Dyslexia

There is a simple way of treating one of our most distressing afflictions. PETER RYAN wonders why it is not more widely used.

Peter Ryan was director of Melbourne University Press for 26 years.

DYSLEXIA IS one of the oddest of human afflictions. It is not a disease which can be treated with antibiotics; it is not a physical flaw which can be mended by surgery; it is not something that the young will just grow out of, such as pimples; there is no objective scale on which it can be measured by (in a manner of speaking) sticking a clinical thermometer in the mouth; if psychologists have anything useful to say about it, they are keeping uncharacteristically quiet.

But no-one denies dyslexia's existence, and no-one who has the slightest acquaintance with it would underrate the baleful burden it lays on those who suffer it, nor the problems it creates for their families and loved ones.

Dyslectics cannot read normally and find it difficult or impossible to learn to spell properly. The words in a page of print do not proceed for a severe dyslectic as they do for us, like an orderly procession of railway carriages along fixed parallel lines. The words wriggle about, the lines writhe and bend, and the individual letters within the words transpose themselves, so that dog becomes "god" and flog becomes "golf". Some sufferers say that each word appears to be surrounded by a distracting "halo" of white light.

It seems that something is happening (or perhaps is failing to happen) far back in the brain, well behind the area where the separate sensory receptions of left and right eyes have already been merged into a single image. After all, reading is a recent human skill-only a few thousand years old. Perhaps not all brains have fully made the adaptation from using this particular brain area chiefly for oral comprehension, such as the absorption of myths and sagas. There is evidence that dyslexia may run in families, so inheritance of this imperfect adaptation is possible. Much of this remains speculation; what is certain is that the problem does not lie in the eyes.

Even the keenest of parents, who would swiftly detect in their child measles, or a stammer, or short-sightedness, may long remain unaware of dyslexia. Slowness in learning to read and to spell is put down to inattention, to laziness, to bad teaching, to poor eyesight, to some psychological upset or (finally and reluctantly) to the conclusion that their child must be a bit "thick". Often, the reverse is true.

Perfect statistics about dyslexia are not available, but there seems to be a general agreement that it affects perhaps 5 per cent of the population mildly or severely, and that it is commoner among males than among females. To be dyslexic is not necessarily to have bad sight. Many sufferers have excellent visual acuity, a fact which may tend to mask the real nature of the problem: "He can see the blackboard quite well." Nor does colour-blindness among dyslectics differ radically from its incidence among the population at large.

So far from being associated with low intelligence, it seems that dyslexia has a tendency to afflict the higher ranges of IQ. It is common for dyslectics to shine in activities which depend less heavily on literary skills. Many are good at maths and at practical work, and it is rare to encounter problems with the reading of music. Most difficulties are created by lower-case letters, especially of small type size; capital letters and figures seem to be more easily handled.

D yslectic children are a puzzle and a problem to themselves, to their families and to their teachers. How could it be otherwise? Membership of the modern world depends on being able to read, so a dyslectic is an exile from his own people. Children who are naturally bright but who cannot read and spell suffer dreadful frustration. They know they are as smart as-or smarter than-the kid in the next desk, but their handicap holds them back unfairly. Some become hyperactive, some apathetic, some truants. Emotional disasters with their origins in dyslexia have split many a family.

According to Paul Barry's recent biography, Kerry Packer is dyslexic, and the problems made a big contribution to the hellish aspects of his school days, when he was regarded as a dunce. What would have been the result of all that drive and shrewdness if Kerry the schoolboy had been a dab hand at reading and spelling? Would we have seen successes even more stupendous? Or would an easy-going absorption into the average have sapped that well nigh Satanic urge to excel?

The problem of dyslexia is therefore neither small nor unimportant. Perhaps 300,000 Australians are actually known to suffer from it to some degree, and the consequent economic negative of their under-contribution can scarcely be calculated. The immense personal unhappiness likewise can be guessed but not measured. Conventional remedial teaching is costing Australian taxpayers about $350 million a year, for which the return is-to put it mildly-disappointing. Yet all this while what appears to be a simple, safe, inexpensive and effective form of treatment has been available but largely neglected.

For about the past 10 years, a group of Melbourne optomFetrists has been offering a form of treatment which places a colour between the patient's eyes and the printed page. This interposing tint may be in the form of coloured lenses in spectacles or a transparent coloured sheet laid flat on the printed surface.

The optometrists are a small family firm named Ovenden [see box on page 49]. Their records contain about 3,122 cases of dyslexia, most of them treated with remarkable success.

Improvement in ease of reading is often dramatic and instantaneous, though about 2 per cent have failed to respond satisfactorily.

