Visual Stress and Dyslexia

Bob Hext

This week is Dyslexia Awareness Week and Bob Hext of Crossbow Education has kindly written the following blog for RUS about visual stress and dyslexia.

There’s still a lot of confusion around on the subject of Visual Stress and its relationship to Dyslexia so I’m going to post a series on the topic to try and clear some of it up.

They’re not the same thing

dyslexic boy with words

That’s the first point. Dyslexia is a cognitive processing difficulty; Visual Stress is a disorder of the visual processing system. Visual Stress is common in dyslexia, but does not cause it. In fact about 35% of dyslexics suffer from Visual Stress. It is also fairly common (though less so) in other specific learning difficulties, especially dyspraxia, ADD/HD and autistic spectrum disorders – the autistic author Donna Williams, for example, is well-known for her pink tinted lenses. It actually occurs in about 25% of the population, so it is more common than dyslexia (usually quoted at around 10%); and severely – to the extent that literacy is significantly impaired- in about 5%.

What are the symptoms?

For those who don’t know exactly what I’m talking about here, Visual Stress is a condition that causes headaches and sore eyes, skipping words or lines, hesitant reading with many errors and poor comprehension, and  perceptual distortions  including movement of letters and words on the page, flickering shadows and coloured “halos”,  and “rivers” of white running down it. Visual Stress itself is thought to be caused by specific wavelengths of light (they differ with each individual, although certain parts of the spectrum cause more problems than others) that over-stimulate cells in the Visual Cortex, and its effects can be reduced or eliminated by simply placing a precision coloured filter over the page or by wearing precision tinted lenses.

using the reading ruler Coloured Overlays don’t cure dyslexia

Websites which claim that overlays “cure dyslexia” are not helpful in this respect. As mentioned above it’s Visual Stress that we’re talking about, not dyslexia; and secondly they don’t “cure” Visual Stress any more than spectacles cure short-sightedness: they just deal with the symptoms. Over-simplified claims that are made for marketing purposes and have no basis in science just add confusion to the subject.

“Visual Dyslexia”

This is a term favoured in some circles and is used by some behavioural optometrists. Behavioural Optometry has a valuable contribution to make to Vision Science, but  is muddying the patch with this terminology which is possibly promoted by certain individuals to distance themselves from scientists who query their claims. There is an ancient saying “The Unity commands the blessing”. Factions don’t ultimately help any causes. Enough said.

Call a spade a spade

We all know what a common cold is, and we know what treatments are available – although the jury may be out on whether they actually work! It’s the same with Visual Stress. As well as “Visual Dyslexia”, it’s also called “Irlen Syndrome ®”  (the registered trade mark of the Irlen Corporation), “Meares-Irlen” and “Scotopic Sensitivity”, which was the term originally used to describe the condition by Helen Irlen when she first started marketing coloured overlays and tinted lenses in the 1980′s. “Scotopic Sensitivity” is in fact a scientifically inaccurate term, as it refers erroneously to the spectral response of the rod system in the retina. Visual Stress is actually a neurological condition of the visual cortex. If we don’t even agree on what it is called, how are we ever going to understand and treat it?

Different Explanations

There are two differing theories as to the causes of Visual Stress. The one mentioned above is called “Cortical Excitablity” and is proposed by Professor Arnold Wilkins of Essex University. There is another theory called “Magnocellular Deficit”, which suggests that the problem is caused by a weakness in the transient (Magno) processing cells in the Visual Cortex. This is the theory put forward by Professor John Stein of Oxford University who heads up the Dyslexia Research Trust. Both these academics are eminent scientists doing valuable work and bringing great benefit to the community. The weight of evidence would appear to be in favour of the Essex research, but the fact  that scientists disagree on the “Why” doesn’t encourage public acceptance of the “What”.

It’s not Always Visual Stress!

The symptoms mentioned above can be caused by other problems in the visual system, and so coloured overlays are not always the answer – although often they are! Binocular Instability is quite common (though less so), and there can also be accommodated  anomalies (problems with focus). Where reading difficulties persist it’s always important to refer to an Optometrist. A list of those who specialise in Visual Stress can be found at:

Visual Stress is a reality

So whatever we call it today, and whatever its cause, the existence of Visual Stress and the validity of precision tinted filters to treat it is a reality. And it isn’t the same as Dyslexia: if coloured overlays effectively treat the Visual Stress experienced by a dyslexic person, the other processing difficulties associated with that person’s dyslexia will remain. I will post on some of the research that proves the reality another day: today let’s all call it the same thing and get on with taking it seriously.

The Really Useful Stuff Team would like to ‘really’ thank Bob Hext for this insightful blog. You can find coloured filters, rulers and more from Crossbow Education in our shop.

Continuing with British Dyslexia’s Awareness week, here the BDA report that between 35-40% of people with dyslexic difficulties are estimated to experience visual disturbance or discomfort when reading print  – which can also be described as ‘Irlen Syndrome’ or ‘Visual Stress’.

“… the words look different, they won’t stay still and then I start to see ‘rivers’ in the text when I try and concentrate on text books in my lessons.  Sometimes it looks like the words are almost 3D with little lights behind them.  I try blinking a lot to try get the words back into focus and sometimes I even see different colours around the text … but then when I started to use the blue reading ruler, the ‘weirdness’ went away ….”

Madison. Aged 13

Crossbow Education products listed on Really Useful Stuff  produce packs of inexpensive eye level reading rulers and filters in the full range of colours recommended by leading vision scientists. And as shown by Madison, she has found the blue reading ruler and filter to be really helpful for focusing and tracking as well as diffusing the white glare from the dense black print in her school text books.