September 29th, 2006
Dyslexia treatment has supporters, skeptics
Inventor thinks his special lenses can help
By Laura Ungar
Megan Gibson read haltingly, stumbling on several words as her eyes followed her finger across a page.
Then the slight, quiet 15-year-old, who has dyslexia, put on glasses outfitted with a special prism lens. She tried again — this time reading more quickly and smoothly as what she described as “bunched up” words suddenly became clear.
“I can see the letters really well,” said Megan, who has worn the lenses for two years and was demonstrating how they help. From the other side of a desk, Louisville veterinarian Robert Dahlem, who created the prism lenses, nodded encouragement.
He believes his invention has potential to revolutionize the treatment of the learning disability, which scrambles the written word, making reading difficult for an estimated 38 million Americans. But his approach has drawn criticism, from both optometrists and advocates of traditional treatment for dyslexia, which involves strategies like concentrating on the sounds within words.
Dahlem invented the lenses five years ago to help his dyslexic son, Austin, who was struggling in school.
“I figured if I could find the key, maybe I could change his path,” Dahlem said. “And I got lucky.”
He has since started a nonprofit corporation called Dyslexia Solutions and distributed the lenses to about 400 people through an effort spread by word of mouth. His father, retired engineer Edward Dahlem, crafts them in his basement.
Many users and their families rave about them.
Megan’s mother, Debbie Gibson of Fern Creek, said her daughter used to earn B’s, C’s and some D’s in school, labor for hours on homework and avoid reading books. Now she’s an A student at Eastern High School who loves to immerse herself in the Harry Potter series.
“She has just flourished,” Gibson said. “She has come out of her shell. There’s no stopping her.”
But some eye doctors disapprove of Dahlem’s efforts. Complaints were filed with the Kentucky Board of Optometric Examiners and the Indiana attorney general’s office, alleging he is prescribing eyeglasses without a license — although Dahlem says he’s not prescribing anything.
“Things work best when you work within your area of training,” said Dr. Timothy Masden, a New Salisbury, Ind., optometrist.
Others say Dahlem’s work — the subject of a documentary on KET2 Oct. 8 — is not backed up by science.
University of Louisville officials said a small study there was not encouraging. And Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a Yale University pediatrics professor and nationally recognized expert on dyslexia, said she’s cautious, considering dyslexia is a complex problem rooted in the brain.
“It’s not consistent with what we know helps and works,” said Shaywitz, who has heard about Dahlem’s idea but hasn’t investigated it. “You can’t go on testimonials.”
But Dr. Katherine A. Abbott, a Louisville pediatrician who signed on as medical supervisor for Dahlem’s project, said she doesn’t understand the resistance. In addition to helping her dyslexic patients, she said, Dahlem’s lenses have helped her conquer lifelong reading difficulties. “If certain things work,” she said, “I don’t see why you don’t pursue it.”
Dahlem, 43, is undaunted, figuring he’s been pushed aside by academics because he’s not one of them and rejected by optometrists who fear competition. He considers himself a “gentleman scientist,” he said, an outside-the-box thinker with a potentially life-changing idea.
“I know I’m right and I can prove it,” he said. “I’m just a dad helping kids to read.”
Developing a theory
A father’s intuition started Dahlem down this path.
His son Austin recalled struggling with reading and spelling in elementary school, watching neighbors play outside as he spent an hour on homework that should have taken five minutes.
Dahlem and his wife, Karen, began to realize what was wrong when Austin wrote his name — backward — on a playhouse in the yard.
They soon discovered through testing that he had severe dyslexia, a disability with no clear cause but which Shaywitz and others believe results from faulty connections in the brain. The Dahlems transferred Austin to The de Paul School in Louisville, which specializes in teaching children with learning differences.
That’s when Dahlem came up with a theory — that dyslexia is basically a physics problem.
