Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome and the Irlen Lens System
Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Interview with Helen Irlen
There is growing evidence, based on both research and personal reports, that many autistic individuals see their world in a maladaptive, dysfunctional manner. Researchers at U.C.L.A. and the University of Utah have found evidence of abnormal retinal activity in autistic individuals. Additionally, there are many visual problems which are often associated with autism, such as reliance on peripheral vision; tunnel vision; hypersensitivity to light; and stereotypic (repetitive) behavior near the eyes, such as hand-flapping and finger-flicking. Donna Williams, an autistic adult, has written several books about her life and has often commented on her vision. She once wrote: "Nothing was whole except the colours and sparkles in the air...." and "I had always known that the world was fragmented. My mother was a smell and a texture, my father a tone, and my older brother was something which moved about."
Scotopic Sensitivity/Irlen Syndrome is a visual-perceptual problem which occurs in some people with learning/reading disorders, autism, and other developmental disorders. People with Scotopic Sensitivity/Irlen Syndrome experience 'perceptual stress' which can lead to a variety of perceptual distortions when reading and/or viewing their environment. Scotopic Sensitivity is triggered by one or more components of light, such as the source of the light (e.g., fluorescent lighting, sun), luminance (e.g., reflection, glare), intensity (i.e., brightness), wavelength (i.e., color), and/or color contrast. As a result, the person may experience:
Light sensitivity: bothered by brightness, glare, types of lighting
Inefficient reading: letters on page move, dance, vibrate, jiggle
Inadequate background accommodation: difficulty with high contrast
Restricted span of recognition: tunnel vision or difficulty reading groups of letters
Lack of sustained attention: difficulty maintaining attention
The Irlen Lens System, developed by Helen Irlen, was designed to treat Scotopic Sensitivity/Irlen Syndrome. Helen Irlen has developed two methods to treat Scotopic Sensitivity: (1) the use of colored transparencies or overlays to improve reading; and (2) tinted glasses to improve one's visual perception of his/her environment.
Transparencies. Transparencies or overlays are used to reduce perceptual stress while reading. For some people, letters/words on a page are not perceived clearly and/or not perceived in a stable manner (i.e., letters and words appear to move). The white background may overtake and dominate the person's perceptual system; and the black print of the text may fade into the background. Other symptoms may include having difficulty reading for relatively long periods of time, developing headaches and feeling dizzy. It is possible that, for some, the high contrast between black print on a white background provides excessive stimulation to the visual system and thus interferes with the reading process.
In the Irlen Lens System, colored transparencies are placed over printed text with the result that these problems may be reduced or eliminated. A colored overlay, such as a light blue transparency placed over the text, will reduce the contrast between black and white as well as reduce the dominance of the white background. The optimal color of the transparency required depends upon each person's unique visual-perceptual system.
Glasses. In addition to reading problems, people with Scotopic Sensitivity/Irlen Syndrome may have difficulty perceiving their surroundings. Many autistic individuals wear tinted glasses, which were prescribed by Helen Irlen or at one of her 76 world-wide diagnostic clinics, and have reported rather remarkable benefits. After wearing her glasses, Donna Williams wrote: "These [Irlen] glasses would have changed all that. Faces and body parts and voices would have been whole and understood within a context of equally conjoined surroundings." Other autistic individuals report seeing better, feeling more relaxed, being less bothered by sunlight and/or indoor lighting, and have fewer perceptual distortions which can affect small and gross motor coordination.
Helen Irlen has developed effective methods for determining if a person suffers from Scotopic Sensitivity/Irlen Syndrome. She has also designed a standardized set of procedures which can determine the correct color prescription for the transparency and the tinted lenses.
Helen Irlen has trained people throughout the world in the use of her methods. For more information, write to: Irlen Institute/PLD, 5380 Village Road, Long Beach, California 90808, U.S.A. (email: Irlen_Institute@compuserve.com); phone: (562) 496-2550; fax: (562) 429-8699.
An Interview with Helen Irlen, a pioneer in visual perception, receiving international attention for her work on understanding and treating Scotopic sensitivity
Stephen M. Edelson (SME) interviewed Helen Irlen (HI) on October 18, 1999.
SME: How did you get involved in this field of visual perception?
HI: 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 that do not respond to remediation or any then-present therapies. One of the twelve previously unidentified problems that emerged during study was a type of visual-perceptual problem, which I named Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome (SSS). This problem has since been renamed Irlen Syndrome.
SME: Can you describe this type of perceptual problem?
HI: Irlen Syndrome is a type of visual-perceptual processing problem. Most people are unaware if they have a perceptual problem. Some of the symptoms are: (1) Sensory Overload caused by bright lights, fluorescent lights, and sunlight. Lighting is stressful; the body reacts as if it is being attacked or bombarded, resulting in negative biochemical changes. These can result in headaches, anxiety, and other physical symptoms. (2) Environmental Distortions, when the individual sees the world in a distorted fashion, so that objects appear as blurry, moving, shifting, changing, or even disappearing. People might look frightening, stairs might be seen as a slide without steps, and walls and floors might appear to 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 might have good --or even advanced-- reading skills, but has trouble with reading comprehension, attention, and strain or fatigue. Other visual activities besides reading, such as copying, handwriting, and using the computer can also cause strain or fatigue.
SME: Why did you decide to try color to stop these problems?
HI: 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.
SME: How did you decide to apply the Irlen Method to help individuals with autism?
