Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]
When Maria Miller caught her son, Christian, reading when he was supposed to be in bed asleep, she was thrilled.
For years, Christian, now a fifth-grade student at St. Joseph Catholic School in Corydon, had struggled with reading.
“We always knew there was something going on,” said his mother, “but nobody could tell us what.”
Maria and her husband, Ben, who live in Corydon, were told to have Christian read more, but it didn’t help.
“He got frustrated. We were really concerned because his confidence was down; he was so down on himself,” Maria said.
After years of trying to find answers, the Millers finally got to the root of Christian’s problem. He was diagnosed last year with Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual dysfunction that affects how the brain processes information. Irlen Syndrome is treated by utilizing colored lenses in eyeglasses. The lenses are individualized for each person and filter out the distortions they see without them.
When she had to get after her son for staying up at night to read, it was a happy problem.
“It was great!” said Maria.
Christian isn’t the only one in his family affected by the disorder. The entire Miller family — which includes four children — have been diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome. The disorder is hereditary and runs in families, although it can be acquired as a result of illness or head injury.
The Miller siblings — James, 12; Christian, 10; Malia, 7; and Lucas, 5 — all have Irlen Syndrome, as do their parents.
For Maria Miller, the diagnosis helped her make sense of her past. As a child, she remembers how the letters would get blurry on the page and she would grow very tired while reading.
“I struggled in school, but I worked through it,” she said.
She was impacted even more in college, when the reading volume dramatically increased. That, coupled with lecture halls with bright fluorescent lighting, “was too much. It was overwhelming. You have to read so much more and I would get headaches so bad,” she said.
Maria aspired to become a special education teacher, but the headaches that had started in high school had grown much worse.
“People would ask how I was going to be able to deal with it if I had such bad headaches,” she recalled.
She was engaged to Ben by this time and decided to stop classes. Her reading struggles were definitely a factor in that decision, she said.
Maria said she was frustrated at her children’s struggles at school and felt, as a parent, like a failure.
Her children had difficulties elsewhere, too. When shopping at a store with bright, fluorescent lights they would typically act up. Maria would put a hat on Malia to shield some of the light; it seemed to affect her the most.
“I would always think they were being bratty in Walmart,” she said. “Turns out, they were stressed because the lights made them irritated.”
Those with Irlen Syndrome often struggle to read, especially in bright, artificial light. Those struggles can be amplified by shiny surfaces, such as glossy paper or white boards.
Malia experienced the most significant struggles of the Miller children.
“Since preschool I had said, ‘Something’s not clicking,’ ” said Maria.
Malia has an astigmatism, but eyeglasses didn’t solve the problem. Last year, she was falling asleep at school and would “zone out,” sitting at her desk with a blank stare on her face. The Millers took their daughter to a doctor, fearing she was having silent seizures, but the EEG was normal.
Last spring, Brittney King, now the principal at St. Joseph, was researching dyslexia when she happened upon information regarding using colored overlays to make reading easier. Maria’s dad, Dennis McAfee, was intrigued regarding use of the overlays and began doing research online, happening upon information about Irlen Syndrome. The Millers began researching it, finding Malia, as well as James and Christian, had many of the signs.
They connected with Dr. Catherine Barnes, director of Silver Circles, the only Irlen diagnostician in Southern Indiana and Kentucky. The children, along with their parents, were tested.
Malia is the most severe. Her glasses, which look like sunglasses, have 10 layers of colored filters. Christian’s aren’t quite as dark, Lucas’ and Ben’s are moderate, appearing to have a pinkish hue. James’ and Maria’s are both much lighter. Maria said there are more than 100,000 filter color combinations.
While the lenses can take some getting used to, Maria noticed an immediate difference in her children.
“James did not want to wear the glasses until he put them on and said they made everything a lot easier,” said Maria. “The first day he wore his filters, he said, ‘I’m not tired.’ ”
Maria said her children are now much calmer and less fatigued after a day of school. They no longer dread reading, and their grades have improved.
She’s noticed changes in her husband, whom she says “is able to focus and not forget things.”
As for herself, “I’m calmer. I felt tense up here,” she said, motioning to her head, “and that’s gone now. I never realized I kind of had a headache all the time and my stomach would be kind of nauseous.”
Maria said it’s important to realize that Irlen Syndrome isn’t just an issue affecting struggling readers.
“It’s even the gifted,” she said. “It does not discriminate.”
She noted some people are able to develop coping mechanisms better than others.
Irlen Syndrome was discovered by Helen Irlen, a school psychologist, in the early 1980s when she began working with adults who had reading problems. Almost by accident, she discovered colored filters made the words stop swirling or moving on the page. Irlen used the colored filters as she explored the dominant eye theory, popular at that time in the sports world. Because children didn’t like covering one eye, red or green filters were used to make it harder to see out of the covered eye. When Helen Irlen used those filters, she was surprised when some of the adults were immediately able to read more comfortably.
