What is Irlen syndrome and how can it affect reading?
What is Irlen Syndrome?
Some people face difficulty in reading words from the screen or a paper, but they do not necessarily have a learning disability. Some individuals' ability to read is affected due to problems with visual processing or light sensitivity.
Irlen Syndrome is a condition (also referred to as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome or Meares-Irlen Syndrome) caused by visual stress in which the problem is not with seeing the written letters on a paper, but with brain interpretations of the visual information.
People may get affected by Irlen Syndrome at any age. It is both demotivating and frustrating when it affects a person's reading comprehension for school or work.
Almost 50% of learners with academic difficulties (such as dyslexia) are affected by Irlen Syndrome.
The root cause of Irlen Syndrome lies in perceptual problems, which mainly occur due to light sensitivity.
Learners with Irlen syndrome mostly benefit from using tinted glasses or coloured overlays. The coloured glasses or colored overlays filter out light that is causing the printing distortions. The problem may get even worse with white paper and black print on it, which is the most widely used format.
People who are suffering from Irlen Syndrome may face difficulty with:
- Twirling letters
- merging of letters together
- The appearance of letters in the erroneous order
- Letters jumping about
- Words being faint
- Reading while staying in one place
- Excessive blinking and rubbing of eyes
- Letters emerge as the jumbled puzzle
- Words seeming faded
Who discovered Irlen Syndrom?
A teacher in New Zealand, Olive Meares, was the first who identified the Irlen Syndrome in the 1980s. According to Olive Meares, some students could not write on or read from a white page. Helen Irlen was the American psychologist who examined further symptoms and labelled the condition as scotopic sensitivity. She observed the positive impact of using coloured overlays in easing the symptoms.
The Learning Research Association was founded in 1996. In 2014, its name was changed to the Irlen Syndrome Foundation. Its primary objective was to increase awareness that adults and children with Meares-Irlen Syndrome face concentration difficulties and cannot process and are sensitive to specific wavelengths of light. This may lead to symptoms such as poor brain interpretations and distortion issues, headache, fatigue, sensitivity to light and visual distortions during reading and writing.
How many people are affected by Irlen Syndrome?
According to scientific evidence , Irlen syndrome is more common than heart diseases and asthma as nearly 14 percent of individuals are affected by Irlen syndrome. The syndrome has been found to affect people with learning difficulties such as Attention Deficit Disorder, brain injury, Autism Spectrum disorder or dyslexia.
How is Irlen Syndrome diagnosed?
In the UK, the NHS does not yet identify Irlen Syndrome as a medical condition. This might be different in other countries where there are more reported cases.
When people demonstrate an array of symptoms of Irlen syndrome, they will receive a diagnosis and will generally need to perform medical tests and consult a professional optician. The optician will assess the person for a variety of symptoms and examine eyes, visual stress, and light sensitivity, and provide a piece of advice on the right fonts or background tint that suits the affected person.
Scientific evidence demonstrates that each person’s requirement for a suitable tint for colored filters or coloured overlays (or a pair of contact lenses or beneficial glasses) is unique. Also, using the wrong shade may result in problems and is less beneficial. Even if Irlen syndrome runs in a family, the choice of colour, tint and physical symptoms are not necessarily the same for each family member.
What is the difference between Irlen Syndrome and dyslexia?
Dyslexia was once thought to be synonymous with Irlen Syndrome as both these conditions have many symptoms in common. However, today both Dyslexia and Irlen Syndrome are perceived as separate conditions.
International Dyslexia Association explained Dyslexia as a language-based disability of learning. Dyslexia is a cluster of symptoms, that serves as a lifetime barrier to learning language skills, especially reading. Learners with dyslexia mostly face difficulties with other language skills, i.e. pronouncing words, writing and spelling. On the other hand, Irlen Syndrome is identified as a perceptual processing disorder, which relates precisely to how the brain interprets the visual information it obtains. Irlen Syndrome is not a language-based disorder; therefore, phonics-based interventions will not help a person with Irlen Syndrome in the same way they will help a person with dyslexia in improving their reading skills.
How teachers can help students with Irlen Syndrome?
If a teacher suspects that a student is affected by Irlen Syndrome, the teacher must look for a range of symptoms of visual stress and must try and print worksheets with different coloured paper backgrounds such as yellow, pastel pink or orange etc.