HI: For the next 15 years, the research concentrated on documenting the improvements by using color in reading, concentration, and attention. Donna Williams, who has autism and has written many books and articles 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.
SME: Did you actually assess her?
HI: She was assessed by a Certified Irlen Diagnostician in England, where she lives. Soon afterwards, a number of adults diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome came to similar conclusions and were tested at the Irlen Institute in California. They educated us about the benefits of the Irlen Method for individuals with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The Irlen Method is not a cure for autism; it is one piece of the puzzle for some individuals with autism. It eliminates sensory overload and physical symptoms that 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 with learning and reading problems. There is one large difference: people 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 might 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.
SME: Do all autistic individuals need the Irlen Method?
HI: 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 sensory difficulties.
Many 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 might have an effect on improving the individual’s ability to perform in other areas. Making it more comfortable to see, and to see accurately, can make sounds and other sensory input less overwhelming.
Since it can be difficult to know whether your child is bothered by light and misperception, ask family members if any of them have these difficulties. Often problems with light sensitivity, sound sensitivities, and other sensory problems are genetic. Your other family members might be able to give you clues as to what is bothering your child, although the problems experienced by family members might be less severe, and they may react differently to them.
SME: How do you help individuals using the Irlen Method?
HI: 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 person 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.
SME: I understand that you have developed a checklist that parents can complete to determine who might be helped by your program?
HI: Every method should have a way to predetermine which individuals can be helped with that treatment; we have two. We have a questionnaire that 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.
SME: Instead of changing the color of the environment using light bulbs, how about having the person wear different colored sunglasses?
HI: Sunglasses will not produce the same changes unless they are the right color. The color of most sunglasses is gray, brown, or green, colors that are not useful since they only make things darker. They are neutral density filters and do not alter the light spectrum.
SME: Can you explain perceptual overload?
HI: 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, nausea, and dizziness.
SME: Part of the Irlen program is to use overlays or transparencies for reading. Have you been successful using these overlays with autistic individuals?
HI: 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 children 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 wearing the color as glasses provides greater benefit in many more areas of an individual’s life.
SME: So when you evaluate someone with autism, you primarily use colored lenses. Is that correct?
SME: How do you evaluate someone who has problems understanding what you asked them and expressing how they feel?
HI: 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.
SME: Do you mean a change in the child's facial expression and behavior?
HI: 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.
SME: What are the common reports of changes by parents, as well as those people wearing the filters?
HI: There are a number of areas that 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.
SME: Do individuals need one color, or different colors?
HI: 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 to wear that color all the time, both inside and outdoors.
SME: Once you’ve 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?
HI: Individuals usually wear Irlen Colored Filters for the rest of their life because 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. Lens colors fade over time; when they fade, the benefits 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.
SME: 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 related.
HI: 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 they think that everyone sees things like they do.
Light Sensitivity. These individuals usually wear sunglasses, prefer dim lighting, and might find fluorescent lighting and glare to be bothersome. They might 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 might not read for pleasure, or avoid textbook reading, or prefer to read magazines or short articles rather than books.
Physical Symptoms. Those individuals who have Irlen Syndrome might 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 tell you how they feel. You might need to watch for behaviors to tell you that they are uncomfortable. Some behaviors which might alert you to this problem are eye-rubbing, squinting, looking down, looking away, or closing one or both eyes.)
Difficulty in 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.
SME: If a person is experiencing perceptual problems, is it helpful to change the environment?
HI: Yes. There are some simple things that a parent can do at home, or a teacher can do in the classroom. 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 lights.
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 people 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.
SME: This is very good advice.
HI: In addition, parents and teachers should be aware that the jewelry they wear can create a problem. It can be bothersome or mesmerizing. For example, earrings can send out rays and sparks of light. If you wear jewelry, I suggest that it be small and unobtrusive.
SME: Are you working on anything new?
HI: 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. 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. 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.
SME: 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?
HI: 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 eliminating one problem at a time. This will mean exploring various methods since each method may offer something different. It is a challenging 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, 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 Asperger’s Syndrome said to me, “Before you force me to look and behave like you, find out what is really bothering me and eliminate these problems.”
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 20s, 30s, or older
The Irlen Method is not a cure for autism, dyslexia, ADHD, or other problems. The Irlen Method removes a layer called visual perceptual overload. As a result, the individual is better able to function in specific areas which before were problematic. But the child’s other difficulties will remain, and need to be addressed by other interventions.
SME: If people are interested in having their child examined, I understand that you have clinics all over the world - is that correct?
HI: 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, and educators.
SME: Can people obtain a list of these professionals by either writing to you or visiting your website?
HI: 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 that 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.
SME: Thank you for your time and your insights.
Many adults with autism (such as Donna Williams) report their lives improved significantly after wearing Irlen lenses. Helen Irlen is credited with the discovery of Irlen Syndrome/Scotopic Sensitivity, a type of perceptual processing disorder affecting 12-14% of the population. For twenty years Irlen has documented the wide array of misperceptions experienced by those with Irlen Syndrome, and determined how this 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 provide students with colored overlays. Information about Irlen Syndrome can be found in Helen Irlen's book Reading By The Colors, Penguin Putnum/Perigee Div. She is the Executive Director of the Irlen Institute.
To obtain additional information, you may contact:
Irlen Institute International Headquarters
5380 Village Road
Long Beach, CA 90808
Telephone: 562-496-2550. Click here if you would like to visit the Irlen Institute’s website.