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Tinted plastic brings tears of joy as 10-year-old Aidan reads fluently for the first time

PUBLISHED: 16:30 01 August 2015

Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.

Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.

A simple sheet of plastic held the key as a schoolboy from Haverhill overcame his battle with Meares-Irlen syndrome, which is thought could effect up to 20 per cent of the population.

What is Meares-Irlen Syndrome?

Visual stress (sometimes called ‘Meares-Irlen Syndrome’ or ‘Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome’) causes unpleasant symptoms when reading, including illusions of shape, movement and colour in the text, distortions of the print, loss of print clarity, and general visual irritation as well as sore eyes, headaches, frequent loss of place when reading, and impaired comprehension.

The condition is caused by the striped effect of black writing on white paper which causes over stimulation and excitation of the visual cortex and makes reading so unpleasant that children will tend to avoid it. It can therefore affect the development of reading skills and fluency.

Research has shown that 15-20% of people suffer visual stress. For 5%, using colour overlays or glasses to read would make a dramatic difference to their education.

Caroline Elsden waited a long time to hear her son, Aidan, read fluently for the first time.

For years, the 10-year-old struggled with books and school work but his family and teachers had no idea why.

“It was heartbreaking for him,” she says.

Throughout all that time Caroline never imagined the solution to Aidan’s problems with the printed word could be anything as simple as a piece of tinted plastic.

But it was. And when that tinted sheet was placed over a page of text and Caroline heard Aidan read fluently for the first time ever, it was all too much for her.

“It was unreal,” she says. “I just burst into tears. I couldn’t help it. I had never heard him read like that before. It was amazing.”

Aidan suffers from visual stress, also known as Meares-Irlen syndrome. For those affected, reading without the overlays - or tinted glasses lenses that Aidan now wears - the text appears to jump around, blur or distort. Some sufferers can also get headaches or migraines.

Experts reckon some degree of visual stress may affect up to 20% of the population and around 5% would benefit from tinted overlays or glasses. The condition was first identified in the 1980s but 30 years on it is still not widely known about, meaning many children’s education and school lives could be unnecessarily blighted.

Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.

Caroline, who lives in Haverhill, says Aidan had always had trouble reading, right from the time he started Coupals Primary Academy in the town.

“We knew there was something not right but at first the more we told the school the more we got told it was just his age. By the time he got to year three they realised the problems he was having and gave him extra work to catch up, but he still made no progress.

“He couldn’t spell very well at all and if he wrote something he couldn’t read it back to you. When he looks at a piece of text all the words move around and it looks as if there are no gaps between the words. He couldn’t make head nor tail of what he was reading

“We thought he might have dyslexia but tests proved he didn’t. When he went into year five the school SENCO (special educational needs co-ordinator) suggested we have tests for visual stress. It was something I had never heard of before.”

Aidan went for a free assessment for the symptoms of visual stress at Wardale Williams opticians. The process is simple and begins with a colour overlay assessment, which indicates whether the child would benefit from tinted overlays and if so, what colour works best.

The improvement in Aidan’s reading was almost instant.

“It was like everything just went into the right place,” says Caroline. “That was why it brought tears to my eyes. It was such a relief to finally know why Aidan was struggling with his reading.”

Aidan now has glasses with lenses in a dark green tint and his mother says it has changed his life.

Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.

“He wears the glasses if he’s reading, on the computer, doing school work - for pretty much everything,” she says.

“His confidence has improved as well and whereas before he didn’t want to read books he now enjoys reading and stories. He’s just getting into Captain Underpants. It’s like we’ve got the old Aidan back.”

The family is hoping Aidan will continue to progress as he goes through his last year at primary school after recovering from a series of illnesses that have held him back a little, despite his wonder lenses.

“Unfortunately, he’s had appendicitis, Strep A infection and had to have his tonsils removed, which have held him back,” says Caroline. “Even so, the improvement in his reading has been amazing and I would just say to anyone whose child is struggling with reading, have this assessment. It’s changed Aidan’s life.”

Aidan agrees. “The words make more sense to me and I enjoy reading now. As well as Captain Underpants my favourite books are The Gruffalo and Horrid Henry,” he says.

Senior optometrist Joanna Williams, who carried out Aidan’s assessment, says visual stress is not related to dyslexia, although some people can have both.

“An optometrist can’t diagnose dyslexia but I would say if a child has a problem reading they should have their eyes checked out as a first port of call.

“A comprehensive eye test can identify long sightedness or short sightedness and it could be that simple measures could solve the problem.

Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.Caroline Elsden and her son Aidan, 10, for a feature about colorimetry, a condition which affects the way people see printed words and affects reading.

“With the assessment for visual stress, if a colour overlay helps with reading, you’ve got the syndrome. There are certain characteristic symptoms that indicate a test for visual stress should be done. These can include words moving about the page or coming out of the page, spaces between words seeming to form rivers which run down the page or words appearing to merge together. “We don’t fully understand the condition but it seems that the visual cells seem to get over-excited and looking through a coloured tint calms it down.”

Assessments for visual stress are not offered by all opticians but are becoming more common as awareness increases.

“We normally start off offering overlays because they are a cheaper option for parents,” she says. “If we give them an overlay and the child is voluntarily using it every day for reading tasks that indicates it’s helpful. If it’s left under the bed it’s clearly not making much difference. If it is helpful people will often come back fairly quickly to get tinted glasses.”

In order to prescribe the correct tint for lenses a machine called an Intuitive Colorimeter, which was developed by Professor Arnold Williams of the University of Essex together with the Medical Research Council, is used.

“We would urge any parent whose child is suffering with their reading to consider colorimetry as it could be the answer and the initial coloured overlay assessments are free of charge,” says Ms Williams.


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