Waunakee Tribune Article

(A shorter version of this article appeared in the 11/21/02 Waunakee Tribune, Waunakee, Wis.)

Student's tinted glasses help reading, headaches

By Julie McMaine Evans

Special to the Waunakee Tribune


Ryan Pomeranke, 11, remembers the frustration of fourth grade well. When he read, print soon became “fuzzy” and he got eyestrain and headaches. And although he could recite math facts, he simply could not finish many problems on a written timed math test.

Vision testing showed Ryan’s vision was 20-20. But his frustration with schoolwork persisted.

Fortunately a relative suggested that Ryan, son of Waunakee residents Kathy Waters and John Pomeranke, be tested for Irlen Syndrome. The syndrome, also sometimes called scotopic sensitivity syndrome, is a visual perceptual problem caused by sensitivity to light.

On June 29, 2001 , Ryan and his mother sat side by side while certified Irlen screener Alma Gasser, who's located near Prairie du Sac, tested Ryan for Irlen Syndrome. It was a day that would change the lives of both mother and son, who both have the syndrome.

During the screening, Gasser, a former teacher, asked Ryan to read some words letter by letter. Ryan consistently said an “e” was an “o” and an “i” was a “t” because the letters were distorted to him. “As he read off the letters, my heart sank to the floor,” his mother recalls. “I was sick to my stomach to hear what he was seeing. I couldn’t believe it. I’d thought he just wasn’t applying himself.”

However, when Gasser placed certain colored plastic see-through overlays over the print, Ryan could see clearly, correctly identify the letters and read fluently. “It was really shocking,” his mother says. “As she placed different colors over the print, he would get the letters right. I was a little apprehensive, but I definitely saw the difference.” Ryan went home that day with a blue overlay and could read easily without headaches or strain when he used the overlay.

“Some 10 to 12 percent of the general population have Irlen Syndrome and half of problem readers have it,” Gasser says. Fortunately, Irlen Syndrome is easy to diagnose with the Irlen Institute’s systematic test that Ryan took… and the syndrome is relatively inexpensive to treat using special Irlen colored overlays or special tinted Irlen lenses or contacts. “Colors are individually tailored to each person,” Gasser says.

Irlen Syndrome doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Some sufferers are “poor readers”--they don’t like reading, read slowly, make mistakes and don’t understand what they’ve just read because they were too busy just trying to see the words. Some are labeled “dyslexic.”

For others, light sensitivity is the key symptom--they need sunglasses, dislike bright computer screens, dislike bright or fluorescent lights and can’t stand lights when driving at night. Some sufferers have depth perception problems and are clumsy at sports.

Some with Irlen Syndrome, like Ryan, appear to be “good readers” but put so much effort into their reading that they get frequent eyestrain, headaches/migraines or fatigue. Some “good readers” compensate by taking frequent breaks and reading in dim light, as Ryan did. Most people with the syndrome don’t realize they see differently than other people. Some parents, like Waters, weep when they realize how much their child has struggled with reading and other schoolwork.

Symptoms become worse with small print and the longer one reads. Thus problems may appear in third or fourth grade when print is smaller and assignments are longer. This is exactly what happened with Ryan, who liked to read and could comprehend material far above grade level. “The summer after fourth grade, Ryan was reading a lot of books on the second and third grade level,” his mother says. “I thought, ‘You lazy little stinker, you’re capable of so much more.’”

Using overlays is inexpensive and helps with reading. But the best treatment is wearing tinted Irlen lenses or contacts to filter light for all visual tasks, including reading the board, writing, doing math, driving and playing sports. Individuals like Ryan who could benefit from lenses are referred by the Irlen screener to an Irlen diagnostician.

In July 2001, Waters again sat by her son while he had a more intensive assessment, this time with Irlen diagnostician Adel Francis, a former special education teacher who heads an Irlen center in Canada. Francis became an Irlen screener in 1989 and a diagnostician in 1993 and has helped thousands of children and adults find just the right color overlays, lenses or contacts to treat their problems.

Waters was impressed with Francis’ knowledge about Irlen Syndrome and her immediate rapport with Ryan. “The first thing she asked was why certain books were easier to read. He said when the print was bigger, it was easier to read. I had never asked why he wanted lower level books,” Waters says. “I started feeling guilty because I had been scolding him because I thought he wasn’t working hard enough.”

Then Ryan wrote the word “morning” the way he saw it, with some letters doubled on top of each other.

“I started crying because I knew that was what he was really seeing,” says Waters. “How could he possibly do vertical math if the figures doubled?”

Such guilt feelings are common, Francis says. However, because Irlen Syndrome has nothing to do with “20-20” vision and is not detected by standard visual, educational and medical tests, it is understandable that parents would not know about it. While the syndrome is well known in other parts of the country and world, the syndrome is not well known in Wisconsin . The state has only about 30 screeners; some are school system employees.

From a briefcase filled with tinted lenses, Francis spent hours systematically finding just the right combination of tint colors that best made print and distant objects clear for Ryan. Irlen tints are very individualized, and Ryan needed a combination of six tints that created a grayish pink color. “That color was quite a concern for me with a boy going into fifth grade,” Waters says. “We talked about that for several weeks before school. I asked: What are you going to do if the boys tease you? Ryan said: If they tease me about my glasses, I can handle that. It’s when they get personal that it hurts.”

