The smartest kid in the class might be the one that struggles with basic literacy

If your child struggles with basic literacy it could be because they have Irlen Syndrome.
If your child struggles with basic literacy it could be because they have Irlen Syndrome.

Story sponsored by Irlen Diagnostic Clinic Newcastle.

It’s hard to stress how important literacy is to early education and development. As human beings, words are a means to meaning. They are our primary method of communicating with one another. It’s the way we teach our children. It’s how we engage with them. Most importantly though, it’s the skill set by which we assess them. 

If a child struggles with basic literacy it can seriously impede their ability to learn, advance and ultimately succeed in an academic environment. Falling behind can also impact upon self-confidence and behaviour. 

The irony however is that literacy isn’t necessarily an accurate measure of general intelligence nor is it an indicator of actual knowledge. In fact, sometimes the smartest person in the room is the one that struggles to read. 

Few people know this better than Ph.D. researcher and former educator Dr Joan Brien. She has spent much of her adult life studying Irlen Syndrome and now runs a diagnostic clinic to help spot it in children. The condition is the subject of debate within the scientific and medical community – with some leading bodies rejecting its very existence – but Dr Brien says she has witnessed the condition first hand and helped countless people overcome it. 

Symptomatically, the condition is not dissimilar to dyslexia, some even consider it be a form of dyslexia, and it affects the way the brain interprets light. Dr Brien says even though it may appear to be a problem with the eyes it is actually a problem processing visual information. More to the point, if you don’t test for it specifically, you won’t be able to properly address it. 

“It’s not a visual problem its a visual processing problem,” she explained.

“It has nothing to do with the eyes. So, you can go to an optometrist or an eye specialist and be told you have perfect vision and you don’t need glasses but at the same time when you look at a white page, the text can still seem fuzzy or it can look like the words are moving around.” 

According to an article in the Korean Journal of Ophthamology, Irlen Sydrome is considered to be a magnocellular system disorder that induces visual stress and distortion, which can cause reading difficulties due to an inability to properly interpret hypertransmission of a specific light waves. Or, to put it far more simply, it impedes the brain’s ability to process some colours on the visual spectrum.

To truly understand the issue you first need to understand how the human eye works. Basically, our eyes are just lenses which allow our brains to interpret the energy levels of things around us. Light is a transverse, electromagnetic wave and each colour we see is simply a light wave with a different frequency. Red has the lowest frequency, violet the highest. 

White light contains every colour on the visible spectrum and when it hits different surfaces we see the excess energy which isn’t absorbed and therefore reflects off it. When we stare at a white surface however our eyes are receiving the entire visible spectrum. 

White light contains every colour on the visual spectrum.

White light contains every colour on the visual spectrum.

So, if you have Irlen Sydrome and can’t interpret one particular frequency of light wave, when you try to read off a white page your brain isn’t interpreting the signal properly – there’s interference – and what you see is distorted. However, if you block out the colours that interfere with the messages going to your brain, you can function normally.

People with the condition are prescribed special tinted lenses and by using them, Dr Brien explains, sufferers can address the symptoms. As such she believes it is extremely important to detect the condition early in children so that they don’t fall behind educationally. 

Another thing to keep in mind when dealing with children, she says, is that the symptoms of Irlen Syndrome can appear very similar to those of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which can lead to Irlen sufferers being misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Young people with the condition quite often find it difficult to look at a page too long, they can become inattentive and struggle to concentrate on reading or writing tasks. They also tend to rush through their work and – in many cases –simply give up. 

Early detection can be difficult because children with Irlen Sydrome often don’t realise there is anything wrong with them. If your average person was to develop the condition overnight they would quickly know something was amiss but children that are born with it tend to think that’s just the way our brains work. Much the same as children that are shortsighted. 

“I’ve started to think about it as a bit of a hidden disability because not many people know they’ve got it,” Dr Brien explained.

“Kids especially don’t realise that what they’re seeing is not the same as everyone else. As a result, their self-esteem starts to go down – so too does their self-confidence – and they start to think they’re dumb or stupid. Often times they know they’re as smart as the other kids but for some reason everyone else can read but they can’t and they start asking: why is this happening to me? But they’ve never seen anything that looks any different.

“It’s also highly hereditary and there’s research to back that up… When we test kids we do an informal assessment of the parents… and one of them always has it. Quite often they’ll be sitting there listening and then say: ‘Oh, so that’s why I’ve got to go back and re-read what I’ve read’ or ‘that’s why I fall asleep while reading’ or ‘that’s why I get sore eyes when I read for too long’. They’re not aware that it’s a problem, they assume it’s just them.”

Dr Joan Brien believes every child should be tested for Irlen Syndrome in Year One, to identify it early and help prevent young sufferers from falling behind educationally.

