Lucy Lawless: Seeing the world differently

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I have children with Irlen Syndrome and know their special talents but fear for those who are never diagnosed

Tinted glasses may help a young child with Irlen Syndrome be able to read letters which otherwise blur, spin or change colour. Photo / Getty Images
Tinted glasses may help a young child with Irlen Syndrome be able to read letters which otherwise blur, spin or change colour. Photo / Getty Images

I once read a news article where a young boy was beaten by his harried mother for lying when he claimed, "Grandma scares me when her eyes slide off her face". Turns out, the kid was not lying. This is one of the more alarming aspects of Irlen Syndrome, also known as Meares-Irlen or Scotopic Light Sensitivity Syndrome.

Somehow the information network in the boy's brain did not form typically in vitro. Then the nerve centre's incredible powers of inference will interpret the incoming data in novel ways, resulting in psychedelic visual distortions.

Such was the case with my own offspring. Until my son's diagnosis at the Irlen Diagnostic Clinic in Pakuranga, he had never seen tiles that were not creeping across a roof and dripping off the edges. My daughter, less severely affected, had never been able to stomach the lurid signage in shopping malls.

I'm ashamed to say that I never took her protestations seriously. But quite literally, the modern world with all its lines and squares makes them feel sick.

For the Irlen kid, one of the worst combinations of factors is black letters on white pages, making reading a nightmare.

The whiteness may shimmer or spark. The letters appear to conspire against them, ceaselessly blurring, spinning, changing colour. Because words have always behaved this way, it never occurs to them to complain. The child sees the students around them coping without evident difficulty and quickly develops avoidance skills. They may say they "feel sick", "need to go to the toilet", "have a headache".

Perhaps it's safer to assume a child always means something when they make such an utterance. Just because we adults don't understand, doesn't make it untrue.

Shocked by a report of our son's "lack of readiness" for school in Los Angeles, we had him assessed by an educational psychologist but were disappointed. The best they could say was that he had "significant strengths and significant weaknesses".

For some reason, Irlen was not then widely recognised in California. Within a week of starting Year 2 at the local primary school in Auckland, his teacher, one Helen Armstrong, picked up on verbal cues which signalled to her that he ought to be screened for Irlen Syndrome.

Sure enough, he was diagnosed Irlen and now wears tinted glasses. While wearing them, he can see the world as we do. He completed the Cellfield therapy course, which is designed to help the brain make neural connections it might not otherwise develop. It seems my son was caught young enough when the brain is still plastic, though he remains proudly Irlen. My daughter, who was not diagnosed until grown, prefers to use coloured overlays when she reads or uses computers as she finds the changes wrought by her Irlens specs hyper-real, "almost too much".

One wonders what happens to the kids who are not picked up for extreme learning disabilities or whose parents can't afford the time and cost of pursuing the matter?

If it's diagnosed, it's a learning "difference". If not, it's a disability.

These are often extraordinarily bright kids who feel marginalised from the moment they see other 5-year-olds begin to read with ease. For them the page is littered with indecipherable, nauseating, crawling scribble. Their avoidance tactics may quickly have them labelled lazy or difficult, a distraction to others.

Their self-esteem suffers.

My mother had a cousin who was very clever at fixing things, shy and kind but for some unknown reason was illiterate. His mother, my great-aunt, contrived never to acknowledge it but it was whispered in the family that Tony could never finish school and was therefore somewhat stigmatised. Whether Irlen or not, I am convinced that Tony's life would have been greatly enhanced by a better understanding of learning differences.

Our family experience is that Irlen is a great thing. Irlen folks may be gifted in unconventional ways. My boy's eyes can detect motion better than us. At the beach, no octopus can evade capture. He routinely pulls them up from rocks and he pities us for our primitive terrestrial brains.

He is a crack shot at paintball. At school, good keyboard skills countermand handwriting difficulties though spelling remains an issue. Despite additional dyslexias, his reading comprehension is 4+ years ahead of his age and he reads voraciously. He identifies himself as "a reader".

There is a growing acceptance of the role Irlen may play in learning issues and more teachers and vision specialists are training to screen and diagnose Irlen than ever before. For this my family is very grateful. It's made a huge difference in our lives. The NZ education system is slowly cottoning on to all the wonderful brain power formerly going to waste.

I give a huge round of applause for those teachers who educate themselves about the myriad ways kids learn and who listen with sensitivity to their littlest students. Because if you know how to listen, little kids always mean something.

- NZ Herald

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