Helen Irlen - Discovery of Irlen Syndrome

Helen Irlen – Discovery of Irlen Syndrome

Helen Irlen, MA, BCPC, LMFT, a graduate of Cornell University, is a credentialed school psychologist, licensed therapist, adult learning disability specialist and expert in the area of perceptual processing disorders. While working with adults with learning disabilities, Irlen made a discovery that resulted in marked improvement in her students’ reading abilities. Today, there are numerous affiliated Irlen Testing Centres worldwide that use the Irlen Method to overcome a wide range of perceptual processing problems.

Helen Irlen, school psychologist and learning disabilities specialist in California, first identified perceptual dyslexia in the early 1980s and labeled it “scotopic sensitivity syndrome.” Irlen had received a grant from the U.S. Federal Government, in 1980, to set up a learning disabilities program for adults. She chose to work with adults because adults can communicate better than children and are more accurate “reporters” of what they experience; they are less intimidated by authority than children and are less likely to be swayed without some evidence; and adults are more motivated to succeed. They have reached a point in their lives where they recognize the importance of learning in general and reading in particular.

After three years of in-depth research, Irlen discovered that many problems appeared after readers had been actively reading for a relatively short period of time (usually about 10 minutes or more). Those who had trouble reported that distortions began to appear on the page, and those distortions prevented them from comprehending the words. All of their energy was going into perceiving the words, holding them on the page, or even just finding them! As a result, many stopped reading. It was just too difficult for them.

As Irlen explained in her speech at the dyslexia Higher Education Conference, 31st October – 2nd November, 1994, at Plymouth University, England, once she began asking the more definitive question, “WHAT do you see?” instead of “DO you see?” the answers made it apparent to her that these poor readers were victims of a unique syndrome that was not being adequately addressed by the professional educational community. (Dyslexia in higher education: strategies and the value of asking).

During months of investigating many different theories and trying many different methods, Irlen experimented with colored overlays. One of Irlen’s students reported that when she placed a red overlay – used for eye-dominance exercises – on the page she was reading, the sensation of movement that she had always experienced stopped! For the first time, she could actually read without having the words constantly sway back and forth! (Irlen, 1991) The red didn’t work for everybody, however. It made no difference to the rest of the students.

So, Irlen tried other colors and found that the vast majority of those who tried the colored overlays were helped. Each person who was helped responded to one specific color. Once that particular color was determined and used, the individual was able to read better and longer and reported that the distortions previously experienced disappeared immediately. Irlen didn’t know at that time why the overlays worked, just that they did.” (1)

“Until described in her book, Reading by the Colors (Avery Press, 1991), there was no explanation or treatment for this perceptual disorder, and many people with this disorder would be misdiagnosed as dyslexic or slow learners. In 1991, Dr. Margaret S. Livingstone of Harvard Medical School published research which offered a medical explanation for this disorder.

Individuals with Irlen Syndrome perceive the printed page and sometimes their environment differently. They must constantly make adaptation or compensate. Individuals are often unaware of the extra energy and effort they are putting into reading and perception.

Reading may be slow and inefficient, or there may be poor comprehension, strain, or fatigue. It can also affect attention span, listening, energy level, motivation, work production, and mental health.

People with Irlen Syndrome are often seen as underachievers or having behavioral, attitude or motivational problems. These problems can also coexist with other learning problems, such as attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, or autism. Treatment for Irlen Syndrome can alleviate many of the symptoms of these disorders in many cases.” (2)

(1) From Perceptual Dyslexia: It’s Effect on the Military Cadre and Benefits of Treatment by Susann L. Krouse and James H. Irvine. Article

(2) From The World Wide Web: The Brian Othmer Foundation. A non-profit foundation for research education & clinical services in neurofeedback. FAQ page: “What is Irlen Screening”. Website.

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