I recently went on a fascinating course about visual stress, learning difficulties and dyslexia, and was amazed by what is now known and the fact that we can help in a large number of cases – not just for dyslexics but even people with other neurological conditions like stroke, autism and migraine.
My brain hurts!
I have been thinking about visual stress a lot since the course, and came across a really interesting take on modern life yesterday which I though was particularly true for eyes: we are not machines yet we expect our bodies to perform like machines and process everything we throw at them, 24/7.
If you think of the hours we spend staring at screens, roads, printed material, TVs, phones… locking focus on one point rather than allowing our eyes to roam and adjust, overwhelming them with harsh lights and sharply contrasting images rather than the soft, natural contours they were designed for. It’s no wonder some people find their eyes just can’t cope!
Ever found reading a real struggle? Your eyes might be stressed!
Reading can be extremely hard for some. We’ve known about dyslexia for many years now, but we’re really starting to understand how it is that dyslexics and those with learning difficulties process things and why, for them, reading really is a battle. Learning difficulties are much more complex than just not seeing the words on the page properly or having a poor attention span. Having said that, about 40% of dyslexics do suffer from something called visual stress – seeing movement, distortions, flickering, colours, shimmering in printed text, and becoming headachy and tired. It’s no wonder this is a big barrier to learning and can even affect things like reading music. The good news is that there are ways we can help overcome visual stress to make learning more comfortable.
Visual stress is also estimated to affect about 20% of the general population. Researchers have been finding more and more that people with certain conditions find it particularly hard to process modern visual environments – sufferers of migraine, stroke, epilepsy, autism, Tourettes – even deafness – are also particularly susceptible. Even things like modern architecture and design can be really uncomfortable for some people’s visual systems (I’m sure we can all think of examples of structures and images we find hideous to look at – well for some it really can cause a headache!). Once again, there are things that can be done to help.
You can help? Tell me more…
The first thing to do is book an eye examination to assess the general health and focussing ability of the eyes – the right glasses or contact lenses can help tremendously! It’s crazy to think that so many people struggle with reading and learning, yet there is no requirement for even a basic eye examination in school-aged children these days – this could help so many children yet they continue to go undiagnosed and struggle on, facing an uphill battle with their education. If you know of any children struggling to learn I really would urge you take them to an Optician – it’s free and can make such a difference, even to children who can ‘see perfectly well’. Learn more about children’s eye examinations.
Now with the obvious bit out of the way…
The next stage is to carry out a detailed investigation of the way the muscles around the eye perform when reading and concentrating on visual tasks. A normal eye examination will include basic tests for eye muscle alignment and 3D vision (stereopsis), but won’t test things like how strong the muscles are (fusional reserves) and how well they can sustain focus.
Did you realise that the use of certain fonts can have a big impact on how easy text is to read? Or even the lines on musical staves when trying to read music? There is a lot that can be done to make things appear more comfortable, and reading techniques that can help keep track of your place in the text – personalised advice can help a lot.
Coloured filters and overlays can sometimes be extremely helpful as well. A detailed assessment can identify a specific colour which makes text more comfortable for some visual stress sufferers – the exact colour varies from person to person – and in cases where it helps we see a very marked improvement in reading speed and accuracy.
We want to be able to provide special assessments for visual stress sufferers but it’s going to take a little bit of planning. The tests required aren’t done by most Optometrists, so to really provide a good service we’re going to make sure we know exactly what we’re doing first – bear with us while we do some studying! We’re investing in some specialist equipment to perform the correct visual stress tests, muscle tests and coloured overlay assessments. Once that’s done we’ll be ready to roll!
Unfortunately it won’t be a free service – the current level of NHS funding Opticians receive gives us only partial funding towards a basic eye examination to check the eye health and assess for glasses (although we provide the examinations free of charge). We would expect the initial assessments to take around an hour, with pre-assessment questionnaires to be completed beforehand so we can get a really good idea of what’s happening and when.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful. If you have any questions, or if you know of anyone who could benefit from this service please get in touch, or book an initial eye examination appointment and we’ll keep you informed as to when we’re up and running!
Abi Carpenter (Optometrist & Director)
Image courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net