KODIAK -- Nels Jensen has struggled with reading his whole life.
Jensen, 16, knows how to read, but for him the words just don't look the way they are supposed to. Now he finally knows why.
Last month, Jensen found out he has Irlen syndrome. The rare disorder is not a problem with the eye, but a problem with the way the brain processes visual information.
People with Irlen syndrome see distorted image when they try to read a white printed page. The distortions can create ribbons or stripes of white through the text or blur words to a headache-inducing extent.
"When light hits the lens of an eye, the eye will take different bands of light and bend it so it hits the right focal point, but the modification doesn't happen naturally for some people," said Barb Robek, an Irlen diagnostician from Anchorage.
For years, Jensen's mother Constance had him undergo tests to figure out why he struggled with reading. He took eye tests, learning disability tests and IQ tests, but nobody could provide an answer.
He eventually grew accustomed to living with the problem. When Jensen was required to do reading for school, he picked an audio book. When that wasn't an option, he read and re-read texts until he understood them.
When Constance Jensen first heard about the online test for Irlen Syndrome, she was skeptical.
"We have tested, tested, tested him a billion times," said Constance.
"Nobody could tell us what was wrong," Nels said, "and my mom found this test. I was so tired of testing I said no at first."
The self-test asks about the types of reading difficulties a person experiences.
When Jensen took the test at irlen.com, he answered yes to every reading problem listed.
"I was really excited when I found out," Jensen said about learning what the problem was. "My whole life I haven't been able to read, and I hit corners. The other day at school I hit a box of lettuce in the cafeteria, and it spilled everywhere."
Running into things and not being able to read are common effects of Irlen syndrome, Robek said.
"Sometimes words are half-missing, fall off the page, have a halo, or are blurry and shaky," Robek said. "Some people have light sensitivity, headaches when they read, fatigue when they read or reading comprehension issues."
Robek traveled to Kodiak recently to provide additional testing and fit Jensen with specialized glasses that use color filters to balance the white on pages. The solution to Irlen syndrome is to wear a specific-colored lens that eliminates the difficulties.
In Jensen's case, reading is difficult because he sees rivers of white in the text, which means the white page is more dominant than the black print. The correct color helps overcome that dominance, making the words look the way they are supposed to. It will also help him with his depth perception.
Jensen tried around than 30 different color combinations before excitedly saying, "I like this," when he found one combination that made the page easier to focus on.
During the testing, Jensen also learned that he only sees a small portion of text in focus, so he's usually only reading one word at a time.