Are the words you’re reading running away?

Do we all see words we read in the same way? The answer is a definite No! Individuals might not realize it, because words have always looked a certain way, but for some people the words and letters move on the page without them realizing that this is strange.

This phenomenon is called Scoptic Sensitivity, visual stress or better known as Irlen Syndrome. Children and adolescents who suffer from Irlen Syndrome have been misdiagnosed for years. They are often labeled as “dyslexic”, “ADD”, “behavioral problem children” and “children with learning difficulties” or even “lazy” because they are reacting to visual stress.

Is Irlen Syndrome a new fad? It certainly is not! There has been scientific research for over 30 years from fields such as education, psychology, medicine, ophthalmology, and neuroscience from around the world but it is not as well known in South Africa. Brain scans from the Amen clinic in the USA indicate how overly active the brain becomes when reading or writing in comparison to a brain that does not suffer from Irlen Syndrome. Beyond 15% of the general population, an estimated 50% of individuals with reading and learning difficulties and 30% of individuals with ADHD and autism experience symptoms of Irlen Syndrome. Without identification, most of these sufferers remain unaware of the true source of their problems.

Irlen Syndrome is a perceptual processing disorder; meaning that it relates specifically to how the brain processes the visual information it receives. It is not a vision (optical) problem. People with Irlen Syndrome have difficulty reading not because their brains have difficulty connecting the letters they see with the sounds those letters make, but because they see distortions on the printed page, or because the white background or glare hurts their eyes, gives them a headache, or makes them fall asleep when trying to read. Irlen can be caused by a head injury or it is hereditary and is a lifelong problem if not addressed.

The following areas are possible indicators, according to the Irlen Institute, that show that an individual might be struggling with Irlen Syndrome:

Reading Problems:

  • Poor comprehension
  • Misreads words
  • Problems tracking from line to line will often use their finger or marker to read
  • Reads in dim light
  • Skips words or lines
  • Reads slowly or hesitantly
  • Takes breaks
  • Loses place
  • Avoids reading
  • Adds words or letters to words they are reading

Discomfort when reading:

  • Strain and fatigue
  • Tired or sleepy
  • Headaches or nausea
  • Fidgety or restless
  • Eyes that hurt or become watery

Attention and Concentration Problems:

  • Problems with concentration when reading and doing academic tasks
  • Often people can appear to have other conditions, such as attention deficit disorder
  • Has trouble sitting still and working

Writing Problems:

  • Trouble copying
  • Unequal spacing
  • Unequal letter size
  • Writing up or downhill
  • Inconsistent spelling

Other Characteristics:

  • Strain or fatigue from computer use
  • Difficulty reading music
  • Sloppy, careless math errors
  • Misaligned numbers in columns
  • Ineffective use of study time
  • Lack of motivation
  • Grades do not reflect the amount of effort
  • Poor eye contact, poor social skills, inability to read facial expressions

Depth Perception:

  • Clumsiness
  • Difficulty catching balls
  • Difficulty judging distances


  • Words on the page lack clarity or stability; i.e., may appear to be blurry, moving, or disappear
  • Restricted eye span, which may mean tunnel vision, or difficulty reading groups of letters

Light Sensitivity:

  • Bothered by glare, fluorescent lights, bright lights, sunlight and sometimes lights at night
  • Some individuals experience physical symptoms and feel tired, sleepy, dizzy, anxious, or irritable.
  • Others experience headaches (migraines), mood changes, and restlessness or have difficulty staying focused, especially with bright or fluorescent lights

If you suspect someone you know might be struggling with Irlen Syndrome the first step is to get an assessment to correctly identify the nature and intensity of the difficulty. The second step is for the Irlen trained therapist to identify the correct coloured overlay and filters to successfully correct and improve the brain’s ability to process visual information. The third step is to have spectacles made in the correct combination of colours which will correct any distortion. Coloured lenses provided by some optometrists and vision specialists to treat dyslexia and reading problems are not the same as the Irlen method. They may not have the right colours, or diagnostic process for colour selection. Inaccurate colour selection can result in further distortions and reading problems. The correct colour selection is an important piece of the puzzle in helping individuals read optimally!

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