When Jarett Tay came home with a large ugly cross and question marks scrawled across his worksheet in Primary 1, he cried.
He had struggled to keep up with reading and writing since preschool. No matter how hard he tried, his test results in school hovered around zero to single digits.
“I asked my son how he felt about the large cross on his worksheet. He thought for a while and said ‘Mum, I feel stupid’,” shares his mother Angela Tan, 43.
“For a parent to hear her child say that, it broke my heart because I know he is not stupid.”
Convinced that something was wrong after Jarett commented that pictures and letters on printed pages looked 3D, as if they were floating or popping up, Angela checked out his symptoms on the Internet.
“He has perfect eyesight, so why was he having difficulty writing and copying words? That’s when I stumbled upon this condition called Irlen syndrome,” she shares.
In 2015, Jarett was diagnosed with dyslexia and Irlen syndrome, a visual processing disorder. People with Irlen syndrome are sensitive to specific wavelength of light, says Irlen diagnostician Janet Shion.
When words “misbehave”
In Singapore, more than 3,000 people have received treatment for Irlen syndrome at the Irlen Dyslexia Clinic since 2007, Janet says. The condition affects more than one in 10 – around 12 to 14 per cent – of the population, according to research conducted in the West, she adds.
“People with Irlen syndrome have difficulty reading, not because their brains have difficulty connecting the letters they see with sounds those letters make, but because they see distortions on the printed page.
“For example, words moving, shaky double image, fading away. Or, the white background or glare hurts their eyes, gives them a headache or tires them when they are reading,” Janet explains.
Jarett was prescribed special lenses to help eliminate the visual distortion.
It worked. The words stopped “misbehaving” and he began to pass his exams, she shares.
Now aged 11, he still finds schoolwork challenging and often struggles to complete his homework.
Incidentally, while Jarett was being screened for Irlen syndrome, Angela discovered she has the condition, too.
A voice for kids with special needs
Jarett’s learning difficulties spurred Angela to take a diploma course in child psychology and learning disorders management, which she did part-time for two years while juggling a full-time job as an IT consultant.
“After what I went through with Jarett, I find it meaningful to help children (with special needs) have a voice that can be heard and not be misunderstood. Just because they don’t perform well in school doesn’t mean they can’t do well in other areas,” Angela shares.
To do this, it is important to look at the child’s emotional needs, she says.
“But I see that lacking in our academic-focused society, particularly those with special needs.”
Children who learn different often grapple with low self-esteem, Angela says. For Jarett, this was evident when he kept comparing himself to his elder brother, who is two years older and performs well in school.
“He would ask: ‘if Kor Kor can (do well in school), why can’t I?’
“I feel that results are not the main priority. It’s the child’s emotional wellbeing that’s important because that’s a lifelong quality we want our children to build. We want our children to have that sense of empathy to help someone who has fallen behind,” says Angela, who has since left her corporate job to raise awareness for kids with visual processing disorders.
The mother-son duo now helps other children with different learning abilities through Universe Arts, an art platform that they founded in 2011. Their main motivation – an unpleasant experience with an art teacher who dictated how Jarett should draw and colour (within the lines!).
“Jarett wanted a place for children to express themselves through the arts, where they can have the freedom of expression,” says Angela, who has run nature art workshops at Gardens by the Bay.
Making art on his own terms helps him feel calmer while homework stresses him, says Jarett, whose favourite subjects in school are art, PE “and recess!”.
“I feel more relaxed when I’m drawing, like I can just let everything go,” he shares. His dream is to be an artist and have his works displayed around the world.
A dream come true
The articulate tween has already made inroads into the visual arts and is a step closer to his dream – he has been invited to four international arts festivals since last year.
Jarett was the first Singaporean to be invited to the Awladna International Arts Forum for the Gifted last year.
His artwork was displayed during the event in Cairo, Egypt. The Forum also screened a two-minute video produced by Angela, The Happiness Pebbles, which told Jarett’s story.
“When Jarett was invited last year, I felt so moved. Finally, there’s something my child can work towards and be recognised for. For him, it is a dream come true,” Angela says.
In February, Angela and Jarett represented Singapore at the Awladna International Arts Forum as two individual artists. Together, they ran a Happiness Pebbles Rock Art Painting workshop, which combines nature and art, for children with special needs.
Jarett, who counts his mum and post-impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh as his biggest inspirations, hopes to make the grade to study at the School of the Arts Singapore.
He encourages all children to “never give up” when following their dreams.
“Persevere. If you don’t, you won’t be happy,” he says.
What is Irlen syndrome?
While there is now greater awareness on dyslexia, a learning difficulty that affects skills involved in reading and spelling, not much is known about Irlen syndrome.
This vision processing disorder often goes undetected. One of the reasons is that the person who has it may not be aware that there is anything visually wrong with what she is reading on the page, shares Irlen diagnostician Janet Shion.
In addition, the screening for the condition is not included in standard educational or medical tests, she adds.
How is it different from dyslexia?
Unlike dyslexia, which is a language-based disorder, Irlen syndrome is a perception processing disorder, which relates to how the brain processes visual information.
Thus, phonics-based instructions will not help someone with Irlen syndrome improve in he same way it will help someone with dyslexia improve his reading skills, Janet explains.
What are the symptoms?
You may notice the following signs, says Irlen diagnostician Janet Shion:
• sensitivity to fluorescent lighting and bright white background
• inability to track lines and words especially on white background
• inability to focus when reading printed text on white paper or working on a computer
• perceiving words, numbers and lines to blur, move or even fade away
• perceiving flashes or flickers of light on page
• perceiving white spaces between words or numbers as being dominant
• difficulty reading information from tables, charts, graphs or music notes.
• inability to sustain reading, resulting in frequent headache.
Where to seek help
Visit www.irlen.com/get-tested to perform a self-test. You can approach Singapore Irlen Dyslexia Clinic for Irlen syndrome screening once the self-test establishes that you may be affected by the condition.
(Photos: Family’s own)