TWAP016: Introducing Irlen Syndrome: What Do You Need To Know?

An Interview With Helen Irlen, LMFT and Sandra Tosta, PhD

“What’s Irlen Syndrome, and why should I care?” you may ask.

According to

Introducing Irlen Syndrome

Around 50% of children and adults with reading, learning, or attention problems have Irlen Syndrome. For some, the Irlen Method is the solution. For others, the Irlen Method is just part of the puzzle as there will be other reading/learning problems that need to be addressed.

“What About Irlen Syndrome and Autism/Aspergers?”

Again, according to

Approximately 50% of those with Autism and Asperger Syndrome have the following types of difficulties which can by helped by the Irlen Method:

Looks in a series of short glancesLooks away from visual targets
Squints or looks down
Finger flicks
Sideway glances
Poor eye contact
Rubs or pushes on eyes
Mesmerized by colors, patterns, or light
Behavior changes in bright lights or sunlight
Poor spatial or body awareness
Light sensitivity
Difficulties with stairs, escalators, or catching balls
Poor small or gross motor coordination.

Today, I’m bringing you an interview with Helen Irlen and Sandra Tosta, PhD.

Helen Irlen has a background as as a researcher in the field of visual perception, as a school psychologist, and an adult learning disabilities specialist, starting the first specialist program for students with learning disabilities at a university level

Dr. Tosta, Helen’s daughter, has a  PhD in Educational Psychology from UCLA.

In This Episode, You’ll Learn

  • How Helen first got into the field of visual perception
  • The importance of the environment, and how it can affect a person with a condition like Irlen Syndrome – the environment can affect the brain and one’s
    ability to visually process.
  • The types of problems an individual with Irlen Syndrome has
  • The difference between dyslexia and Irlen Syndrome
  • Dr. Tosta shares some of the brain studies about  Irlen Syndrome
  • Helen’s approach to discovering her method, which education and research desperately needs: First going to the client who is dealing with learning and other challenges, and listening to their experiences to inform research efforts.
  • Once she found out what her adult students were dealing with, she performed a comprehensive review of the research, (a literature review)
  • How Helen Irlen found out that the right color combination of glasses could help correct this visual processing condition.
  • Irlen Syndrome is not only inherited, but can be acquired via head trauma, concussions
  • How Irlen lenses are different than ordinary sunglasses – Dr. Tosta shared that there are over 100,000 color combinations on the color spectrum – each person is different, and therefore needs to be evaluated by a specialist, and any variation in hue or density from optimal, will either not help as much,or could actually make the symptoms worse — that’s where the diagnostic process by an Irlen specialist comes in and is so key
  • How autistics and Aspergians found out about Irlen Syndrome and the Irlen Institute: as Helen was speaking and writing more, the autistic community started reaching out to her.

For example, Donna Williams, autistic author of a number of great books, reached out to Helen for help with her visual processing issues.

Environmental Visual Tips 

Helen explains that stimming and other behaviors that NTs might not understand are compensatory behaviors for dealing with such a distorted environment.

Here are some tips for people who haven’t yet been evaluated for Irlen Syndrome, but struggle with a distorted visual environment:

  • Lighting –  use indirect natural lighting versus fluorescent lighting
  • Wear brimmed hats outside –  (under brim of the hat should be black, because that will absorb the lighting
  • Keep the environment consistent – don’t move and change things around.
  • Educators – try different colors of paper, instead of white paper, and see if particular colors slow down reading and increase comprehension (you can also buy overlays for pages).
  • Make the environment as safe, calm, and stable as possible for the person – keep carpeting and walls a neutral color, or one that your autistic loved one feels best with. Generally, avoid stripes, patterns, and bright colors, and go with solid colors.
  • Also, be aware that what you wear can affect autistic loved ones and/or students. Patterns and bright colors in shirts can affect those suffering with Irlen Syndrome in the same way as brightly colored or patterned walls and floors may.

Links and Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Helen Irlen’s books:

Reading By Colors

The Irlen Revolution: A Guide To Changing Your Perception and Your Life

In this book there is a chapter specifically about the autism spectrum, with pictures drawn by client about what their visual world is like before and after Irlen filters. is the main Irlen Syndrome site.  Here you’ll find a wealth of information.

Here’s the link to the Autism/Asperger Syndrome and Irlen Syndrome page.  You can take self-tests here.

Donna Williams, autistic author, describes many of her sensory challenges, including Irlen Syndrome, in her books, Nobody Nowhere, and  Somebody Somewhere.’s Android app to let kids select overlay for iPads.

Or you can go to to experiment with seeing what colors (use the shades at the top of the screen to change the background color to see what color is most helpful)

Here’s a clinic locator to find a Irlen specialist near you – has toolkits for educators and parents – with free downloadable documents/resources about information, research, accommodations.

Ms. Irlen recommended these books as well:

Reweaving the Autistic Tapestry: Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Adhd, by Lisa Blakemore-Brown, PhD

Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Different Sensory Experiences – Different Perceptual Worlds, by Olga Bogdashina

Like Color To The Blind, Donna Williams

Videos to watch


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 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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