Here in Wallowa County, dozens of individuals have lined up for a screening to see if they have a syndrome most have never encountered.

Irlen Syndrome, also known as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, is a processing problem where the brain cannot properly or easily translate what the eyes see – especially with regard to reading.

According to studies, 46 percent of children with specific learning or reading disabilities have Irlen Syndrome and can be successfully treated

It’s not just a problem for young children. Many of the Wallowa County residents currently being screened by newly-trained screener Catherine Matthias of Joseph are middle-aged,

Neither Irlen treatments nor effective identification and treatment of learning disabilities were available when they were young.

The treatment for Irlen Syndrome is nonmedicinal. It consists of layering see-through, colored sheets of plastic over reading material until the proper layering is achieved and the letters on the page suddenly become readable.

In Wallowa County, young children diagnosed with reading or learning disabilities are often offered colored sheets of plastic to place over text or mathematical problems.

Irlen treatment can benefit people who believe they have little difficulty with reading but have poor depth perception and seem clumsy, or become easily overwhelmed by the pressures of ordinary life and suffer from exhaustion, depression or anxiety. Individuals with Irlen have often been misdiagnosed with ADHD or Dyslexia.

Wallowa County ESD special education director Linda Wingo is familiar with the issue.

“I have a kid we might need to refer soon,” she said. “I worked with a little boy who had ADHD and the overlays were just a huge help.”

Matthias has tested Wallowa County individuals who did not think they had reading difficulties and came for testing because of balance issues, exhaustion and anxiety.

Significantly, some individuals develop Irlen Syndrome after a traumatic brain injury or stroke.

Katherine Stickroth of Joseph never believed she had any trouble reading or comprehending information –– she was a professional writer; but after a recent fall and the resulting traumatic brain injury, she recognized an increased difficulty in reading.

“I have a hard time reading now. I’m a writer and it was driving me crazy,” said Stickroth. “I can’t get through a book! I was coming up with reasons I didn’t want to read.”

After beginning the test with Matthias, she was stunned.

“I was fighting tears when my colors came together,” said Stickroth. “I realized this has been an issue all my life — and I had all these adaptations to deal with it. I kind of saw my whole life flash before me as I had this test and realized the adaptations I’d made.”

In Stickroth’s case, as is the case for many middle-aged persons with Irlen Syndrome, an accident or sudden increase in difficulty precipitates a visit to an Irlen screener.

Human cost

Even in the 21st Century, with wide understanding of learning disabilities, children go undiagnosed.

“Children do not know that it is not normal for reading to be so difficult, so they don’t say anything,” said Matthias. “They know they are having difficulty, but when they look over at their neighbor’s book and the letters are swirling there as well as in their book, they wonder why the other children can deal with this and they can’t. They often ‘learn’ that they are just not smart or not ‘trying hard enough.’”

Often undiagnosed children struggle until their self-worth drops. They may never recover from the sense of inadequacy.

Matthias is eager to help seniors recently graduated from Wallowa County high schools, about to enter college or the workforce, and will screen free in June and July.

“There are about 56 seniors graduating in 2018. If what is true for the general population holds –– that one out of six students have reading difficulties –– that means there are seven or eight seniors who are having reading difficulties and could be helped with this,” Matthias said.

As she continues her work she will also test younger and younger children with learning difficulties, and she hopes that when people see the benefit of Irlen lenses, one or two teachers will take the training so that they can properly screen school children in advance of the diagnostician visiting.

She plans to begin speaking to civic and educational groups in October.

Do you have Irlen Syndrome?

Millions of children in 46 countries now use the color overlays to treat Irlen Syndrome.

Until now, Wallowa County ESD special education director Linda Wingo was unable to refer parents and their children for Irlen diagnosis and treatment because of the distance required to find a certified screener and diagnostician. The nearest were in Salem.

Once the screening is done by certified screener Catherine Matthias, if a second test must be completed for colored lenses in glasses, it will be performed by a certified diagnostician.

A qualified diagnostician is visiting Wallowa County to work with Matthias and her clients in June.

Dr. Troy Bailey of Wallowa Valley Eye Care in Enterprise can assist patients who have been diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome in ordering specialized glasses.

To request an appointment with Matthias call 541-398-0636.

A funding program to help Wallowa County residents afford Irlen lenses is being developed.

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