Irlen Syndrome – What Is It and Why Is It Important?

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Irlen Syndrome is defined as a visual processing disorder that can mimic what people consider to be dyslexia and/or ADD/ADHD. Discovered by Helen Irlen some 30+ years ago, Irlen Syndrome can be the leading cause of many learning difficulties.

People with Irlen Syndrome have a light sensitivity in the Visual Cortex – the part of the brain responsible for interpreting the light waves which make up the images we see. For these people, certain parts of the light spectrum cause problems. When those colours are absent, reading and writing can occur easily. When the colours are present, the individual with Irlen experiences discomfort, fatigue, and a general feeling of ‘this is all too hard’.

Basically, what happens is the images sent via the eyes to the brain travel through 2 nerves (4 in total – 2 from each eye). Normally, these 2 nerves fire at the same time sending an image which is in sync; crisp and clear for the brain to interpret. In Irlen Syndrome, one of these nerves fires at a slower rate causing the resulting images to be blurry and fuzzy – similar to looking at a 3 D TV screen without the 3 D glasses on.

This can create the sensation of words moving on the page (jumping up and down, moving left to right, swirling, fading in and out etc) which in turn creates headaches, nausea and avoidance of reading and writing activities. For the child with Irlen Syndrome, learning to read and write can be a painful, sickening experience.

Who Has Irlen Syndrome?

By some estimates, Irlen Syndrome is present in up to 40% of the population to some degree. For some people, Irlen only shows up when they need to work with computers – the fluorescent back lighting of the screen causes eye strain, fatigue, headaches, irritability and/or nausea.

For others it is so pronounced that even a trip to the local shopping mall is fraught with danger. Driving to the mall, road signs move and swirl, depth perception disappears as cars seem to be either closer or further away than they really are, and traffic lights can be missed altogether. At the mall, the writing on shop windows swirl, dance, fade in and out and create the sensation of nausea, vertigo and in some cases sea sickness.

Irlen Syndrome tends to run in families. So if a child has Iren at least one of the parents will also have Irlen.

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