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Tom's Story

by David Taylor(more info)

listed in medical conditions, originally published in issue 98 - April 2004

Irlen (Scotopic Sensitivity) Syndrome is a visual perceptual dysfunction affecting mainly reading and writing based activities.

Those with Irlen Syndrome put more energy and effort into the reading process because they are inefficient readers who see the printed page differently from 'good' readers. Undetected, Irlen Syndrome results in people being seen as underachievers with poor behavioural attitudes or motivational problems.

Irlen Syndrome is not, of itself, a learning difficulty in the accepted sense. It is a complex and variable condition often coexisting with learning difficulties. Irlen Syndrome can be found in combination with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysphasia, or hyperactivity. Symptoms of Irlen Syndrome remain undetected by standard visual and medical examinations, educational and psychological evaluations and other school related tests. To illustrate some of the problems caused by Irlen Syndrome I will use the case of Tom.

From birth, Tom knew who was holding him and would only tolerate mother, father or grandmother's company. Placed on his back, he would not attempt to turn over. He could not raise himself up on his own and never tried to climb out of his cot. Tom did not learn to crawl, but bottom shuffled towards objects or sat still and pointed to what he wanted. He could not be left alone. His mother could not leave him to answer the telephone in another room – Tom had to go too. If he toppled over he did not put his hands out to break a fall. Shopping trips were a great cause of stress. As soon as entered a shop he would cry and be extremely distressed.

As a toddler, he would not venture anywhere on his own and always needed to hold a hand. Tom also did not like visitors in the house, often being physically sick when people called. At toddler groups he cried constantly and always sat on his mother's knee with his back to the room. Sensitive to loud noises, Tom would panic and put his hands over his ears when he heard such things as an ambulance siren or a low-flying jet approaching. He did not enjoy television. In outdoor play areas Tom had great difficulty climbing a ladder to use a slide. In contrast, Tom was very content and co-ordinated in his home environment. He had excellent language skills with a wide vocabulary. He enjoyed sharing picture books. He knew every make of tractor and car and many different bird names.

At school, Tom worked and communicated very well with adults but would not join in with other children. Reluctant to participate in sports, at football Tom would play round the edge of the pitch but would not venture into the middle of the game. This was not due to a lack of ability as Tom had excellent ball control, could accurately score goals and easily hit a rounders' ball. Tom could not ride a bike, nor could he dress himself easily.

By the time Tom was seven it became obvious that his written work did not reflect his oral ability. He enjoyed language and listening to stories but he would not look at the printed word. His writing was untidy and his spelling atrocious. By the end of a school day he was physically exhausted and was constantly complaining of headaches, sickness and stomach ache. School felt that he was just very sensitive and would 'grow out of it'.

Dyslexia was suspected and Tom was taken to a Dyslexia Unit where Irlen Screening is used as part of the test process. Tom was found to be dyslexic but the results of the Irlen Screening indicated that Tom also had extremely poor peripheral vision resulting in his eyes having to constantly scan to take in the whole scene. In addition, objects that Tom focused upon, appeared to him to be moving slightly. Daylight, fluorescent lights, car headlights and street lamps were all reported as uncomfortable for him. When reading, Tom presented the following:

  • Page bright and glary;
  • White competes for his attention;
  • Page flickers;
  • Veins of bright yellow streak the page;
  • At far point, letters vibrate, pulsate and jump;
  • Central word vibrates, pulsates jumps up off the page and has a bright, rainbow coloured halo round it;
  • Peripheral words not clear.

With further testing, selective filters were produced and incorporated into a pair of prescription spectacles. Unlike coloured lenses that may be obtained from some opticians, the Irlen filter technique allows receptor cells in the visual cortex to analyse visual information more efficiently. In Tom's words wearing the filters made 'the world open up.' With Irlen filters, Tom was able to walk without tripping up, play games and disregard those environmental cues that had previously caused so much stress.

Because Tom is dyslexic he still has to work very hard with his spelling. We laugh at the mistakes he makes. He still struggles to read with understanding and prefers audio books. Tom is now in Year 11 and taking his GCSEs this summer. He hopes to go into the 6th form next year to study Spanish, Theatre Arts, English and Media – a great achievement for a child who could hardly write a sentence at the age of eight. He also enjoys walking, golf and watching the Bradford Bulls play Rugby League.

Tom's Irlen filters have not cured his dyslexia but they have changed his life dramatically. They have helped increase his ability to concentrate, given him confidence and improved self-esteem. They allow Tom to improve his academic and work performance by opening up the whole world to his view.

Further Information

You can find more information about Irlen Syndrome you can visit the Irlen Institute website at or call Celia Stone on Tel: 01943-871189.


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About David Taylor

David Taylor is a psychologist with a background in psychopharmacology and development. From working with children he developed an interest in the effects of environmental factors, particularly the effects of nutrition, upon mental and physical health. He is co-director of Optimum Nutrition North East in Durham City, with his wife Sandra, a health psychologist. They take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing focussing upon nutrition, stress and lifestyle. For more information about Optimum Nutrition North East and the services and products available Tel: 0191 3849088; E:; W:

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