Meares Irlen syndrome discussed at ‘Visual Stress’ conference in Dereham
A condition which leaves many children struggling to read words which appear to distort or swirl around pages was discussed by international experts and politicians at a conference in Dereham.
About 120 people attended the Visual Stress Awareness Conference at Dereham Football Club’s meeting room at Aldiss Park, including teachers, special educational needs co-ordinators, optometrists and parents.
Visual stress, also known as Meares Irlen syndrome, inhibits learning opportunities for sufferers who can struggle with light sensitivity and headaches resulting from disturbing visual patterns appearing from written words and other shapes.
Delegates were told the symptoms can be reduced by placing coloured filters over the text, such as precision-tinted lenses for glasses. Research has suggested that as many as one in five children could increase their reading speed and fluency if an overlay is used.
The event, organised by Norfolk’s Virtual School Sensory Support (VSSS), aimed to celebrate 20 years of work in assessment and research into visual stress, and to raise awareness among teachers.
It was formally opened by North Norfolk MP and care minister Norman Lamb, who said: “It is a condition that is too often hidden away. The majority of people who have it are not diagnosed.
“You look at the studies carried out in some of our prisons and you hear of an extraordinary percentage of men in prisons who are found to have this condition. You then discover they had given up on education at the age of 10, and lost their way as they became completely disengaged because they couldn’t read or write.
“You realise the human potential that we are missing out on, of all these people who could have gone on to great things, but because a health condition was not diagnosed they have fallen off the straight and narrow.
“Then you realise that one in five could benefit to some degree, and one in 100 are very seriously disadvantaged and could benefit enormously from the diagnosis and what follows it.”
Another speaker was Sarah Heaffey from Neatishead near Wroxham, whose children, Tom and Tessa, both struggled with visual stress.
The teacher from Northgate Infants School in Great Yarmouth said she hoped rising awareness could help influence the government to incorporate visual stress tests and glasses within the NHS.
She said: “When Tom was a little boy, he used to say that the letters were ‘fizzing’ around, and he became disengaged from school.
“I took him to opticians and doctors and they all said he was being naughty or lazy. He was 14 when he was diagnosed by Liz Ashby at VSSS.
“The problem we have got is that the Opticians Act does not recognise neurological problems, so we have had to pay for Tom’s lenses, and it costs hundreds of pounds. The longer-term cost to society is huge and some of these people just need a simple test and a simple pair of glasses, and they would get engaged with education at an early stage.”
As well as leading research professors, the conference heard from Karen Monet, who has founded the Visual Stress Association in her native Canada.
She said her own son was affected by light sensitivity and struggled to read words which appeared to swirl around the page – but after he was diagnosed and given specially-tinted glasses at the age of 11, he went on to become a top-grade student.
She encouraged teachers to look for symptoms that a child could be suffering from visual stress, including squinting, becoming distracted or restless, needing to read with a ruler or following words with their finger.
“It is important that teachers know what to look for, otherwise the children’s actions are written off as laziness or bad behaviour,” she said. “You need to relate to what children are saying and relay that to parents and optometrists. It is important to translate what you are hearing into something which other people can understand.”
The conference was closed by Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, who said: “I was very happy to support and close today’s Sensory Support Conference and to see such a great turnout of local Norfolk schools – 120 in total and 12 from Mid Norfolk.
“Meares Irlen is a condition that affects many in education, resulting in an understandable loss of concentration and generally poor results seriously affecting the learning and life chances from those who suffer from it.
“I am glad to see such a large number of local schools attending today’s conference and I hope that this will result in the diagnosing of many pupils who are currently suffering without even knowing it.
I look forward to working with the schools, conference, Bishop of Norwich and others to push for the necessary testing and diagnosis to help prevent this condition holding back Norfolk’s youngsters.”