and participate in the dyslexic community. For example, in middle school I had to learn how to insist with certain teachers my need to take tests in a separate setting away from distractions. It is imperative dyslexic students learn to advocate for themselves to ensure academic success. It is also important to support other dyslexic students.

In order to share my experience, I am working with a group called Say YES! to Dyslexia to launch the YES! (Youth Examples of Self-Advocacy) program in Massachusetts in association with the Learning Ally organization. YES! is a support group led by middle and high school level dyslexic students to teach elementary school aged students how to advocate for themselves and build friendships within the dyslexic community. Finding others who have struggled and walked down the same path can be incredibly therapeutic.

If you suspect that your child has dyslexia do not hesitate to get him or her tested and diagnosed. The earlier you start this process, the more smoothly it will progress. Give your child the opportunity to start his or her educational career on the right foot. The first few years set the stage for learning to love reading and growing more knowledgeable. Dyslexia is extraordinarily difficult to cope with, but it is through those incredibly hard obstacles that great character is formed. Maybe dyslexia is not such a curse, after all.

Kaitlin McCarthy is a rising senior at Canton High School. Nicole McCarthy is a mother of three kids, two of whom have dyslexia. She is a founding member of Say YES! to Dyslexia (