IRLEN METHOD FOR PERCEPTUAL
Helen Irlen is one of the pioneers in the field
of visual perception. Her work on understanding and treating Scotopic
sensitivity has received international attention. Many adults with
Autism, such as
Donna Williams, have stated that their lives improved significantly
after wearing Irlen lenses. Helen Irlen is credited with the discovery
of Irlen Syndrome/Scotopic Sensitivity.
This type of perceptual processing disorder affects
12-14% of the population. During the past 20 years, Irlen has documented
the wide array of misperceptions experienced by those with Irlen
Syndrome and determined how misperception affects reading and other
visual activities. Most importantly, Irlen discovered the use of
color as a treatment to eliminate perceptual distortions. To date,
over 96,000 children and adults worldwide wear Irlen Colored Filters
and millions use colored overlays.
Over 6,000 school districts have implemented Irlen
Screening and are providing children with colored overlays. Information
about Irlen Syndrome can be found by reading Helen Irlen's book
Reading By The Colors, Penguin Putnum/Perigee Div. Helen Irlen is
the Executive Director of the Irlen Institute (5380 Village Road,
Long Beach, CA 90808). Stephen M. Edelson (SME) interviewed Helen
Irlen (HI) on October 18, 1999.
How did you get involved in this field of visual perception?
I have a background in research that dates back
to my undergraduate days at Cornell University where I worked under
NIH grants. Combining my research background with 15 years as a
school psychologist and adding a federal research grant under my
auspices as Director of the Learning Disability Program at California
State University Long Beach, you have the ingredients for a research
project. The main focus of the research was to identify learning
problems which do not respond to remediation or any present therapies.
One of the 12 previously unidentified problems which emerged during
study was a type of visual-perceptual problem, which I named Scotopic
Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS). This problem has since been renamed
Can you describe this type of perceptual problem?
Irlen Syndrome is a type of visual-perceptual
processing problem. Most people are unaware that they have a perceptual
problem. Some of the symptoms are:
(1) Sensory Overload caused by bright lights,
florescent lights, and sunlight. Lighting is stressful. The body
reacts as if it is being attacked or bombarded, resulting in negative
biochemical changes. These may result in headaches, anxiety, and
other physical symptoms.
(2) Environmental Distortions where the individual
sees the world in a distorted fashion so that objects appear as
blurry, moving, shifting, changing, or even disappearing. People
may look frightening, stairs may be seen as a slide without steps,
and walls and floors may swing and sway. This creates problems with
sustained attention, eye contact, gross and small motor coordination,
ability to interpret facial expressions, and poor social skills.
(3) Print Distortions which make learning or
reading difficult. The individual may have good or even advanced
reading skills but has trouble with reading comprehension, attention,
strain or fatigue. Other visual activities besides reading, such
as copying, handwriting and using the computer, can also cause strain
Why did you decide to use color to stop these problems?
The first step was to identify and document the
array of perceptual problems being experienced by some individuals.
The second step was to determine if any present method could alleviate
these problems. When no other professional could provide help, the
focus of the research turned towards finding a solution. I spent
months investigating any method that had ever been recommended for
improving reading. One method used a red overlay and red/green glasses
to help individuals develop a dominant eye. In exploring this method,
among hundreds of other methods, I discovered that training a dominant
eye did not improve reading but that color did make a difference.
The color eliminated the misperceptions.
How did you decide to apply the Irlen Method to help individuals
For the next 15 years, the research concentrated
on documenting the improvements in reading, concentration, and attention
by using color. Donna Williams, who has Autism and has written many
books on the subject, heard about the Irlen Method in 1990. She
contacted a certified Irlen Diagnostician because she felt that
the distortions described in my book, Reading By The Colors, were
very similar to what she saw in her environment. She hoped that
the Irlen Method might stop her misperceptions and relieve her sensory
overload so she could feel better, see better, and function better.
Did you actually assess her?
She was assessed by a Certified Irlen Diagnostician
in England where she presently lives. Soon afterwards, a number
of adults diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome came to similar conclusions
and were tested at the Irlen Institute in the California. These
individuals educated us about the benefits of the Irlen Method for
individuals with Autism and Aspergers Syndrome. The Irlen Method
is not a cure for Autism. The Irlen Method is one piece of the puzzle
for some individuals with Autism. It eliminates sensory overload
and physical symptoms which are caused by lighting and misperception.
The problems experienced by individuals with Autism
turned out to be similar to those we were already working with.
The symptoms were not any different than those experienced by individuals
suffering with learning and reading problems. There is one large
difference! Individuals with Autism experience more severe perceptual
problems. The stress from lighting, colors, patterns, and contrast
bombards the system and, to survive, individuals minimize or totally
block out their environment. They may even shut down. How you ask?
