You can probably recall a few embarrassing moments from your grade-school days: Perhaps you were the slowest reader in class, reprimanded constantly for never paying attention, or had the most crooked handwriting. Today, school kids are sometimes similarly pegged as slow-minded, disobedient, or lazy; they’re taunted for their shortcomings or become bullies to compensate for them. Often they are diagnosed as having ADHD, and treated accordingly. But what if these familiar childhood struggles are actually symptoms of an oft-overlooked disorder which can be fixed by wearing a pair of cool colored shades?
Dr. Carol S. Kessler, director and diagnostician of Kingston’s Irlen Clinic, has treated Irlen syndrome patients since 2001. Irlen (or scotopic sensitivity) syndrome is a perception disorder that affects the brain’s ability to process visual data. While we’re quick to attribute the symptoms — which include fragmented vision, eye strain, and headaches — to countless hours spent surfing the Web or playing video games, Irlen syndrome appears to be genetic, and it may affect close to one in four people.
“It doesn’t discriminate,” Kessler says of the disorder, which has been compared to dyslexia. “Men and women, young and old. I see a lot of smart children who get headaches in school, especially if they’re reading. They’re always behind in what everyone’s doing, and then they need extra help.” What is often regarded as a reading disability might simply be an extreme sensitivity to light.
Thankfully, there may be a simple solution: Employing the Irlen Method — a noninvasive procedure pioneered by former school psychologist Helen Irlen in the late 1980s — Kessler utilizes specially tinted lenses and colored transparencies (called overlays) to help balance the barrage of intense, contrasting light that often adversely affects her patients. An Irlen sufferer herself, Kessler is familiar with the frustrations — and limitations — of the impairment. “I graduated from high school six months early with a 93 average. I never really had to read a book,” she says. “Afterward, I tried attending college six times, but couldn’t deal with the work. I wasn’t stupid. I just wasn’t able to sit there and read for long periods of time.”
Although use of the lenses hasn’t been proven to resolve abnormal brain activity, they can certainly lessen it. “The lenses calm down the brain by filtering out offensive light. The result actually stops the abnormal activity so you can focus,” Kessler says. She satiates her own ocular sensitivity with a pair of nonprescription light violet-gray lenses. “They take away the distortions I was seeing whenever I read, and they make looking at a computer more comfortable. Even the snow was too bright for me, but now I can step outside without flinching, or having to throw my hands over my eyes.”
The tinted filters might also assist those suffering from concussions, migraines, attention-deficit disorder, and even autism. “I once screened a young man with autism,” Kessler recalls. “It was very much a trial and error. Finally he looked directly at me. His aide said, ‘[Children with autism] just don’t do that.’ And I told her, ‘Well, he is!’ He focused on me. I guess we’d found the color that really worked best for him, that finally reached him.”
Currently, Irlen Syndrome is not recognized by the major pediatric organizations in the U.S. But for now, Kessler says the lenses are a way of managing many cerebral abnormalities. “They get you to the point where you can function and do really well,” she says. “It makes that much of a difference — it takes that stress off.”
To contact Dr. Kessler or to participate in a screening, please visit www.drcarolskessler.com.
Common symptoms of Irlen Syndrome:
- Trouble reading words
- Headache while reading
- Fatigue while reading
- Weak depth perception
- Trouble copying
Not everyone with Irlen syndrome require lenses. But if you think you have a problem, here are steps recommended at irlen.com to make reading more comfortable:
- Avoid fluorescent lights: “They flicker, and they have a noise that comes off them,” says Kessler. “You’re better off with natural light.”
- Reduce contrast on reading materials: Print handouts and worksheets on colored paper — preferably pale blues, yellows, greens, or pinks — to lessen the harsh contrast of black on white. Off-white, grey, or beige recycled paper works, too.
- Use plastic overlays. “We send out a self-test to anybody who’s interested,” says Kessler. The self-test will identify what hues work best for you.
- Position books and reading materials in front of you, not at an angle or off to the side. Propping or tilting text may help reduce glare
- Use enlarged print
- Take breaks often from visually intensive tasks like reading and writing