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How Colored Lenses Help Dyslexia

A Facebook friend recently posted that her daughter read Mr. Popper’s Penguins (all 139 pages) in two days.

The girl is 5.

Reading, it seems, has become the new status measure with parents. We boast when our little ones acquire the skill early and fret when they pick it up late, or, worse, not at all.

But for millions of kids, reading does not come easy. In fact, 15-20 percent of children suffer from a language-based learning disability, according to the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children (TSRHC).

Take Hunter, who is now 14. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties, in second grade. His mom, Sara Bridges, says, despite special education, Hunter has never passed the math portion of the TAKS test, and barely eeked by on the other sections. He would write without a break between words and insert the wrong punctuation. He’d pick up magazines but only to look at the pictures.

Bridges heard about a U.S. trial to test a new lens technology that can be used as a tool for reading disorders sometimes associated with dyslexia and color blindness. Not knowing the details of the study, and desperate to help her son, she requested for him to be included.

Color Connection
British inventor Dr. David Harris has been fine-tuning ChromaGen lenses—haploscopic colored filters—over the last 25 years. Harris, who holds a doctorate in neurological implications and assistance for reading disabilities, initially developed the lenses as a corrective solution for color deficiency and color blindness and was awarded the British Design Council Award for one of the best inventions of the 21st century.

Soon he extended his research into utilizing the filters as an aid for dyslexia, especially for those who suffer from the perceptual distortion of text that makes reading more difficult.

A formal experiment conducted in England, using a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled protocol, revealed early promise: When subjects used the original ChromaGen lenses (which employed only eight different color filters), they achieved an average of a 17 percent increase in reading speed and accuracy. Encouraged, Harris developed a second-generation lens with double the filter options (the lenses appear neutral to the wearer, similar to sunglasses).

The most recent research conducted at the University of Liverpool reports that a student with dyslexia will average a 35 percent increase in reading speed and accuracy with the ChromaGen lenses.

Harris concludes from his years of work and study of dyslexics that one out of two sufferers of dyslexia could benefit from ChromaGen.

Up until recently, the lenses were only available in Europe. Earlier this year, prior to its US launch, the makers of the lenses, ChromaGen Vision, performed a blind case study in Dallas involving 49 kids, including Hunter. Local optometrists conducted the eye exam portion of the study and eight local reading instructors administered the Wilkins Rate of Reading Test (WRRT) and the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test (WRMT) before and after the lenses were fitted on the participants.
The results are noteworthy: One fourth-grade boy read 40 words in one minute without the lenses and 144 with the lenses. Another high school girl read 63 words in a minute and 136 words with the lenses.  

Out of 49 participants, 38 experienced a significant improvement in print clarity. The students went from seeing words hovering over the page, lines moving in waves, words coming in and out of focus or appearing blurry, to words appearing normal and easy to digest, according to ChromaGen Vision.

Certified Academic Language Therapist Michelle Saltamachia, a TSRHC-trained dyslexia therapist, admits she was wary of the lenses’ potential therapeutic effect.

The veteran dyslexia expert agreed to participate in the Dallas study and says had she not been there, she still would be doubtful. But, she reports that she was “blown away” by the immediate transformation for some kids after they put on the lenses.

Hunter took the lenses home and three days later passed the TAKS test with commendation. He also participated in a read along at school for the first time ever.

Now, Bridges, who admits she would have tried “anything” to help her son improve his reading, says Hunter is reading magazines cover to cover and has even improved his game on his golf team.

Dr. Mary Anne Peck, optometrist/owner of private practice Eyecare & Eyewear in Carrollton, who also participated in the study and is certified to provide ChromaGen lenses, says for those who benefit, the improvement is dramatic.

“We’re not curing dyslexia,” stresses Peck. “But, you couldn’t pay these kids $1,000 a word to read before the test, and now they want to read books like crazy.”

The lenses, which are now available in the Dallas-Fort Worth area from certified optometrists, are not covered by insurance and can range in price from $750-$1,200, says Peck.

For parents like Bridges, it’s worth it: “Twelve hundred dollars is a lot of money, but for my son to be able to read it was nothing,” she stresses.

New Spin on an Old Technology
Colored filters are not new, and, in fact, date back to the 1920s when first used for a number of optometric and other conditions. In 1980 Olive Meares proposed tinted lenses as a way to improve reading ability in patients with a learning disability, specifically a certain type of dyslexia. Shortly after, Helen Irlen took the concept further and introduced Irlen filters, single color overlays and tinted lenses intended to ease perceptual processing difficulties, or, what she later dubbed, the Irlen Syndrome.

Irlen overlays and filters are available today through more than 7,000 educators trained as Irlen screeners; the method is officially recognized by many agencies, including the Texas Commission for the Blind. Critics have questioned the efficacy and research results over the years, however.

