I've talked about Irlen Syndrome before - in fact, there is an entire page on Irlen Syndrome on this website. But I'd like to take the time to refocus on it here.
Irlen Syndrome is similar to Dyslexia, and it is actually incredibly common (approximately 20% of people are expected to have it, and about 50% of people with reading difficulties). To put it (probably too) simply, it is a visual processing issue caused by difficulty processing certain wavelengths of light. This difficulty can result in a variety of symptoms, and each individual might have a different mix or different levels of these (and more) symptoms:
- Fatigue after or during study sessions or activities involving lots of light or reading
- Difficulty remembering information they've read
- Difficulty reading off the whiteboard
- Difficulty focusing on the page because it is too bright, or words or lines appear to be moving, difficulty tracking the words (sometimes they might skip a line while reading out loud)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Eye strain
- Anxiety and frustration
- And many, many more.
When I tell people about this issue most people immediately say that they don't have any trouble reading and they aren't light sensitive - even people who turned out to have extreme symptoms of Irlen Syndrome and who later benefited dramatically from having the tinted lenses and overlays (see note at end). Why is this? I think it's because when we learn to read, nobody every asks us how the words are behaving on the page, or ask us how bright the page is, or whether there are shadows, sparkles, flashes, or vanishing acts, etc. We aren't told that the page and the words and the spaces between the words ought to behave in a particular way. So how would we necessarily know whether we are having more difficulty than others reading?
There is also the misconception that you can only have Irlen Syndrome if you are not a good reader, you don't like reading, or you are not very good at school. I have worked a lot at a selective high school. Surely, there wouldn't be any Irlen issues there, people have said to me. But in reality, there are quite a few kids I've found with Irlen Syndrome. Just because you have these issues doesn't mean that you can't complete academic work to a high standard - it just means that it's a lot harder for you than it should be. A lot of these students had high levels of anxiety. One of them, in year 11 when she was diagnosed, was one of the most anxious kids I'd met at the school. She couldn't handle exams and would sometimes have to leave the test to vomit. The last time I saw her, before an important year 12 exam, she was smiling and holding up her glasses. She told me that she didn't throw up in exams anymore and the glasses have made all the difference.
Sometimes we grow so accustomed to things being a certain way that we think that level of difficulty is normal. Or, worse, we think that we are just 'stupid' and should be able to do what other people are able to do.
Many of the students I've diagnosed have also had behavioural issues. They were smart kids who seemed to have given up, and would disrupt the class in order to distract from their difficulties completing the work (or even simply to prevent the literal headaches caused by having to focus on a white page for that long). Once they had their glasses, they (ongoingly) focused on their work with little distraction - it was almost miraculous.
So it is important for educators and child care workers in particular to gain an understanding of this issue and how to identify it. I am set to give a short training session in one of the schools I work at with the English faculty - a small group of passionate teachers who are aware of the benefits for the students. Others, however, are not so easily convinced. I also aim to encourage, and even at some point fund, teachers (and teachers' aides, child care workers, etc.) to get the training themselves. Irlen Syndrome has 'gone out of vogue' in recent years in my area, but it is still as prevalent as ever, and we as educators (and a society) need to make sure that we do all we can to support all our members in achieving their educational best with as little difficulty and anxiety as possible.
Please go look into Irlen Syndrome! The knowledge you have can change someone's life one day.
* Please note that it is extremely important that any tinted lenses for Irlen Syndrome are made through the correct method and so need to be done through an Irlen Diagnostician and NOT through an optometrist. We have had issues with local optometrists (who I'm sure meant well) telling people that they can tint lenses the same colour as their overlay at a much lower cost. These glasses, while cheaper, will likely be rather ineffective and can even do damage. The lenses are often not the same colour as the overlay, and they need to be treated for a lot longer than optometrists treat their glasses for. If your optometrist is not a certified Irlen diagnostician, be wary of choosing them to tint lenses for people with Irlen Syndrome.
For more information on Irlen Syndrome you can check out the relevant page on our website, or check out:
Our primary contributor is Elissa, who is a qualified high school teacher and Irlen Screener.