The first day of fifth grade in Fall 2001, Ryan and his mother made a presentation to his class about Irlen Syndrome and why Ryan wore tinted lenses. Therefore his classmates, like his sisters, six-year-old twins Courtney and Alyssa, became supportive ambassadors for Irlen Syndrome and its treatment, explaining it to anyone who questions the colored glasses. Ryan's teacher was also supportive.

In January of this year, Waters got her own tinted Irlen lenses. In the process of getting help for Ryan, she soon realized why she had constant eyestrain, squinted, frowned and avoided reading… and why the longer she read, the more distorted print became. She’d compensated in school and her work life by listening well, memorizing information and choosing hands-on work. She works in the mail center at Madison Area Technical College .

With Irlen lenses, “it’s definitely easier to read now. My comprehension has improved greatly,” Waters says. “Now I don’t squint and dig secretions out of my eyes all day.” Without the visual stress, she also feels less fatigue overall.

Waters is so grateful for the help she and Ryan have received that she has shared her success story widely. As a result, some other family members and friends also have been helped by Irlen overlays or lenses. One friend had never seen true depth in his environment until he tried on Waters’ glasses, which happened to be near the tint color he needed.

Gasser can tell success story after success story about children and adults whom she has screened and given overlays or referred to the diagnostician for lenses. “It’s one of the most exciting, rewarding things I’ve ever been involved with. We’re not just helping people with reading, we’re opening up a whole new world of possibilities to them in school, on the job or in daily life.” In addition to help with reading, for example, some people have gotten rid of headache/migraine problems, can drive more safely with better depth perception and can handle lights at night for night driving. Self esteem rises with these improvements.

Gasser and her husband, William Gasser, a dairy farmer in Prairie du Sac, first looked into Irlen Syndrome treatment in the fall of 2000 to help an employee who could barely read. Tinted Irlen lenses helped their employee with reading and depth perception so dramatically that Gasser took the training to become an Irlen screener herself in the spring of 2001. As a result, one of her four sons and some other relatives were diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome and have received help. “Our son used to come home from school just exhausted. When he wore his lenses to school the first day, he came home just beaming. ‘These are just wonderful,’” he said.

Irlen Syndrome is found equally in boys and girls. Some people seem to inherit it. Others develop it after a whiplash or brain injury or health change. It gets worse during adolescence and menopause. Some persons with autism, Aspergers’s Syndrome and light-induced seizures have it.

Irlen Syndrome appears to be a defect in one of the pathways that carry messages from the eye to the brain. Filtering out specific wavelengths of light--with individually prescribed overlays or tinted Irlen lenses--helps the pathway function normally. Fluorescent lights in schools and workplaces create a glare on white paper, making it especially hard for sufferers to read, comprehend and sit still. The Irlen Institute believes a third of the children labeled with “attention” problems may have Irlen Syndrome.

If a person has Irlen Syndrome, it is usually obvious during screening, as it was with Ryan. When the right color filters (overlays) are used, the improvement in a person’s reading speed and accuracy can be immediate and dramatic.

In a pilot project funded in recent years by the Massachusetts legislature and Department of Education, children diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome saw average gains of 2.6 years in accuracy and 2.3 years in comprehension in just three months while using Irlen colored overlays.

For some, as with Ryan, Irlen Syndrome is THE cause of their reading and learning problems. These students may need no further special academic help. “Not everyone is helped as much as Ryan,” says Gasser. “For some people, Irlen Syndrome is just a part of the puzzle. They may have layers of problems affecting reading. But Irlen treatment removes one layer.”

“I question pouring money into reading programs if a child has Irlen Syndrome and sees print in a blurred or distorted manner,” says Francis. The Irlen Syndrome needs to be dealt with first, she says.

More than 50 articles related to Irlen Syndrome have been published in professional journals. The syndrome and its treatment have been featured on TV shows including “60 Minutes,” and “Good Morning, America ,” and in print media including National Geographic.

Many school systems in the U.S. and other countries have Irlen screeners. In some school systems, all students referred for special education must be screened for this syndrome. There are more than 80 Irlen diagnostic centers around the world. Irlen Syndrome is recognized by Recordings for the Blind, college testing organizations (ACT, SAT) and other organizations.

“We’d like to see more educators, parents and legislators become more aware of this syndrome,” says Gasser. Treatment can help affected students be more successful in school and affected employees be more successful at work, she says. Treatment also can cut special education costs, increase graduation rates, cut down on unemployment, improve the quality and productivity of the workforce and cut down on sick time from headaches and other Irlen-related symptoms.

Without Irlen treatment for Ryan, his mother says, school likely would have become increasingly difficult and his higher education future and career possibilities would have been limited by his reading and math problems, and the headaches and strain. As it is, his future looks bright. His grades rose in fifth grade, thanks to his Irlen lenses.

Ryan enters sixth grade at Waunakee Intermediate School this fall. He’s the kid proudly wearing the tinted glasses and toting books above his grade level—books with small print and lots of pages. Fuzzy pages and headaches are a thing of the past when he’s wearing his Irlen lenses.

A vision test by an optometrist or ophthalmologist is recommended before Irlen screening.
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