Some typical behaviors used to minimize the offending stimuli are
looking away, looking in short glances, looking through fingers,
looking sideways, or looking down.
Do all Autistic individuals need the Irlen Method?
Absolutely not. I want to be very clear about
the fact that the Irlen Method cannot cure Autism, nor do all individuals
with Autism have difficulty seeing accurately. The Irlen Method
reduces perceptual difficulties, physical symptoms and sensitivity
to such things as light, colors, and patterns. The Irlen Method
is a piece of the puzzle for only some individuals, those who experience
Many individuals with Autism are bothered by sensory
problems in other areas such as touch, smell, hearing, and sensitivities
to food. Sensitivity in one area interacts and affects the other
areas. Therefore, improving one area may have an affect on improving
the individual’s ability to perform in other areas. Making it more
comfortable to see, and to see accurately, may make sounds and other
sensory input less overwhelming.
Since it may be difficult to know whether your
child is bothered by light and misperception, ask family members
if they have these difficulties. Often problems with light sensitivity,
sound sensitivities, and other sensory problems are genetic. Your
other family members may be able to give you clues as to what is
bothering your child, although the problems experienced by family
members may be less severe and they may react differently to them.
How do you help individuals using the Irlen Method?
The ability to determine which wave lengths of
light are creating a problem is the key to the success of the Irlen
Method. We have a unique diagnostic method for determining which
colors of the light spectrum need to be filtered and to what degree.
The appropriate colors are worn as glasses. Each individual needs
a different color, and this can only be determined on an individual
basis. The technique is noninvasive. It sounds simple, but choosing
the right color is critical. The wrong color can even make things
worse, causing more stress and increased perceptual difficulties.
I understand that you have developed a checklist which parents
can complete to determine who may be helped by your program?
Every method should have a way to predetermine
which individuals can be helped with their treatment. We have created
two methods. We have a questionnaire which can be requested from
the Irlen Institute or downloaded from the website www.Irlen.com
. The parent completes the questionnaire and returns it to the Irlen
Institute. The questions ask about sensitivity to lights and fine
or gross motor problems related to perceptual difficulties. Then
we can determine if the individual is using behaviors to reduce
stimuli from the environment.
For young children or those with little language,
in addition to the questionnaire, we have the parent complete a
series of activities and record the child’s responses. In their
own home, the parent modifies the environment by using different
colored light bulbs. We have found that there is a high correlation
between the positive changes in behavior that occur with the right
lighting and changes with Irlen Colored Filters. Any parents who
are interested in trying these activities with their child can request
a copy from the Irlen Institute. They will receive instructions
on what to do and examples of how other parents recorded the child’s
behavior. Once the parent has completed the activities, the information
can be sent to the Irlen Institute to determine if the child will
benefit by wearing Irlen Colored Filters.
Instead of changing the color of the environment using light bulbs,
how about having the person wear different colored sunglasses?
Sunglasses will not produce the same changes unless
they are the right color. The color of most sunglasses is gray,
brown, and green; and these colors are not useful since they only
make things darker. These colors are neutral density filters and
do not alter the light spectrum.
Can you explain perceptual overload?
Any sensation can be overwhelming: touch, smell,
hearing, or vision. Touch, instead of feeling good, hurts. Smells
can make an individual feel sick. Sounds can be perceived as too
loud or painful. Of course, an individual can be bothered by more
than one of these senses. If an individual has a problem in more
than one area, then the interaction between the senses can make
the problems worse in other senses.
For some individuals, lights, colors, patterns,
or contrast are interpreted as stressful, causing perceptual overload.
The sensation floods the person with negative feelings. When the
system is under stress, there is a biochemical change and adrenaline
or other neurochemicals are released. This has a cascading effect,
causing emotional, behavioral and physical symptoms, as well as
anxiety, headaches, nauseous, and dizziness.
Part of the Irlen program is to use overlays or transparencies
for reading. Have you been successful using these overlays with
We rarely use only colored overlays (transparencies)
with the Autistic population because most individuals with Autism
experience severe problems seeing their environment. The colored
overlays are only helpful to stop the distortions on the page that
occur during reading.
Some individuals with Autism learn to read early
and have advanced reading skills. However, they read quickly and
rapidly but with poor comprehension and excessive strain. Therefore,
the overlays would be helpful because it would allow the individual
to read with comfort and better comprehension. But the wearing color
as glasses provides greater benefit in many more areas of an individual’s
So when you evaluate an Autistic individual, you primarily use
colored lenses. Is that correct?
How do you evaluate someone who has problems understanding what
you asked them and expressing how they feel?
Parents often ask, "Can you actually test
an individual if they have no or little language, if they have difficulty
expressing themselves, or if they have behaviors which interfere
with their ability to cooperate?" We do not need an individual
to be able to talk to tell which colors are helpful. Behavior speaks
louder than words. We can find the right color by watching how the
child reacts to the color. Additionally, we really do not need cooperation
in order to test the child since they do not need to follow directions.