One patient who, because of reading difficulties, had dropped out of education 30 years earlier, took up a university course and went on to gain a degree. A pupil whose marks before the colour treatment were down in the Cs and Ds suddenly rose to straight As. One patient is a well known Melbourne barrister. Dyslexia had obliged him to memorise vast quantities of reference material which ordinarily would be carried into court in printed form. One week after acquiring his tinted spectacles, he returned to the Ovenden rooms to declare that he could now easily read documents freshly handed up in court.

Treatment starts with the comprehensive eye test we expect when we go to see about spectacles, and problems apart from dyslexia are dealt with first. Then, suspected dyslectics are seated at a table, under comfortable normal light. They have before them straightforward passages of printed text, and at their elbow a pile of sheets of transparent coloured film. These are in almost every colour you can imagine-dark reds, strong greens, light blues, palest straw. Across the table sits an intent optometrist.

The patient selects a coloured overlay, puts it flat on the text, and begins to read aloud. Even the first colour, simply taken off the top of the pile, will sometimes produce vast improvement in ease of reading. As the session continues, one colour is steadily succeeded by another: better? worse? much the same?

The optometrist listens carefully to variations in the fluency of reading; he notes which colours are approved as helpful and which ones are discarded; but above all he scans the patient's face. "It's the smile!" exclaims John Ovenden. "That unmistakable smile of sheer delight that tells us we've got it right. Suddenly, they can read!" Clearly, that smile reveals more than any instrument could record. Said a patient whose own fluency had just astonished himself: "The white light around the words just disappears." (Computer screens with white print on a coloured background often cause dyslectics less difficulty than black print on white paper.)

Building on hints derived from earlier and undeveloped work by some French practitioners, and on the perceptions in the lectures of Miss Tobias, a Victorian teachers' college lecturer of earlier times, the Ovendens have been going steadily ahead for 10 years. (Irlen Clinics have recently offered a limited range of tints, but Ovendens have more than 100 and are adding to (lie selection constantly.)

They find that spectacles give the best results because they improve depth of vision for all purposes. Sporting performance is frequently enhanced. Self-conscious little boys often resist spectacles at first, although they treasure their transparent reading sheets. Often, after a month or two, they will come back: yes, they will have the spectacles after all.

The full course of the treatment offered by Ovendens is around $200, including the spectacles, and may be bulk-billed under Medicare. For patients disappointed after a few months' trial, a substantial refund is available, but few claim it.

Although a scattering of other practitioners around Australia are beginning to use the method, it is remarkable that it is so little used by so many sufferers from dyslexia.

The treatment, of course, has its opponents, and many doctors, teachers, academics, remedial teachers and educational psychologists are strong in their disparagement. Their attitude derives in part from honest scepticism about a method whose precise operation in the brain is still imperfectly understood. But a disagreeable impression lingers that, among some detractors, dyslectics are a solid source of fees, and if dyslectics vanished, so would income.

Never mind what happens (or fails to happen) in the deep fastnesses of the striate cortex of the brain. What is hard to argue against is the solid, professionally recorded, statistical archive of 3,000 cases, growing every year. And, even harder to argue against, the volumes of eloquent letters of thanks from patients, many of them very young, whose lives have been rescued from a peculiar form of darkness. ?

A family of vision

THE OVENDEN optometry practice was set up about 75 years ago in Swanston Street, Melbourne. It sits atop the magnificent Capitol theatre, designed by Walter Burley Griffin, and its windows look across the street to the town hall clock. Three generations of optometrists have practised there-at present John Ovenden and his daughter Jennie.

The Australian branch of the family was founded by old salt Joseph Ovenden, who reached Melbourne in 1856. He was "captain of the fo'c'sle" in Victoria, the steam and sail flagship of the colony's pre-federation navy. His grandson George founded the optometry practice; soon, it seemed, almost the whole of Melbourne's liberal and leftish artistic and literary intelligentsia were having their spectacles made there. The rooms are hung with original works by famous Australian artists.

Prime minister John Curtin was a patient. In moments of wartime weariness, he could sometimes sneak away across the Fitzroy Gardens for a quiet cup of tea with his friends the Ovendens in their remarkable house in George Street, East Melbourne. This dwelling would certainly have fallen down if the internal support of books and bookshelves had been removed. It was the only house I ever knew where there were books even in the bathroom.

Five Ovendens have at different times worked in the practice. John, 69, presides today-in appearance a thoroughly good-natured version of Trotsky, if such a thing can be imagined. Daughter Jennie represents the next generation, and her sister Penny is an optical mechanic.

THE INDEPENDENT MONTHLY SEPTEMBER 1995