Dr Joan Brien believes every child should be tested for Irlen Syndrome in Year One, to identify it early and help prevent young sufferers from falling behind educationally.

Migraines can also be caused by Irlen, as can headaches while reading, writing or working on a white screen. 

Dr Brien believes Irlen Syndrome may be more prevalent than we think. She said research suggests that one in five people display at least some symptoms and she has long lobbied for the mandatory screening of children in Year One. In fact, she even wrote to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard personally.  

Not everybody is convinced by the science though.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists’ (RANZCO) official position is that there is “no evidence” Irlen Syndrome even exists and that there is similarly no proof coloured lenses, help those with reading difficulties.

“The real concern with diagnoses of Irlen Syndrome is that they can distract from genuine diagnosis and treatment, such as a comprehensive evaluation by an educational psychologist followed by the appropriate remedial educational input. Any interventions that distract from and delay this evaluation could be detrimental to the effective treatment of any learning disabilities,” Prof Frank Martin explained.

“Despite Irlen Syndrome being first described in the early 1980s, there is still no sound theoretical basis or evidence that the condition actually exists. A diagnosis of Irlen Syndrome is based solely on symptoms with no quantitative physiological correlation.”

RANZCO says there is a lack of clearly established criteria and that the only defining criterion is a self-reported benefit of coloured filters while reading, which is anecdotal and therefore doesn’t hold much weight scientifically.  

“Overwhelmingly the research shows no benefit from this treatment in children with reading difficulties and vulnerable parents are being exploited and having their children subjected to unnecessary screening practices,” Prof Martin said.

Dr Brien rejects the position paper. She said screen process is rigorous, intensive and accurate. Everybody who comes in doesn’t just leave with lenses. A lot of scrutiny goes into the process and there is post prescriptive analysis to make sure symptoms are resolved.   

She also rejected the notion that parents were exploited saying they were deeply involved at every stage of the process, including follow up appointments to ensure the treatment is working.

Dr Brien was quick to point out however that Irlen lenses simply remove the visual interference commonly experienced when reading off white paper or under fluorescent lighting.   

“A lot of critics say that Irlen lenses can’t teach kids to read. And that’s true. They can’t. They can only read with the lenses if they already know the words,” she explained. 

Dr Joan Brien works with a teenager Irlen sufferer. The video shows the difference between reading off white paper and reading through the correctly tinted lenses.

“They’re just an aid. It just fixes up the problems in visual processing. They’re just filtering out specific wave lengths.”   

As for the methodology of testing, Dr Brien says it is scientifically sound. The only variable between ordinary conditions and an Irlen test is the presence of different frequencies of light. The same results can be replicated with tinted paper. Therefore, if cancelling out that particular wave length fixes the problem, it’s proof that light is the issue.

As for claims about learning disabilities, it is important to note that dyslexia and Irlen syndrome are not one in the same however the symptoms can appear quite similar. The definition of dyslexia is broad and occurs on a continuum from mild to severe. No two profiles are alike. An article in the Korean Journal of Ophthamology concluded that while the two are very different conditions (physiologically) they could be classified in the same category. 

“Dyslexia can be classified into primary (developmental) dyslexia and Irlen,” the article reads.

“Primary dyslexia is a disorder of phonological processing due to abnormalities of the left hemisphere parieto-occipital lobe, which occurs in learning disabilities but can be improved with appropriate phonological training. Even though magnocellular dysfunction may have some role in the pathogenesis of primary dyslexia, our study was grounded in the suggestion that these two disorders are basically different and can be deferentially diagnosed.” 

As such, if you have primary dyslexia more intensive diagnosis and treatment is required. However, if you’re Irlen, the lenses could provide relief.

The same report also concluded that while doubling and difficulty with moving lines and bright conditions are specific symptoms of Irlen, they also occur in people with nonspecific dyslexia caused by ophthalmologic disorders. 

However, Dr Brien says if it is Irlen, eye tests and regular glasses won’t address the problem. Similarly, going to a specialist that doesn’t accept or believe in Irlen could result in the condition continuing to go untreated.

“The problem is nobody else diagnoses it other than an Irlen clinic,” she explained. 

“Because it’s not considered to be a ‘medical problem’ doctors aren’t generally taught about it; psychologists are generally either not taught about it or they’re taught it doesn’t exist; and optometrists generally don’t believe in it either... but as far as I’m concerned, the problem with a lot of these professions is they’ve never taken the time to really understand what’s going on.”

Dr Brien studied medical science at the University of Newcastle, majoring in biology and psychology. She has a Ph.D. in clinical immunology. She has also taught high school biology and worked extensively with children. Today, she owns and operates the Irlen Diagnostic Clinic Newcastle.

Story sponsored by Irlen Diagnostic Clinic Newcastle.