Do you mean a change in the child's facial expression and behavior?
We can use a wide range of behaviors to determine
the right color. Depending on the child’s problems, we might be
using changes in facial expression, eye tracking, sustained attention,
language, or improvement in fine or gross motor coordination. It
is not easy to test by monitoring changes in behavior. Certified
Irlen Diagnosticians are specially trained to be able to work with
the Autistic population.
What are the common reports of changes by parents as well as those
people wearing the filters?
There are a number of areas which improve; but,
of course, since problems are individual, so, too, are the areas
that improve. The following are the most common areas of change.
(1) Depth perception improves. Changes are seen in skills such as
going up and down stairs, no longer walking off curbs or bumping
into things, and improved eye-hand coordination. Some individuals
go from seeing a flat world to being able to see a world that is
three-dimensional. One individual did not see curbs; another saw
stairs as sheer and reported “it feels as if you are walking off
a mountain.” (2) Behavioral changes. The child is calmer and less
anxious. Some of these children feel better because they no longer
experience physical symptoms, such as headaches or dizziness. (3)
Improved social interaction because of increased ability to see
faces correctly and interpret emotions. (4) Increased ability to
hear sounds and voices. (5) Improvement in thinking, listening,
and communication skills. (6) Academic skills, such as copying,
math and reading, are more accurate.
Do individuals need one color or different colors?
If individuals are sensitive to light and color,
the wrong color can create strain, fatigue, headaches, make them
sick or dizzy, or create a more distorted environment. Once the
offending colors of light are determined, isolated and filtered
to the degree required, positive changes happen. Each individual
needs his/her own color and wear that color all the time, both inside
Once you figured out the correct color, is that the color that
will be worn for life or worn for just a year or two? In other words,
do you re-evaluate a person to see if the color should be changed?
Individuals usually wear their Irlen Colored Filters
for the rest of their life. The problems return whenever the glasses
are removed. We evaluate each person once a year to determine whether
the color is still working or needs to be changed. Colors fade over
time. When they fade, the benefits from wearing color also fade.
About 25% of individuals will change the color they wear. The following
factors can change the color a person should wear: illness or high
fever, antibiotics or certain medications, maturation, growth spurts
or hormonal changes, emotional trauma or stress, operation or chemotherapy,
change in visual prescription, or change in health status.
Is there a hereditary component to the Irlen Syndrome? And how
can parents tell if their child will benefit from Irlen Colored
Filters? I understand that you feel that these two questions are
In most instances, this type of perceptual processing
problem has a hereditary component. Therefore, it may be possible
to determine if your child has Irlen Syndrome by asking other family
members if they have any of the problems listed below. Remember,
most people are not aware that they have this problem or think that
everyone sees things like they do.
Light Sensitivity. These individuals usually wear
sunglasses, prefer dim lighting and may find fluorescent lighting
and glare to be bothersome. They may find night driving to be difficult
because of the brightness of the highlights from oncoming traffic.
Problems with Attention or Concentration. There
are two different reading styles. One group prefers to read for
two hours, three hours, or until they finish the book. Individuals
with Irlen Syndrome prefer to build breaks into reading. They may
not read for pleasure, avoid textbook reading, or prefer to read
magazines or short articles rather than books.
Experience Physical Symptoms. Those individuals
who have Irlen Syndrome may become tired or sleepy and feel strain,
headaches dizziness, stomachaches, or other physical symptoms. Lighting
or reading, using the computer, or performing other visually-intensive
activities may be causing this problem.
Many Autistic children cannot report or tell you
how they feel. You may need to watch for behaviors to tell you that
they are uncomfortable. Some behaviors which may alert you to this
problem are rubbing eyes, squinting, looking down, looking away,
or closing one or both eyes.
Has Difficulty in the Area of Depth Perception.
Problems in this area can be experienced while driving, especially
changing lanes or turning left in front of oncoming traffic. Other
individuals think of themselves as clumsy or uncoordinated because
they bump into things, knock things over, or cannot easily catch
a small ball or do other such activities.
If a person is experiencing perceptual problems, is it helpful
to change the person’s environment?
Yes. There are some simple and easy things that
a parent can do at home or a teacher can do in the classroom. Let
us start with lighting. The most comfortable lighting for individuals
with Irlen Syndrome is indirect natural lighting or incandescent
lighting. Therefore, minimize fluorescent lighting. Keep rooms dimly
lit instead of bright. Try having the child wear a hat with a brim
or a visor in the classroom or in stores where there are fluorescent
The classroom teacher can reduce the lighting
by 50% in the classroom by simply turning half the fluorescent bulbs
in each fixture until they are off. If the classroom has no windows,
try adding lamps with incandescent bulbs.
