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. 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 the academically-inclined Irlen kids I've known, 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. A significant problem is that no one knows when they're learning that the way they see the world may be completely different from those around them. We never think to ask kids how the words look on the page when they are learning to read. We assume that what we see on the page is normal for everyone. So kids who see optical illusions on the page (e.g. words fading, light pulsing on the page, letters shaking, etc.) have no reason to ask whether the letters are supposed to do the things they seem to do.
I have also seen remarkable behaviour changes for many students experiencing this issue. Students who were shy, reserved and self-conscious became ready volunteers to read in class and to share their ideas. Students who overcompensated for their difficulties by distracting others and misbehaving in the classroom became near-model pupils (I've even caught them studying for extended periods in their lunch breaks and before school - shocking turn of events for students who used to run amok at all opportunities and who had strong aversion to study and reading prior to getting their coloured lenses).
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.
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.