Five Ways Not to Treat Dyslexia

I am enormously pleased to share with you a guest post by William O. Young, MD. This post, in two parts, offers Dr. Young’s candid observations about treatments that claim to be effective for dyslexia. Bill Young is a member of the Lexercise Board of Advisors.

The remediation that we know works for dyslexia—multisensory phonics-based structured literacy instruction with daily practice—takes a lot of work and a lot of time. Parents of struggling readers are willing to do the work and the spend the time (and the money) because they’ll do anything to help their child learn to read. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if there were an easier way? Like if your child could just put on a pair of special glasses, or do eye exercises, or take a pill that would treat her dyslexia?

Based on this hope for a quicker, easier, or better way, a whole industry of quick fixes and other alternative therapies for dyslexia has arisen. Many are based on the false belief that dyslexia is the result of a problem with the visual system, and that’s where I as a practicing pediatric ophthalmologist may be of some help in guiding you.

In some cases the people who suggest that you try these unvalidated treatments, or who try to sell them to you, are well-intentioned (though misguided); in other cases, they may just be preying on your willingness to do anything and to pay whatever they’re charging if you believe it will help your child. To try to help you navigate these waters, here are

Five Ways Not to Treat Dyslexia

1. Eye exercises/”vision therapy”

Vision therapy (VT) is practiced by optometrists (not ophthalmologists), particularly “behavioral” or “developmental” optometrists. It is, according to the optometrists who promote it, “a progressive program of eye exercises,” together with some or all of the following: lenses (sometimes with prisms), “optical filters, occluder/eye patch, electronic targets with timing mechanisms, computer software, balance board (vestibular device), and visual-motor-sensory integration training devices” (from www.visiontherapy.org).

Optometrists believe vision therapy, which costs several thousand dollars, is helpful for all sorts of things, but it is most widely used with children who are struggling with reading and/or learning. In its carefully worded policy statement on the subject, the American Optometric Association says that VT does not treat dyslexia directly, but that it treats visual problems that interfere with reading or learning, and in that way improves reading and learning. That seems reasonable enough at first glance, but the problem is that in fact reading/learning problems are very, very seldom due to vision disorders, whereas the vision therapists say that most (if not all) reading and learning issues are due to eye/vision disorders, and thus most (if not all) kids who struggle with reading or learning need vision therapy.

Vision therapy causes no known harm (except to the bank account!); the problem is that it wastes not only money but time: by spending months on eye-related treatments for a problem (dyslexia) that is unrelated to the eyes, you’re delaying your child getting the language-based diagnosis and remediation he needs.

2. Irlen lenses/filters

Tinted lenses and overlays are promoted by over 7,000 educators trained by the Irlen Institute, which is why they’re called Irlen lenses/filters. In 1983 Helen Irlen proposed (without publication) the existence of “scotopic sensitivity syndrome,” which supposedly causes affected people to have visual distortions when reading. “60 Minutes” and other news programs immediately did stories on this “breakthrough,” and word spread like wildfire. The Irlen Institute estimates that almost half of people with dyslexia have scotopic sensitivity syndrome—a syndrome for the existence of which there still is no credible published evidence. Irlen lenses/filters are the supposed treatment for this “syndrome.”

On the contrary, carefully controlled studies have been done demonstrating that these filters have no beneficial effect on dyslexia or other reading disorders. The latest: Irlen Colored Overlays Do Not Alleviate Reading Difficulties, by Ritchie et al, in Pediatrics Vol. 128 No. 4, October 2011. The best, most objective evidence currently indicates that any “benefit” to struggling readers from Irlen lenses/filters is placebo effect.

Note: the second part of Dr. Young’s article will be posted later this week and will link back to this one. You may also be interested in viewing Dr. Young’s Lexercise Live Broadcast, The Role of the Eyes in Reading Disorders: What Parents, Teachers, and Therapists Need to Know

Dr. Young has no financial interest in any dyslexia evaluation or remediation program, method or company, including Lexercise.

For a referral to a qualified clinician, or for more information, contact me at AskSandie@Lexercise.com or 1-919-747-4557.

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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.