The Ottawa Citizen Column

Copyright Southam Publications Inc. Nov 6, 1998

A new light on reading trouble

By Victoria Crompton

When some children open a book, they see strange images and moving shapes where others would see words.

It's a problem children find difficult to describe. But, if the cause is Irlen Syndrome, the solution -- eye glasses with coloured lenses -- is straightforward. The results can be dramatic.

Also known as scotopic sensitivity syndrome, Irlen Syndrome is a perceptual disorder caused by a sensitivity to light. Certain wavelengths of light can interfere with the visual pathway between the eye and the brain. Filter out these wavelengths, and the pathway can function normally, sending visual information to the brain, free of distortions.

Irlen Syndrome can have an enormous impact on a child's everyday life. It can affect their ability to read and to understand what they read. It can affect their power of concentration, their energy level, and their motivation. It can affect their penmanship and their spelling. It can also affect their depth perception, their steadiness on stairs and escalators and their ability to judge the distances.

Twelve-year-old Rebecca Shantz was diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome when she was in Grade 4.

"On my page, I could see only the tops and bottoms of letters and sometimes only the middle. I had to figure out each individual letter before I could read the word. By the end of a story, I wouldn't understand what I had read because I was putting all my effort into figuring out the letters."

Now a successful Grade 7 student in French immersion and an avid reader, Rebecca wears her Irlen lenses both in school and out.

"Without my glasses," she explains "I also have no depth perception, meaning things are not where I see them. Escalators were the most terrifying. I didn't know where to step. I was so afraid of falling."

Children with Irlen Syndrome have to put more effort and energy into reading than their schoolmates. To compensate, some develop keen listening and memory skills and excel in subjects that don't require a lot of reading.

Others give up. They avoid reading; they fall behind, and their behaviour and attitude deteriorate.

Because the symptoms of Irlen Syndrome are not readily detected in standard eye exams, educational or psychological tests, the condition often goes undiagnosed.

And it is not just children who are affected. Research suggests that Irlen Syndrome is hereditary. When a child is diagnosed, there is often a parent or sibling who is also affected. Irlen syndrome is thought to affect about 50 per cent of children and adults with reading problems.

The first step in treatment is a screening process to determine the extent to which a child suffers from Irlen Syndrome. Coloured see-through plastic sheets that can be laid over a printed page can provide an immediate tool for your child to use while reading, but they won't help with written activities or blackboard reading.

If the first screening indicates the child is a candidate for Irlen lenses, there is a second, more intensive assessment to diagnose the precise combination of colour tints.

The lenses are made in a California lab, then fitted into the frame of your choice by a local optician.

Adel Francis, who opened the Ottawa Irlen Centre in 1993, sees an average 25 patients referred to her each month. One of three Irlen diagnosticians in Canada, she sees both children and adults, though the majority of her cases are school children.

"Grade 3" she explains "is when the symptoms of Irlen Syndrome begin to show, the time when reading takes on a more important role in classroom work."

Parents who bring their children to Ms. Francis often do so with some skepticism, unsure what Irlen Syndrome is or how coloured lenses might help. As Ms. Francis calmly works with the child, skepticism quickly turns to curiosity and finally to amazement as the child responds to different combinations of filters and begins to read, not only with fluency but with delight.

Ms. Francis is unable to help all those who are referred to her, but the Irlen filters do result in success for about 70 per cent of her clients.

The cost can be significant. The initial screening is $150. The diagnostic testing is $300 and the Irlen lenses are $200. Then there is the cost of the frames, which can easily run another $100. These costs are not covered by Ontario health insurance or by private insurance plans.

But families who have reaped the benefits say it is money well spent. For some who can't afford the cost, Ms. Francis may be able to help find financial assistance through local service clubs and Ottawa Social Services.

The Irlen Centre is at 200 First Ave., Ottawa. For more information, call 230-3995.

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Irlen Syndrome Warning Signs:

Reading behaviour

Does your child

- avoid reading?

- dislike reading?

- prefer reading under dim lights?

- have difficulty understanding what he is reading?

When reading out loud, does your child

- read word by word, or even by parts of a word, if the word is a long one?

- read slowly and with hesitation?

- misread words , skip words or reread words and lines?

- confuse letters that look similar?

While reading, does your child complain that

- the print seems to move or even disappear?

- the print is blurry or fuzzy ?

- the page seems too bright or glary ?

- he has headaches, sore or watery eyes

Body Language

Does your child

- move around trying to find a comfortable position?

- shade eyes to help eliminate glare ?

- move her head across the page as she reads?

- use a finger to mark his place on the page?

- blink a lot, squint, open her eyes wide, rub her eyes?

- vary his distance from the page?

- become sleepy while reading?

- become restless and loose concentration?

- have a short attention span and take frequent breaks?

Written Work

Do you see

- an inability to write on the line -- writing uphill and downhill?

- unequal spacing?

- errors in copying?

- inconsistent spelling of the same word?

- misaligned numbers in columns?

Gross Motor Skills

Does your child show

- poor co-ordination?

- problems with balance?

- difficulty catching a ball?

- difficulty judging distances?

- poor depth perception?

- problems using escalators and stairs?

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