In a March 2011 joint technical report, “Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision,” published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, authors Sheryl M. Handler, M.D., and Walter M. Fierson, M.D., conclude that “the positive evidence for the effects of colored overlays and filters on reading performance is limited.”

Peck says ChromaGen offers a major enhancement from previous colored filters, in that the right and left eyes are assessed independently. So the final pair of lenses prescribed will never be the same color. The patented product is the first of its kind to obtain FDA clearance for use in both glasses and contacts.

“The eyes are different, therefore the filters need to be different,” advises Peck.

Harris discovered in his research that if visual filters could improve reading speed and accuracy by changing the rate of neurological transmission, then the optimal filter might vary between the eyes.
According to Dr. Michael Politzer, chief optometric adviser for ChromaGen Vision, the ChromaGen lenses change the wavelength of light going into both eyes, allowing the speed of the information traveling along the brain’s neurological pathways to be balanced.

Frisco dad Jim Sheahan describes it as a “pure result.” He says his son Sullivan, who is a “bright young man who happens to have dyslexia,” gave the lenses a shot and his grades skyrocketed. But his dad says it’s not just the report card that matters, but the boost in confidence he has witnessed in his son.

“When it works, it’s instantaneous,” says Politzer, who has 38 years of clinical experience in low vision, vision enhancement and neuro-rehabilitative optometry. “That’s pretty phenomenal when you think of modern medicine.”

But Isn’t Dyslexia a Brain, Not an Eye, Disorder?
According to the Luke Waites Center for Dyslexia and Learning Disorders at TSRHC, dyslexia is a word-reading problem triggered by differences in the brain that make learning letter sounds difficult. “The root cause is weak phonological, not visual, processing,” according to the center.

The “Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision” report concurs, noting, “Visual problems do not cause dyslexia. Scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of eye exercises, behavioral/perceptual vision therapy, training glasses or special tinted filters or lenses in improving the long-term educational performance in these complex pediatric neurocognitive conditions.”

Other scientists, such as John Stein, professor of neuroscience at Oxford University, and Dr. Sue Fowler, a senior research orthoptist, argue the “magnocellular theory” of dyslexia. The pair, who started a research clinic to study visual causes of reading difficulties 30 years ago, claims the neurological abnormalities found in some dyslexics, particularly in the magnocellular pathways, result in impaired neuronal timing which causes visual instabilities. Stein, who founded Dyslexia Research Trust (DRT), advocates the use of yellow and blue glasses, as well as fish oil omega 3s, for treating reading problems.

One thing all experts agree on is that early intervention with individualized, interdisciplinary management strategies and instruction can help children with dyslexia succeed.

“Do I think it’s a big magical thing in the field of dyslexia?  No,” shares Saltamachia. “It may only work for a small subset who also suffer from vision deficiencies, but that’s OK. Those parents will do anything to help their child succeed and this gives them another alternative.”

Adds Peck, “ChromaGen should be considered as a tool for some dyslexics, just like tutoring is a tool.”

If the Lens Fits
Peck says there are seven symptoms that determine if a child (or adult) should be tested for the ChromaGen lenses, ranging from double vision to words swimming (see sidebar). Even if children experience mild symptoms or symptoms only some of the time, they should be examined, urges Peck.

“For years, parents have been bringing in children who have trouble with reading to our practice,” adds Dr. Carrie Alfieri, optometrist/owner of Pinnacle Eye Care Associates, P.A., in McKinney. “Many times the child has 20/20 vision, and, it’s been difficult to say, ‘Well, it’s not his eyes, good luck.’”

Alfieri says ChromaGen gives her another solution to help children with reading difficulties. Since she has been offering the lenses this summer, she’s only tested one dyslexic child who was not a candidate.

However, it’s possible for children to exhibit the symptoms of a reading difficulty but not have dyslexia, notes Dr. Gayle Karanges, optometrist/owner of 1st Eye Care in Arlington. Also, ChromaGen may need to be combined with a prescription to treat issues such as refractive errors.

Karanges says the testing for ChromaGen is quick, painless and precise—and optometrists know right away if the lenses will improve reading function. Both eyes are tested for the right color combination that will allow the patient to read the text more clearly.

Most schools conduct brief eye screenings for distance vision, but Alfieri urges parents to take their child in for a comprehensive eye exam by age 5 to catch issues early. “If you wait until the child is in sixth or seventh grade, it’s too late. They are already behind,” she advises.

“We all want the same thing … to give kids the opportunity to succeed,” adds Politzer, who addresses the skepticism over the benefit of ChromaGen by asking, “What do you have to lose? A small investment of time and money in the evaluation process? Seems reasonable given the promise of the results.”

For the optometrists who have seen the lenses work wonders firsthand, it’s another tool in their arsenal that’s worthy of posting on their own Facebook pages.

“I’m helping children see,” informs Peck.