Taming jumpy words, wriggly writing and headaches: the products that have made a difference to my family
There are many products and adaptations that can help ease the symptoms of Irlen syndrome. When my daughter was diagnosed aged six I was certain that everything would get better once she had glasses with filtered lenses. What the last eighteen months has taught me is that the most useful adaptations not only depend upon the situation and the person but will also vary with time. This can make finding useful products complicated. However, the right product and adaptation really does make all the difference in the world.
Irlen syndrome goes by many names: Irlen syndrome, Meares-Irlen syndrome, visual stress and scotopic sensitivity. It can exist as a condition by itself or alongside dyslexia.
Common difficulties include problems with reading and writing, over-sensitivity to light, problems differentiating between background and foreground in the environment and a range of different physical effects caused by dealing with this (e.g. headaches, nausea, exhaustion).
My two children and myself all have Irlen symptoms. These affect us to different extents and in different ways. In my experience the things that help most depends upon whichever of the Irlen symptoms are strongest. A system of trial and error with different products has led each of us to our own ways to manage the symptoms we have.
My seven year old daughter finds the contrast between text and page the most difficult to manage with her Irlen symptoms. As a consequence she finds her overlay and reading ruler the most beneficial. My daughter went up three reading levels at school within the term following the prescription of her overlay. She became much more competent in her school reading. We were recommended reading rulers six months later and this revolutionised her reading entirely. She voluntarily picked up a book to read for the first time. This turned her from a very reluctant reader to an independent reader.
Situation makes an enormous difference too. I have terrible handwriting. Very few people know about this. All of my work and social networking communication is done via electronic documents and formats. Nobody knows that my maths works looks chaotic with digits in indistinct columns and rows. All my colleagues see is completed Excel documents, pdfs, blog posts, tweets and e-mails.
However, my children are judged and marked on their handwriting. This makes it a matter of great importance: Much of their day is spent writing on paper with pens and pencils; it is very important that they feel comfortable while doing this. They have a range of different things that enable this to happen. My daughter has coloured workbooks that she uses for her schoolwork. The school provide these. She also has a coloured mini-'whiteboard'. This is a purple version of the wipe-clean tablet that all the children use in school on a daily basis. We have bought this ourselves but it has been a great investment. My daughter found class work much easier once she had it and became much more willing to practice her handwriting in class time.
My five-year-old son is still very young. He benefits from the fact that most of his school storybooks have coloured pages already. The font is still quite big and there are generally only two or three lines of text per page. We have noticed that he cannot read simple words if they are on white paper and are in a small font. He likes to use an overlay for this and becomes much more fluid in his reading. He finds a reading ruler too much of a complication as he doesn't like lining up the ruler.
The children respond differently to environmental conditions as well. My son says he has no problems with the class smartboard (large interactive 'board' projected onto the wall of the classroom). However, he howls with pain if the general lighting conditions are too bright. This can include natural daylight and well and over-bright artificial lighting. He likes to wear sunglasses to counteract this. We have agreed to this as he has been inconsistent in his Irlen assessments that make accurate prescription of tints difficult.
My daughter doesn't seem to be too bothered by light. She needs the background of the smartboard changed away from white. This is easily done and most of the children prefer the jollier colour.
I experience environmental symptoms greatest (light sensitivity and movement in my vision between the foreground and background). This can make my office-based work problematic, particularly when I have to use the computer a lot. This means that for me my Irlen glasses provide the best relief. However, my lenses are a dark turquoise colour and I don't like to use them too much in the office as my colleagues cannot see my eyes. Therefore, on most occasions I actually use a green computer filter over my screen. This reduces headaches and makes it much easier for me to concentrate.
Some of these adaptations are actually free or already available:
Changing the background colour of the interactive white board in the classroom
Using computer software and social media platforms to communicate (e.g. spreadsheets, e-mail, twitter etc).
Some adaptations may even save money:
My children's school using the minimum amount of artificial light in the classroom.
Other adaptations are definitely worth trying. All of the resources I have mentioned are available on line. My preferred site is Crossbow Education as they let you buy in small volume (essential for trying things out before investing a lot of money) and they have a good range of products available at www.crossboweducation.com. However, other educational resource companies can supply many similar products.
The resources my family have found most useful are:
Coloured/tinted exercise books.
Overlays (including an excellent trial pack with 10 different colours)
Reading rulers (available in the tinted colours)
Tinted wipe-clean boards (coloured 'mini-whiteboard')
Information on tinted lenses and diagnosis can be found on the Irlen Institute website (www.irlen.com). You can also ask your family doctor for a referral to a learning difficulties unit if you have one local to you.