Light sensitivity in kids with autism, ADHD, SPD and developmental delays is common. This hypersensitivity is complicated by visual stress-producing factors that overload their visual environment and confuse their eyes and brains. To create this effect, you need not flash strobe lights. You need only combine mobiles hanging from the ceiling with busy bulletin boards and over-crowded cubbies. Usually children are quite unaware of the origin of their discomfort.
While the causes of developmental delays are very complex and require intervention on many fronts, simply changing the lighting can be a beneficial addition to other forms of treatment. Many children are excessively sensitive to the quality of the lighting and may overreact.
Added to environmental stress are symptoms of below-par visual skills that many of these children have:
- Rapid fatigue, while reading or looking at a picture book.
- Tendency to lose the place on the page
- Tendency to read too quickly, with poor pronunciation and little recall of what has been read
- Tendency to read too slowly, or in a monotone
- Burning or reddened eyes
- Oversensitivity to bright lights
John Ott, a pioneer in understanding the relationship between light and health, found that colored filters affect plant growth. He discovered that by using colored filters he could alter a plant’s cellular function. He then applied this knowledge to humans. He believes that the light environment in which people live and work affects their biological receptivity. Behavioral problems can thus be a result of a poor light environment.
Fluorescent Lights in Schools
Most schools use fluorescent lights, which lack the balanced spectral aspects of sunlight and increase visual stress factors. Spending an inordinate amount of time under artificial lights may subject children to what another pioneer, Jacob Liberman, calls “mal-illumination,” the corollary of malnutrition. Unsuitable lighting can lead to poor reading skill and problematic attention and behavior.
Children with these problems, who are usually placed near the teacher, may benefit from having their seating assignments changed. The front of the classroom may not be the best!
Commonly used fluorescent lights are gradually being superseded by more energy efficient types, some of which claim to be “full spectrum” and more comfortable in use.
Other Light Sensitivity Factors
It is now known that many more factors are involved besides the spectral characteristics making up the color of the light. Features such as glare, simplicity of the lighting, and intensity affect individuals differently. Winter depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and some carbohydrate craving that is related to light can also be factors in some developmental delays. Such factors can now be assessed quantitatively.
Visual Stress Affects Learning
I became particularly interested in how poor lighting environments added visual stress to learning. This led to the invention and patenting of several products that lower visual stress. These improved lights have a less complex, more balanced spectra than fluorescent, incandescent, quartz and even daytime light. As the lighting changes, the child’s behavior changes. An immediate improvement in comfort and a gain in function occur, sometimes dramatically.
Here are some examples of how lighting changes can help:
- A seven-year-old with autism showed seasonal worsening every year. This effect was negated by the use of a ISO-watt floor model. The lighting helped the child become controllable, rather than completely withdrawn.
- A fifth-grade student doubled the speed in which he could recognize written materials, after being provided with individualized lighting.
- Several third-graders with learning disabilities became calmer and improved their reading comprehension.
- An elementary school principal noticed an increase in his fourth-graders’ time on task and percentile gains in reading and mathematics, accompanied by a decrease in aggressive behavior.
Appropriate lighting can be a helpful modality. New lighting reduces the visual component of complex stress and provides a calmer environment in which normal function can often become reestablished.
About Robin Mumford
Robin Mumford is the author of several patents relating to lighting, stress and learning problems. He offers a helpful service to interested parents and professionals. You can buy a simple, inexpensive home test kit, videotape the child’s performance, and return the tape for comment and analysis. It takes only a short time to do the assessment and try the light.