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Dyslexia – Visual distortion

6th November 2020

Dyslexia has been the subject of many studies and research over the years. One of the frequently debated issues is the ’cause’ of dyslexia. Now, I would not even attempt to add my views into the scientific debate. I have just dipped my toes into the ocean of research to provide you with a little rock pool of information.

Up until the 1950s the over riding belief was that developmental dyslexia was a visual disability which was hereditary in nature. Then came along the phonological theory (unable to read due to the inability to separate the sounds in words to their corresponding letters). This then soared in popularity whilst the visual and discrepancy (difference between ability to acquire reading skills and person’s oral and non verbal abilities) theories were less in favour.

John Stein (University of Oxford), is still an advocate of the visual dyslexia theory. In his paper in 2018 he suggests that the phonological theory is not incorrect just maybe not complete. That there are other matters which should be taken into consideration. Stein considers it important to understand the visual and auditory mechanisms in the brain that can cause the children’s phonological problems. If these can be tested and measured early, then early intervention would be possible.

Stein states: “The evidence is now overwhelming that people with dyslexia have impaired development of magnocellular neurons.” the ‘Magnocellular theory’

“Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia.”

(Rose Report, p. 10) 2008

I do not intend to blind you with science terminology but if you are interested please research this further.

Some people will be very interested in looking into the detail, getting to understand the exact reasons and causes for dyslexia. Not to mention the big debate as to whether the condition actually exists. Again, the question to label or not? Or consider learning difficulties as a whole. I am not here for those discussions but please feel free to discuss and research away yourself.

I am here to be positive and acknowledge that whatever the cause or name the symptoms are real and to see how we can try and help ourselves and others.

You may have noticed that a child is having difficulty reading appropriate level material, gets easily confused with similar looking words and has a lack of fluency with little or no expression.

Ask yourself or your child the following questions:

“When you read do the letters stay still on the page or do they move around?”

“Do the letters become blurred or do they reman clear?”

“Think about the brightness, is the page too bright, dull or just right?” Do you experience any glare?

“Do your eyes ever hurt whilst you are reading or not?”

“After you have read for awhile does everything on the page stay the same or does anything change?”

For an adult it maybe easier to understand that what you see whilst reading or looking at an object is not what others see. But, for a child who has known no different may not realise that it is not the ‘norm’. They may think that text normally moves around, letters are blurred for everyone!

The British Dyslexia Association Management Board adopted Sir Jim Rose’s definition (above) with the addition of a further paragraph:

“In addition to these characteristics, the BDA acknowledges the visual processing difficulties that some individuals with dyslexia can experience, and points out that dyslexic readers can show a combination of abilities and difficulties that affect the learning process.  Some also have strengths in other areas, such as design, problem solving, creative skills, interactive skills and oral skills.”

Visual Processing Difficulties –

If any of the answers to the questions above indicated that the person is experiencing visual distortion then first of all it would be prudent to arrange an assessment by an optometrist. Intially, the sight test to check for vision accuracy would take place. If there is a problem with sight then hopefully this can corrected with prescribed glasses.

However, even if the sight test is clear there are further tests that can be undertaken. The tests may look for indicators of ‘visual stress’. Now this has other names too but for sake of simplicity I will refer to the one term, visual stress. So, you may have nothing wrong with your eyesight but still suffer from some form of visual processing difficulty.

Visual Processing difficulties can vary, you may suffer from one or a combination. For example you could have difficulty with:

Visual Discrimination – problems with recognising the difference or similarity of different letters/shapes or objects. You may struggle with similar looking words.

Visual memory and sequential memory – May have difficulty seeing shapes/letters/ objects in correct order. Difficulty in remembering what was seen and its position. May skip lines or reread word.

Visual ground discrimination – hard to tell apart the foreground and background. May see a ‘river’ of white running through black text with a white background.

Visual Motor/spatial Processing – May bump into objects. May have trouble catching a ball, gross motor skills. Difficulty with knowing where objects are positioned in a place.

Visual closure – A difficulty in identifying an object when only part of it is shown.

Visual Processing speed – slower speed at processing visual information. May take a long time to complete a task or lots of unfinished work due to time issue.

Visual Form Constancy – To be aware that it is the same word even if written in a different font or size.

Visual Reasoning – making sense of what you have just seen.