An estimated 12% to 14% of the general population is believed to have Irlen Syndrome. A much larger percentage of those with reading and learning difficulties, ADHD, autism or who have suffered a head injury, likely have Irlen Syndrome as well.
So, if it’s so prevalent why isn’t there more knowledge of Irlen Syndrome? Why aren’t children screened for it regularly?
Those questions frustrate Maria, who said in other parts of the world, Irlen Syndrome is diagnosed and treated at an early age.
Knowing there are many people in the community who could be helped if they were diagnosed, Maria became a certified screener. She talks with as many people as possible about Irlen Syndrome. She can perform an initial screening and makes referrals to Dr. Barnes.
“My biggest question I get is, ‘Why don’t we know about this?’ ” she said. “ … If we diagnosed earlier, we wouldn’t need special education as much.”
She also believes many people using medication for conditions such as ADHD might not need them if they were screened for Irlen.
Maria urges parents to do their research, ask questions and keep pushing if their child is struggling in school.
“I’ve been in that position,” she said.
Nobody ever mentioned getting her oldest son tested or screened for anything, despite his struggles, which included great difficulty with reading comprehension.
With the children all doing better in school, experiencing much lower fatigue, less anxiety and fewer outbursts, Maria said, “It’s just calm; a lot calmer.”
The Millers have now turned the page. Things look much clearer for all of them.
If you’d like more information on Irlen Syndrome, you may contact Maria Miller at 812-267-6635.
‘They really are life changers’
Jessica Ward of Corydon never had any trouble reading, or so she thought.
“I thought I was a speed reader,” she said. “I skipped words a lot and skimmed.”
Ward spends long periods of time in front of a computer screen for her job. She experienced headaches and her eyes would hurt. Her eye doctor told her she had perfect vision and didn’t know why she was having issues.
Ward had also noticed her 6-year-old daughter, Cecily, was having problems as she began learning to read. She had trouble remaining still while reading and “going to the grocery was a nightmare. It was a guaranteed temper tantrum,” Ward said.
As it turns out, there was a reason for the issues both were having.
The Wards know the Ben and Maria Miller family, who have learned in the past year they all have a processing disorder known as Irlen Syndrome. After talking with Maria Miller about it one day, Ward looked up an online checklist of signs those with Irlen exhibit.
Not only did many of them fit herself and Cecily, but she could see her husband and their two sons had many as well.
Instead of moving forward with their plans to have Cecily tested for ADHD, the Wards were screened for Irlen Syndrome. Jessica Ward and her children were all determined to have it.
They worked with Dr. Catherine Barnes of Silver Circles for a diagnosis then went through a process of determining which filtered lenses helped them.
The first time Jessica Ward wore her filters for work, she was stunned when the words stopped moving around on the screen.
“I thought, ‘Oh, they weren’t supposed to be doing that before?’ It was an immediate difference,” she said.
Ward said, prior to being tested, one of her sons insisted he would not wear glasses.
“Noah was so adamant that he wasn’t wearing glasses, but he saw such a big difference with the overlays that he asked to get the glasses for reading,” she said. “It was pretty amazing because once he found his lenses, (Dr. Barnes) took him outside and had him walk around. He was my one that was hesitant to get them but he could tell a big difference.”
Ward hopes knowledge of Irlen Syndrome will spread. She believes her debilitating migraines could have been avoided 20 years ago if she’d had filters.
“They really are life changers,” said Ward. “I wish the school system or pediatricians would make it a routine screening. Something so simple that helps so much.”
What is Irlen Syndrome?
Irlen Syndrome was first identified by Helen Irlen, a school psychologist, who began working with adults who had reading problems in the 1980s. It was discovered that colored overlays allowed those with Irlen Syndrome to read the words on a page without problems.
Here’s what Irlen Syndrome is NOT:
• It is not a vision disorder.
• It is not Attention Deficit Disorder.
• It is not a reading problem.
• It is not Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
• It is not a behavioral problem.
Irlen Syndrome is a perceptual dysfunction that affects the processing of information as it passes from the eyes to the brain. When someone has Irlen Syndrome, the letters on a printed page are perceived as moving or unstable in some manner. Some people may see letters jumping around, dancing or swirling; others see the letters as all jumbled together.
How is it treated?
Those who may have Irlen Syndrome must first visit an optometrist to determine if there are any vision problems.
Following a screening process, individualized filtered lenses are custom-made for each person. The lenses may have a combination of as many as five or six colors. The lenses in the glasses worn by someone with Irlen Syndrome may appear lightly colored or may look as dark as sunglasses. The lenses do not make the world appear darker, however.
It is believed 12% to 14% of the general population may have Irlen Syndrome. It also is believed to affect 46% of those with reading and learning difficulties, 33% with ADHD and autism and 55% of those who have suffered head injury, concussion or whiplash.
The Irlen Method is one important intervention that allows the brain to function better and process information more accurately.
From “The Irlen Revolution” by Helen Irlen