While younger students are learning to read, teachers may use box strips or gel strips and only expose the part of the text the student is expected to process at a particular time. Effective pacing is essential, or the learner may end up reading words without understanding due to visual stress. In the case of online classes, the teacher may ask the student to adjust the text colour or screen background until the student finds a colour that makes reading easier and reduces visual stress.
- It must be remembered that white background is least effective in reducing visual stress for persons with Irlen syndrome.
- Irlen Syndrome is one of the Visual Processing Disorders that may inhibit a person’s ability to read both electronic and printed material. For online education, it is better to use apps with a wide range of accessibility options, including the ability to change the colour of fonts and backgrounds.
- No one colour suits every affected person. From person to person it varies. A student's visual symptoms may be reduced through a correct tint such as pastel pink background colour; whereas, another may find it easier to read on a yellow-coloured background.
- Scientific evidence suggests that the quality and amount of dull or bright lights make a difference. Some learners prefer to avoid bright lighting or fluorescent lights and find it easier to read while wearing a flat-brim cap.
- When a person gets stressed due to typing, he may choose to type material. During touch-typing, a learner does not depend on eyes to look for keys, instead, finger muscle memory is harnessed for spelling out words. This may decrease stress and improve fluency in writing.
- Scientific evidence suggests that teachers may benefit from audio materials to increase the understanding of text-based reading. When learners with Irlen syndrome are facing problems or high degrees of visual stress, listening to audio material may prevent them from frustration.
What is the controversy over Irlen Syndrome?
Irlen Syndrome is also called a ‘proposed’ visual syndrome. It is because previous research shows no strong evidence that coloured lenses or overlays affect reading. According to a Journal of the College of Optometrists research, there is a lack of evidence suggesting that using tinted lenses or colored overlays will reduce visual stress or reading difficulties. Positive outcomes in the research were seen as more possibly due to an outcome of a placebo effect. This is opposite to what has been proposed by Cornell University research, that using individualized spectral filters to channel content has a calming effect on a person's processing and improves brain function and cognitive abilities.
Irlen Syndrome FAQs
1. What is Irlen syndrome?
Irlen Syndrome is an eye disorder that causes some people to see distorted text on printed material such as books, newspapers, magazines, etc. This distortion can be seen as blurred lines, fuzzy edges, or other types of visual anomalies.
It is named after Dr. Helen Irlen, who first identified this condition in the 1960s. She was working with children who were having trouble reading.
2. How does Irlen Syndrome affect my vision?
When you look at something through your eyes, there is a process that takes place inside your brain. Your brain interprets what you are looking at and then sends signals to your muscles to move your eyeballs so that you can focus on whatever you are looking at. If you have Irlen Syndrome, your brain might interpret the images differently than usual.
This could lead to blurry vision, double vision, headaches, neck pain, dizziness, fatigue, and other symptoms.
3. Is Irlen Syndrome hereditary?
No, it is not hereditary.
4. Can I treat Irlen Syndrome?
Yes, you can treat Irlen Syndrome. There are several ways to help relieve the symptoms of Irlen Syndrome.
One way to treat Irlen Syndrome is to wear tinted eyeglasses or coloured overlays. These filters out the light that is causing the distortions.
Another way to treat Irlen syndrome is to use coloured pens instead of pencils. Coloured pens do not contain graphite, which is responsible for the blurring effect.
Coloured overlays are also helpful because they reduce glare and reflections. They can be worn over regular spectacles.
5. Are there any side effects of wearing coloured glasses?
There are no known side effects associated with wearing coloured glasses. However, if you are sensitive to certain colours, you should avoid them.
6. Do coloured glasses work for everyone?
No, they don't. It depends on how much light is entering your eyes. Some people will need more than others.
7. Does Irlen Syndrome affect only girls?
No, it affects both boys and girls.
8. What causes irlen syndrome?
Irlen syndrome is caused by a combination of factors including genetics, environment, and stress.
9. How common is Irlen Syndrome?
According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), approximately 1% of all Americans suffer from Irlen Syndrome.
10. Who gets Irlen Syndrome?
Anyone can develop Irlen Syndrome. It is most commonly found among young adults between 20 and 40 years.