Irlen Syndrome is more common than either heart disease or asthma, but it’s often overlooked as the possible cause of the learning challenges many children face.
This visual processing problem affects up to 46% of children with reading and learning difficulties, and approximately 30% of people with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and those who have suffered a head injury. It also affects 12-14% of the general population, people who don’t have learning problems, successful professionals, and gifted students. With statistics like this, odds are high you probably know someone who suffers from Irlen Syndrome.
What is Irlen Syndrome?
Irlen Syndrome (also referred to at times as Meares-Irlen Syndrome, Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, and Visual Stress) is a perceptual processing disorder. It is not an optical problem. It is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information. This problem tends to run in families and is not currently identified by other standardized educational or medical tests.
In Irlen Syndrome, the brain struggles to make sense of the visual information it receives. This causes a variety of symptoms from visual distortions to physical symptoms like headaches, migraines, strain and fatigue, difficulty attending, and problems with depth perception. Certain environments and situations, such as bright and fluorescent lighting, can make symptoms worse, and symptoms can be different in different people. Understanding the depth and breadth of the impact Irlen Syndrome can have is key to successfully addressing the condition and removing it as a barrier to learning.
Irlen Syndrome can affect many different areas, including:
Academic and work performance
Ability to sit still
This problem can manifest itself differently for each individual. This problem is not remediable and is often a lifetime barrier to learning and performance. If you suffer from any of the following, Irlen Syndrome might be your problem:
Print looks different
Environment looks different
Slow or inefficient reading
Difficulty with math computation
Difficulty reading music
Poor sports performance
Other Symptoms of Irlen Syndrome
Bothered by glare, fluorescent lights, bright lights, sunlight and sometimes lights at night
Some individuals experience physical symptoms and feel tired, sleepy, dizzy, anxious, or irritable. Others experience headaches, mood changes, restlessness or have difficulty staying focused, especially with bright or fluorescent lights.
Problems tracking from line to line
Reads in dim light
Skips words or lines
Reads slowly or hesitantly
Strain and fatigue
Tired or sleepy
Headaches or nausea
Fidgety or restlessness
Eyes that hurt or become watery
Attention and Concentration Problems:
Problems with concentration when reading and doing academic tasks
Often people can appear to have other conditions, such as attention deficit disorder, and are given medication unnecessarily.
Unequal letter size
Writing up or downhill
Strain or fatigue from computer use
Difficulty reading music
Sloppy, careless math errors
Misaligned numbers in columns
Ineffective use of study time
Lack of motivation
Grades do not reflect the amount of effor
Difficulty catching balls
Difficulty judging distances
Additional caution necessary while driving
Words on a page lack clarity or stability; i.e., may appear to be blurry, moving, or disappear
Correcting Irlen Syndrome can result in the following improvements:
Read faster and longer
Reduced strain and fatigue
Reduced headaches and migraines
Improved flow and fluency
Improved academic performance
Better attention and comprehension
Overcoming common misconceptions
Since the condition was first discovered by American Psychologist Helen Irlen, over three decades ago, several misconceptions about the condition have surfaced.
Misconception #1: Irlen Syndrome is just about reading. It’s not. Irlen Syndrome is a neurologic condition resulting in an over-active or over-stimulated brain. This extra brain activity affects lots of different areas of functioning
Misconception #2: Irlen Syndrome is a problem with the eyes. Wrong. Irlen Syndrome is not an issue with the eyes, it’s a problem with the brain. Even when the eyes function perfectly, the brain can have difficulty processing the visual information it receives. Irlen Syndrome requires separate and distinct assessment and intervention from eye problems.
Does Irlen Syndrome coexist with other conditions: autism, ADHD, dyslexia, TBI?
The latest research on Irlen Syndrome has moved beyond reading to look at other populations. As many as 80% of individuals on the autism spectrum report having distorted perception, and research on Irlen Syndrome and autism has shown that interventions for Irlen Syndrome successfully correct this distorted world to make it clear and stable. The same is true for individuals struggling with headaches, reading and academic difficulties after a concussion or head injury. When it comes to the connection between Irlen Syndrome and ADHD and Dyslexia, up to 30% of individuals who have these conditions also suffer from Irlen Syndrome. Therefore, there is often a misdiagnosis of ADHD and dyslexia, when the true problem is Irlen Syndrome.
An over-active brain
Seventy percent of the information we receive is visual and must be correctly processed and interpreted by the brain. Ongoing research at Cornell University’s fMRI facility in the United States corroborates other recent neuroscience research showing that people with Irlen Syndrome have over-active brains. Their brains work extra hard to try and make sense of visual information. This over-activity causes the list of varied symptoms often associated with the condition.
This brain imaging research also repeatedly shows how in In Irlen Syndrome, the brain struggles to make sense of the visual information it receives. This causes a variety of symptoms from visual distortions to physical symptoms like headaches, migraines, strain and fatigue, difficulty attending, and problems with depth perception. Certain environments and situations, such as bright and fluorescent lighting, can make symptoms worse, and symptoms can be different in different people. Understanding the depth and breadth of the impact Irlen Syndrome can have is key to successfully addressing the condition and removing it as a barrier to learning.
Irlen Syndrome is treated through a fascinating application of the science of colour. Our brains process light waves of varying lengths as different colours and some colours can irritate the brain. To treat Irlen Syndrome, specific wavelengths are filtered out to correct the visual processing deficit. Once testing has been completed, a colored overlay is selected that best corrects the individual’s visual issues. Tinted glasses or contact lenses, designed to filter out the disrupting wavelengths of light, can provide further relief. This is a non-invasive treatment and the results are often instant and dramatic.