Be aware of the colors, patterns, and fabric you
select for the walls, carpeting, and the furniture. Fluorescent
and neon colors, stripes, patterns and polka dots can create misperceptions,
discomfort, and agitation. Avoid using these. Soft grays, neutral
beiges, and soft blues are calming, comfortable colors for individuals
who have Irlen Syndrome.
If you want your child to be able to look at you,
watch what you are wearing. Avoid wearing bright or fluorescent
colors, plaids, patterns, or polka dots on scarves, blouses, jackets,
dresses, shirts, or ties.
This is very good advice.
In addition, parents and teachers should be aware
that the jewelry they wear can create a problem. It can be bothersome
or mesmerizing. Some jewelry, such as earrings, pins and necklaces,
have a tendency to glitter and glare. For example, earrings may
send out rays and sparks. If you wear jewelry, I suggest that it
be small and unobtrusive. Avoid wearing bright and shiny jewelry.
Are you working on anything new?
We now are able to tint contact lenses. Some people
do not want to wear glasses, others do not want to look different,
and some are embarrassed about wearing colored glasses and prefer
to be able to have the color in contact lenses. Some people are
so light sensitive that they are bothered by the unfiltered light
that enters from the top and around the sides of the frames. This
problem is eliminated with colored contact lenses. The colored contact
lenses are better than the colored glasses. Individuals report that
they provide greater comfort, better depth perception, and better
protection. Only the center of the contact is tinted so that the
color of the eye is not changed.
We are now able to help many different populations.
The label is not as important in determining whether you can benefit
from the Irlen Method. Subgroups of individuals suffering from some
medical, visual, or psychological problems can perform and function
better with Irlen Filters: Subgroups of individuals with autoimmune
diseases, head injuries, concussions, whiplash, ADD, or emotional
problems also suffer from problems of light sensitivity, poor depth
perception, and misperception. They find it a wonderful surprise
and relief to eliminate these problems.
If you meet a parent of an Autistic child AND the child is newly
diagnosed AND you are the first professional he/she meets, what
type of advice would you give him or her?
All of us, parents and professionals alike, are
looking for a cure; but until one is discovered, I suggest that
parents treat the complex array of symptoms associated with Autism.
This is not an easy process since the symptoms are multiple, varied,
and found in different combinations in each child. Finding help
is a process of finding each piece of the puzzle and proceeding
to eliminate one problem at a time. This may mean exploring various
different methods since each method may offer something different.
This is a challenging and often daunting process. Identification
of the various problems must precede symptom reduction.
Color filtering works to reduce overload from
light and perception. Other techniques are effective in reducing
sensitivity to sound, touch, and smell. Food sensitivities, food
allergies, and vitamin deficiencies may also need to be part of
the therapy program. Information from websites, books, attending
conferences, and speaking with other parents can be helpful. Dealing
with Autism is like working on a puzzle and finding all of the pieces
of the puzzle. Personally, I feel that it makes the most sense to
identify and minimize the symptoms which are causing distress before
embarking on a behavior modification program. As one woman with
Aspergers Syndrome said to me, “Before you force me to look and
behave like you, find out what is really bothering me and eliminate
Parents also should not be frightened when they
see little improvement as their child grows older. From what I have
seen over the years, one cannot put an age limit on progress and
change. You should never give up hope--maturation and growth can
occur at any time, even when the individual is in their 20’s, 30’s,
The Irlen Method is not a cure for Autism, dyslexia,
ADHD, or other problems. The Irlen Method removes a layer called
perceptual overload. As a result, the individual is better able
to function in certain specific areas which before were difficult.
But the child’s other difficulties will still remain and need to
be addressed by other interventions.
If people are interested in having their child examined, I understand
that you have clinics all over the world - is that correct?
Yes, there are professionals all over the world
who have been trained and certified in the Irlen Method. The individuals
who are trained in the Irlen Method include psychologists, counselors,
Can people obtain a list of these individuals by either writing
to you or visiting your website?
Certified Irlen Diagnosticians are listed on www.
Irlen.com. For more information, parents can call or email the Irlen
International Headquarters. The Irlen Institute sponsors national
and international conferences which are open to the public. A parent
can subscribe to the Irlen International Newsletter in order to
stay abreast of the newest research and information in this area.
To obtain additional information, please contact:
Irlen Institute International Headquarters
5380 Village Road
Long Beach, CA 90808
Copyright The purpose of this copyright is to
protect your right to make free copies of this paper for your friends
and colleagues, to prevent publishers from using it for commercial
advantage, and to prevent ill-meaning people from altering the meaning
of the document by changing or removing a few paragraphs.
Reproduction kindly allowed by www.autism.org
Visit their site for more useful resources
to read a fact sheet on Tunnel vision & Autism Spectrum Disorders
Click here for the full range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories