motherís intuition, but Maria Hill knew something was up
with her son.
having headaches, struggling academically and missing words
when reading. When he read aloud, he would make up words to
replace ones he didnít see. He also claimed the words would
would see one word, and the rest would run off the page,"
second grade at Petty Elementary in Antioch, Ill., drew to a
close with her son Reinoís grades slipping, Hill wanted to
get to the bottom of what was going on.
later, she got an answer. He was diagnosed with Irlen
syndrome, a perceptual-processing disorder that is said to be
caused by the brainís inability to process wavelengths of
light and ultimately visual information.
condition is considered controversial, drawing criticism from
some in the medical and academic communities who question its
10-year-old Reino and others, the solution was as simple and
inexpensive as a colored overlay.
people, reading black characters on a white background isnít
a problem. But for people with Irlen syndrome, or scotopic
sensitivity, reading can be disorienting or even painful. In
severe cases, words can transform into a confusing,
disorganized sea of letters. Others see objects as closer or
farther away than they actually are, or in different locations
entirely. Symptoms compare with those of sports-related
Helen Irlenís research at California State University at
Long Beach in the 1980s, remedies were largely unidentified.
federal grant to test a dominant-eye theory with red and green
lenses, she discovered that individuals showed a marked
improvement in reading when words were covered with colored
acetate sheets or overlays. Further testing led to the use of
precision-tinted filters and to development of screening
methods to identify the disability and determine the color
that provides maximum relief.
was going beyond what was considered a reasonable
theory," Irlen said.
basic principle is that specific wavelengths of light disrupt
visual processing. The condition, primarily hereditary,
usually manifests itself in early childhood and is caused by a
defect in one of the visual pathways that carries messages
from the eyes to the brain. Itís a timing fault.
like static on a radio," Irlen said. "It causes
visual distortions like optical illusions."
why children and adults diagnosed with the disorder also can
have spatial difficulties, depth-perception problems or poor
coordination. Milder symptoms include distractibility,
drowsiness, headaches, fatigue and nausea.
to Irlen, filtering out disruptive wavelengths on the visual
spectrum allows pathways to function normally, and information
is processed efficiently and accurately. Irlen symptoms are
most evident indoors when reading on white paper, on
illuminated computer screens or under fluorescent lighting.
initial screenings between $75 and $100 and colored overlays a
few dollars apiece, the decision to give it a try was a
no-brainer for Hill.
not?" she said. "I think the cost is well worth the
try. Thereíre no needles, no medications."
cases often require a secondary evaluation to fit individuals
with glasses or contacts with precision-tinted lenses.
Assessments to identify the optimal color, hue and saturation
are performed by certified diagnosticians, and lenses are dyed
to suit individual specifications. The cost of comprehensive
evaluation and to have lenses dyed by technicians at the Irlen
Institute runs $500 to $600.
self-tests to see if Irlen syndrome might be a factor are
available free online at irlen.com.
Ruminski, also of Antioch, tried for years to find a remedy to
help son Tom with his struggles with reading and "crazy
calculation errors" in math. Like Reino, Tomís troubles
began in second grade and included headaches, but Tomís
writing also was affected.
would stare at the page," she said. "He had great
ideas and expressed them beautifully. However, when he would
try to write them on the page, itís like he couldnít get
them out. They were stuck in translation."
had trouble with widely used Scantron answer sheets for
standardized tests. The rules and bubbles were distracting.
years they visited psychologists and optometrists, and
eventually he was prescribed vision therapy, an expensive
alternative that can cost thousands of dollars. For the
Ruminskis, it was not covered by insurance because it was
considered "experimental treatment," so they paid
out of pocket.
fourth grade, Tom was screened for Irlen syndrome and given a
turquoise-tinted overlay. It had an immediate impact. His
reading rate improved by more than 60 words a minute in less
than a week.
were all absolutely astonished," Michelle Ruminski said.
later he was fitted with tinted-lens glasses.
and her husband, Ron, didnít stop there. They removed all
fluorescent lighting in their house and made sure Tom could
wear his tinted glasses in school and get a seat assignment
that minimized glare and distractions. They also requested
that classwork be printed on colored paper if he doesnít
have his glasses.
know there are many skeptics about the validity of Irlen
filters and their effectiveness. Let them doubt,"
Ruminski said. "I have seen what a huge difference that
this simple intervention has made for my child and I am a
researchers at the University of Edinburgh performed trials on
children ages 7-12 with reading difficulties using the Irlen
method and said their data suggests "overlays do not have
any demonstrable immediate effect on reading in children with
Stuart Ritchie, a researcher who worked on the study, said
using colored lenses is a classic example of "cart before
the horse," a treatment on sale for a disorder that is
not well defined. He added that itís also difficult to test
in a controlled environment because of the placebo effect.
very difficult to do research on a subjective phenomenon, like
the removal of distortions," Ritche said by email.
"Iíd want to see large-scale, placebo-controlled,
longitudinal studies in reading ability across time.
graduate and former instructor at Cornell University, refutes
the criticism, saying her method is designed to relieve
perception problems that can diminish reading skills. She
points to more than 60 studies in academic and scientific
journals that support the use of colored filters.
independent research by Dr. Daniel Amen at the Amen Clinic in
Irvine, Calif., used brain scans to demonstrate differences in
the brainís ability to function using colored filters. The
brain-mapping technology showed that areas of the brain were
significantly overstimulated and activity in the cerebellum
(the area that helps integrate information) was decreased in
untreated individuals with the disorder. Scans from
individuals using colored filters showed more balanced
activity and "normalization" of brain function.
whose Irlen Institute is based in Long Beach, Calif., and has
170 affiliated clinics in 46 countries, said she isnít
surprised that more people in the medical community havenít
embraced her methods.
youíre doing something outside the establishment, they think
itís a gimmick," she said. "They think all
(reading) problems are solved with practice and repetition.
(But) we have 30 years and millions of kids as proof."
athletes in the NFL and NHL who have suffered concussions have
endorsed the use of Irlen filters, and school districts in
California, Florida and Texas have added Irlen testing and
training programs to their curriculums.
Kirby, a first-grade teacher at St. Stanislaus Kostka School
in Chicago, had a student who was diagnosed with Irlen
syndrome, and she wasnít sure what to make of it when
approached by the parent to use colored paper for class
was a little skeptical at first," she said. "It
almost sounds silly that a colored page can make a difference,
but it does. Itís definitely something Iíll keep in mind
and be aware of. If a student is struggling, it could be
something like this."
Bartels, an education counselor in Des Moines, Iowa, became an
Irlen diagnostician about 10 years ago after her college-aged
sons were diagnosed with the syndrome. She now conducts
screenings and tint assessments with clients across five
Bartels said, she has seen more cases with veterans who served
in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often they take medications to curb
light sensitivity and other Irlen-like symptoms after
traumatic brain injuries. Some turn to drugs or alcohol to
dull the symptoms, Bartels said. For them, the Irlen filters
often become a lifeline to normalcy.
the ultimate (tool)," she said. "My office seems to
be their last hope."
STORY CAN END HERE)
Hill isnít sure exactly when he started having trouble
reading, it just kind of crept up on him.
started experiencing "ping-pong" headaches, with
pain ricocheting back and forth in his head, and his reading
was becoming choppy. Words were disappearing. He stopped
playing sports because he was having trouble seeing the ball.
attended a seminar by Julie Yepsen, a certified Irlen
diagnostician in Gurnee, Ill., and decided to have Reino
evaluated. After testing positive, they visited Bartels, and
he was fitted for blueish-tinted lenses. His symptoms began to
fade almost immediately.
was a life changer," Maria Hill said. "If it wasnít
for those glasses, heíd be in big trouble."
able to concentrate with what Iím looking at," said
Reino, pausing, "And I can play more video games."