When Abigail Burks was in kindergarten, first grade and second grade at Zephyr Elementary School, she was an excellent reader.
But by the third and fourth grades, that had changed.
Reading material in the earlier grades consisted of just a few sentences on a page. “But when it got to little novels, I couldn’t do it because all the words were just jumping together and I didn’t understand why,” said Abigail, now a 16-year-old junior at Brownwood High School.
“I thought I was just dumb."
Abigail wasn’t dumb.
Her parents, Todd and Christi Burks, spent years trying to find out why their daughter had severe problems reading. Just a few months ago, they found out why: Abigail has a disorder called Irlen Syndrome, and they found an answer: specially made glasses with a purplish tint to the lenses, which enable her to read normally and solved other issues including migraine headaches and poor depth perception.
An Irlen Syndrome specialist prescribed the lenses, which are a mix of purple, pink and blue. They somewhat resemble modish-looking sunglasses — and friends and teachers have mistaken them for just that — but she explains to anyone who questions her that they enable her to have normal vision.
Christi Burks explained the lenses in her daughters glasses: “Even though Irlen spectral filters are colored and some look like sunglasses, the person that is prescribed these filters will see the world clearly,” Christi said.
Irlen Syndrome — also known as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome — is a “perceptual processing disorder,” the Irlen Syndrome website irlen.com explains. “It is a problem with the brain’s ability to process visual information. It is not an optical problem. It tends to run in families and is not identified by standardized educational, psychological, optometric or medical tests.”
Until recently, Christi Burks taught second grade at East Elementary School. She’s about to start a new job as an intervention specialist, and she has an office at East.
Mother and daughter met with the Bulletin in Christi Burk’s office.
Christi said her daughter could read even before kindergarten, and she had no issues then. “Of course, those were just a few little words on a page, and they’re also bigger and further apart,” Christi said.
But Christi could see a difference in her daughter’s reading ability by third grade.
“The spaces (between the words) would just go away,” Abigail said. The words would spin. I’d read one line and I’d have trouble keeping my place, and I’d re-read the line over and over again.”
She said she came to hate reading “because it hurt so much. I’d get exhausted.”
Abigail plays flute in the Brownwood High School band, and she’s also on the golf team. But her poor depth perception made it difficulty to putt.
She gave up gymnastics because she couldn’t jump from the low bar to the high bar when performing on uneven bars. “I kept missing it,” she said.
When Abigail started learning to drive, she would nearly drive up onto traffic in front of her because she couldn’t judge distance.
Visits to optometrists and ophthalmologists did not provide any answers, and once she was prescribed low-powered reading glasses which did nothing to help.
Christi had heard of Irlen Syndrome, and she began doing some research. She read an article about a girl who was Abigail’s age with Irlen Syndrome. The girl had reading and driving issues, just like Abigail.
“I was like, oh my goodness, this is Abigail to a T,” Christi said.
An Irlen Syndrome screener in Abilene tested Abigail and determined she had the disorder. The screener placed colored overlays over words, experimenting with the right combinations until she found one that worked for Abigail.
“I’ve never known that feeling before,” Abigail said.
Some people with the disorder can find relief by placing colored overlays over pages when they’re reading. But Abigail’s disorder was severe enough that she needed glasses to wear full time, and an Irlen Syndrome diagnostician in Austin gave her a prescription.
She’s had her glasses for just a few months.
“I get a lot of questions like, why are you wearing sunglasses?” Abigail said.
“But then I tell them, and they’re wanting to know more. They think it’s so cool, and they ask to wear them and I let them wear them. And they’re like, how can you see through these things? And I’m like, it’s not purple.”
Abigail said she never felt self-conscious about her purple-tinted glasses. “I thought they were pretty cool,” she said.