You may have difficulties with tracking eye movements (binocular vision), the ability for eyes to move smoothly across the page. Eyes can jump backwards and forwards, causing mixing words up and reversing letters. Might find it difficult to copy and can easily loose your place, problems with tracking. People with poor control of eye movement can skip small words, these gaps can lead to comprehension problems. Indicators of this maybe the ‘bobbing’ of the head, when the head moves along the lines rather than the eyes.

Visual Stress is involved with fine vision tasks. It has been found that this is triggered by pattern/stripes (lines of text) and flickers/glare from light. The stripy effect of writing can visually overstimulate. Indicators maybe the rubbing/ blinking/ watering of eyes. Text can move/ jump/ disappear/ change size and blur. You generally may have a sensitivity to light.

Robinstyle photos

A proper optometrist assessment is required. They would be able to tell you the precise colour that could help. Sometimes a child may just choose their favourite colour if faced with a decision on what overlay to use.

The use of coloured overlays and coloured lenses in glasses are used to try to help the symptoms of visual stress. Like always, there is debate scientifically whether it has actually been proven that they help. But people do say they can tell a difference. I would say, give it a try and see if it works for you? The amount it helps and the required colours are said to be different for each individual.

Helen Irlen website (Irlen syndrome/visual stress)

Helen Irlen research and other such as Northway(2010- journal of research in reading) suggest that coloured overlays do work. Other research is skeptical. What do you think? Have you got any success or failure stories to share?

If any of the above are evident I would suggest first of all to identify or discount any other issues such as hearing or visual. Then armed with that information onto an Educational Psychologist if still concerned about a dyslexia diagnosis.

As you may have seen there are many symptoms of visual processing disorder that can be similar to dyslexia. Taking into account the Rose report definition and the added characteristics from the BDA (mentioned above). Visual Stress is not dyslexia but they can co exist. Therefore dyslexia with a co occurring difficulty. Important to note that people without dyslexia can also have visual processing difficulties. Also, you maybe dyslexic but not suffer from visual stress.

Other symptoms of Visual Processing Disorder; loss of attention, easily distractible, daydreaming, fatigue, poor handwriting and keeping to margins and lines can be seen in other conditions such as Dyspraxia and ADHD.

Dyslexics have been found to experience difficulties with phonemic awareness (letters to sound connections). People with only Visual Processing disorder do not. People with Visual Processing Disorder struggle to understand all visual input not just letters.

Suggestions that may help:

Classroom – think about possible alternatives to written assignments, i.e, video or dictation. Use large print books. See if it benefits an individual to use different paper such as graph, coloured or raised lines (they can feel). Multisensory delivery of information (give them a rest from visual). Consider the use of screens where you can zoom in or enlarge. Encourage a method for ‘keeping place’ when reading i.e, a ruler, book mark or finger. Encourage children to read aloud to themselves, it may help the eyes and the brain work together. If you have a child in your class who has been diagnosed with visual stress then be aware of the colour they are to use, change your background colour on the class whiteboard to suit.

At home – The playing of games is always a fun and interactive way for children to learn/develop without knowing it. Games such as spot the difference, I Spy books, dot to dots, jigsaws, connect 4, ‘Spot it’, ‘finders keepers’, ‘Quirkle’, dominoes, ‘sequence for kids’, pairs games’, chess, ‘Rush Hour’. Encourage children to look for the details in what they are seeing. Try to keep your eye on the ball whilst watching a table tennis match, try your hand at juggling?

I thought I may just tell you about some research that apparently finds that the use of high action video games with no reading or phonological content can help to greatly improve both visual Magnocellular function (see Steins Theory above) and reading!!!!! Can you imagine, your children all saying “I am doing my homework, I am playing games on my xbox/playstation etc, it helps with my reading”!!!

If you don’t believe me, see Gori. et al (2017). They look at the situation that even after phonological interventions children may improve their reading accuracy but not their reading speed, their visual attention is slower. They suggest that “individuals with dyslexia present difficulties in attention shifting from visual to auditory but not from auditory to visual.”

Apparently only action video games are any good. Their speed, high sensory-motor overload, rapidly moving and unpredictability! Who knew?

Now we are in ‘Lockdown’ I imagine a lot of people’s thoughts are moving towards Christmas. Wanting to have something good to look forward too (hopefully). I know I am! So maybe think about one of the games I have mentioned above as a present you can all play on the big day? Or maybe your child would argue the ‘great for learning’ card in favour of the high speed action video game???

During this week, stay well and take care. As always I will leave you with a positive inspiring quote ……..


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