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Does your child struggle with reading? Visual stress could be a factor

Children who find reading difficult are at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to their education.  For a parent it can be extremely upsetting to see your child struggling to read the words on a page.  Or they might be reading hesitantly, skipping words or whole lines of text, seemingly finding it difficult to concentrate, and experiencing reading as an uncomfortable and tiring activity.

It is a natural worry that this could be a sign of dyslexia or another specific learning difficulty.  If you have concerns, it is important to find out from your child what is going on for them when they read.  Talk to them about it. Also speak with their teachers about what they are observing when your child is reading in school.

What is visual stress?

The above mentioned difficulties with reading may all be signs of visual stress.  As the name suggests, visual stress is a term used to describe visual discomfort and perceptual distortions of printed text when reading.  It is thought to affect around 10% of the general population.  Not surprisingly, it is more prevalent among children and adults who struggle with reading.

What are the symptoms of visual stress?

Symptoms of visual stress experienced by the reader, especially after longer periods of reading, may include some or all of the following:

  • Glare from the page
  • Headaches whilst reading
  • Eye strain
  • Movement or blurring of print
  • Complaining of feeling tired

Visual stress is different to dyslexia 

Although many Dyslexic people experience Visual stress, it is not the same as dyslexia.  The prevelance of Visual Stress in people with Dyslexia is thought to be around 35 to 40% (Wilkins, 2003).  Visual Stress is thought to be caused by hyper-excitability of the visual cortex of the brain.  The condition may also be linked to migraine and photophobia (sensitivity of the eyes to light). 

Identification and treatment of visual stress

The work of Helen Irlen, subsequently developed by Professor Arnold Wilkins, has pioneered the use of coloured overlays in identifying and treating visual stress.  Studies have found that placing coloured plastic overlays over text both reduces the signs of visual stress and increases the reading speed of those with visual stress.

Overlays can be prescribed by optometrists and, where appropriate, this can lead on to precision tinted lenses.  These may be different colour tints because the optimum colour can vary from person to person.

Overlays and colorimetry assessments

Ruth Codling of Norwich-based Clarity Colorimetry says that visual stress is worth looking into if parents have concerns about their child’s reading.  She says, “If a parent suspects that their child may have Visual Stress it is advisable for the child to have a full eye examination carried out first.  This will rule out or address any regular eye problems.  If the symptoms persist, an overlay assessment would be the next step.” 

As Ruth explains, an overlay assessment helps to identify the children who benefit from colour:  “There are between ten and twelve different coloured overlays which can be used singly or combined, to produce a wider range of colours.  If the overlay assessment and subsequent trial of the overlay proves successful, a colorimetry assessment would be carried out. This assessment would establish a much more specific tint which would be worn as tinted spectacles.  There are approximately 7,000 possible colour combinations that can be achieved, and the child’s prescription can be incorporated into this if required.”

If you would like to find out more, Ruth can be contacted via the Colour Colorimetry web site.  She carries out assessments at various locations, including central Norwich, Hethersett and Martin Christopher Opticians in Attleborough.  The cost of an overlay assessment is £35 and includes an overlay to take home to trial.        

Further information about visual stress

Colour in the treatment of visual stress – Professor Wilkins’ web site     

Visual Stress: FAQs produced by Cerium Optical

Irlen Syndrome: Reading Problems, Dyslexia, Learning Difficulties 

Clarity Colorimetry