Watching children from the school, Dahlem noticed that many had asymmetrical faces, with the left eye closer to the midline. He said he later figured out that a dyslexic’s right eye is dominant when looking at objects up to six inches away, but the left eye becomes dominant after that. When concentrating on reading, he said, the right eye has to turn to the left, creating a problem.
“Reading is a symphony,” Dahlem said. “It’s both eyes working together.”
After full days as a veterinarian treating animals, Dahlem spent hours at home on dyslexia, building a large model of the eye and sketching out diagrams.
Dahlem’s final version works like this: The prism lens is placed on the right side of a pair of clear plastic glasses. Through a system of tests, the appropriate strength of prism lens is found to deal with the person’s dyslexia. Those who already need prescription glasses can use Dahlem’s glasses in front of their prescription frames, or switch to contacts.
Austin tried his father’s invention in the family kitchen, reading a passage from “Robinson Crusoe.” “For the first time,” he said, “I saw the words how they actually are.”
Austin, now 16 and an honor student at Trinity High School, said he doesn’t need the glasses as much as he used to, and wears them mostly when studying at home. At times over the years, he’s been reluctant to use them because his father made them. But he said they will continue to play a part in his life. In fact, they are named after him, R.A.D. lenses, for Robert Austin Dahlem.
“I want to be a doctor or a mechanical engineer,” Austin said. “And I think I’m going to continue the project. This could change a lot of people’s lives.”
Word spread as Dahlem began speaking about the lenses and collaborating with groups, such as a reading club at a Frankfort middle school. Trinity High School’s traditional program is working to get a couple of pairs for students to use on a trial basis.
Over the years, Dahlem screened more and more children in his veterinary office and provided them with the lenses, for which he is seeking a patent. Not everyone benefits from the lenses; Dahlem said they work best for people with severe dyslexia. He gives them only to people who show improvement in the office.
He doesn’t charge for the screening and has asked for a donation of as much as $25 for the glasses; Dawn Jackson of Louisville, for example, said she paid $15. Very recently, he’s begun asking for about $200 to receive the glasses and participate in a study through his nonprofit corporation, saying he needs to cover more of the costs that have until now been borne by his family. He said he wouldn’t deny a child the glasses because of inability to pay.
As the project has grown, so has the controversy.
Abbott, the pediatrician, said prism lenses don’t hurt dyslexic children’s eyes, but Masden said they could pose a problem, especially because children need an appropriate diagnosis before lenses can be prescribed. “The concern is the kids, their well-being and their safety,” Masden said.
A complaint before the Kentucky Board of Optometric Examiners, prompted by a letter from Louisville optometrist Daniel L. Weinberg, was resolved last year when Dahlem began working under a physician’s supervision, according to board executive director Connie Calvert. And the Indiana attorney general’s office never took action; Dahlem said that complaint was also resolved when he worked under a doctor’s supervision.
Shaywitz, the Yale expert, said she respects Dahlem’s intentions. “What I would suggest he do is a double-blind study,” Shaywitz said.
Dahlem has tried to do one, but efforts to spark academic studies at U of L and Bellarmine University have been derailed. U of L spokeswoman Ellen de Graffenreid said data from a small-scale study of 20 people didn’t prove the lenses work, so researchers chose not to pursue a National Institutes of Health grant. Dahlem criticized those findings.
So for now, Dahlem is compiling his own data. He said only about 10 of the 400 lenses have been returned
One pair of glasses was returned by Mike Straughn, whose son, Matthew, used them for about eight weeks two years ago. Straughn said Matthew, now 10, is not severely dyslexic and the glasses didn’t seem to work for him. But he said he’s not sure his family gave them a fair try, because Matthew sometimes didn’t want to wear them.
More often, Dahlem hears from people like Jackson, whose son, Lucas, 11, has worn the glasses for two years and has caught up to his peers in reading. “They’re awesome,” Jackson said. “The end result for us is Lucas has steadily made progress — more than we’ve ever dreamed.”
Reporter Laura Ungar can be reached at (502) 582-7190.