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Classroom Mysteries – Perceptual Processing Disorders

Written by: Halena Kyle

Every day in classrooms across Australia, contemporary Educators put on their “Nancy Drew” hats and try to solve the mystery of why one of their students isn’t learning effectively. Faced with a plethora of likely suspects, the investigation continues, until the “culprit” is found.   This is the story of one of the unsolved cases….and a family who wouldn’t give up, until they unearthed the truth.

When you hold a conversation with eight year old Angus Henbury, from Cooroy on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, it becomes immediately obvious that this spirited youngster has an incredible vocabulary for his age, displays advanced social skills, and is extremely knowledgeable in many areas, particularly his favourite topic; Gardening. But what you probably wouldn’t guess, is that Angus and his family, have been forced to overcome enormous challenges, just to give Angus the ability to read, write and learn.

Why wasn’t Angus learning properly?

As owners of the successful, scenic farm, Melsted Park, this close knit family of six, enjoyed a peaceful, country lifestyle, until Angus began school, at which time that peace would be shattered by years of unforeseen obstacles. Angus’ Prep Teacher recognised his early reading and writing difficulties, and as a former Early Learning Teacher, his Mum, Anna, knew that immediate intervention was critical if they were to prevent Angus from falling behind.

So the search began. Anna and husband Michael would spend two agonising years taking Angus to see Education Specialists, General and Behavioural Psychologists, Optometrists, Hearing Specialists and an Occupational Therapist.  The journey soon proved more difficult than these dedicated parents had anticipated, and the lack of answers or solutions that could help Angus, was extremely frustrating for everyone involved.  IQ tests showed only an issue with Angus’ working memory but no underlying cause for this could be found. Having exhausted every perceivable avenue to find help for their son, Anna’s sister, Sally Hood, asked if Angus had been tested for Irlen Syndrome, a brain processing problem she’d heard about.

Angus hadn’t been tested, so Anna jumped online to find a local Irlen Clinic and immediately booked a screening for her son.  Nervous excitement accompanied Anna as she took her son for testing with Diagnostician Peter Freney, who obviously has a way with kids, because Angus was soon looking relaxed. Anna learned that this positive rapport came from Peter’s 34 years of experience as a School Teacher and Principal, followed by 27 years as an Irlen Diagnostician who works with kids (and adults) on a daily basis.

What are Perceptual Processing Disorders?

Peter explained more about Perceptual Processing Disorders, which are also known as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, Irlen Syndrome, Meares-Irlen Syndrome and MisVis (Meares-Irlen Visual Stress).  Anna learned that the eye actually receives 70% of all information transferred to the brain, and that these disorders can disrupt the messages being sent from the optic nerve to the brain, causing a variety of symptoms  from light sensitivity, headaches, trouble reading, writing or learning to fatigue, anxiety, behavioural issues and withdrawal from classroom participation. Many symptomatic variations are experienced by the 1 in 5 Australians who live with a Perceptual Processing Disorder.

With both hereditary and environmental causes, people with Irlen Syndrome commonly have trouble processing information correctly, effecting their ability to read, write, learn or function at full capacity. SPECT Scans show the over-activity in brain function caused by Irlen Syndrome, and this helps to explain why it causes a feeling of “brain overload” in those who experience symptoms.

How was Angus diagnosed?

Peter touched on almost four decades of global research papers, SPECT Brain Scans, Scientific and Experiential evidence, before he began a lengthy Q&A session to determine the nature and severity of Angus’ symptoms. More tests were conducted and scored, including reading and comprehension, before Peter placed a series of special coloured plastic sheets, called Overlays, on top of the text, asking Angus if any of the colours made it easier for him to read.  A dark blue hue made reading easier, Angus reported, before testing moved to the coloured Irlen Spectral Lenses.

Angus reported the same positive result with a specific blue coloured lens, and at the end of the session, after Peter conducted even more tests, Anna sat in amazement that Angus could see and read things that he couldn’t before, just by adding colour!  Albeit a very special, precision-fitted colour, that’s unique to each person’s brain responses and determinable during testing from a trained Irlen Diagnostician.  Anna decided to order the glasses for Angus and was back at the Irlen clinic a few weeks later, ready to collect the item she dearly hoped would change her son’s life forever.

What is the treatment?

When Angus put his new Irlen glasses (Irlen Spectral Filters) on for the first time, he squealed with excitement, yelling “WOW everything’s Ginormous!”.   Anna watched her son through tear filled eyes, as he beamed with joy, and explained the changes in things he could see and read, with his new glasses on. This moment would be one that Anna would never forget, her son was seeing the world for the very first time, the same way the rest of us do.

Now, almost three years later, Anna and Peter say there’s been a complete turnaround in Angus’ learning ability, behaviour, productivity and general mood.  These proud parents are ecstatic to have a calmer child, who’s happier within himself, more confident, motivated and organised in his daily life.   Angus has even taken his love of gardening to a whole new level, creating his very own Facebook page called Gus’ Garden, to share gardening tips with the world.

Peter and Anna now hope that one day, Irlen School Screening Programs will be available in every school, so that kids living with undiagnosed Perceptual Processing Disorders, can achieve the life and future they deserve.  Angus is living proof that sometimes as Educators (and Parents), putting that “Nancy Drew” hat on, and solving the “Mystery of Our Troubled Learner” can lead to an answer that changes a life.

For more information on Perceptual Processing Disorders, visit The Australasian Association of Irlen Consultants.

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Picture: Anna and Angus Henbury from Cooroy, Queensland. 
Author: Halena Kyle (Writer, Producer, Media Strategist at Mad Cows Media)
Date: November 30th 2016.

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