11 May

I’m so glad to have such an important guest post from the Irlen Institute! Thank you so much, Sandra and Helen.


What happens when you’re told your child has dyslexia, but the months (or years) of tutoring, phonics instruction, and specialized reading programs don’t seem to help? Your child is still struggling. And what do you do when a doctor diagnoses your child with ADHD and prescribes medication, but the medication doesn’t make it better?

Educators and medical professionals are quick to diagnose children who struggle in school with dyslexia and ADHD; however, research suggests that at least a portion of these children may be misdiagnosed or misclassified1. In fact, as many as 46% of children with reading problems and 30% of children diagnosed with ADHD suffer from a perceptual processing problem known as Irlen Syndrome2. Irlen Syndrome is not identified by current educational, medical or psychological testing, leaving many children to fall through the cracks.

What Is Irlen Syndrome?

In her book, The Irlen Revolution, Helen Irlen describes the disorder she first identified in 1980 while working under a federal research grant. Children with Irlen Syndrome see distortions on the printed page or suffer from discomfort such as eye strain, headaches, stomachaches, or fatigue when reading, writing, copying, and doing math. Fluorescent lights, bright lights, black print on white paper, computers, iPads, and whiteboards can be particularly problematic; and many children with Irlen Syndrome describe feeling distracted or fidgety and having a decreased ability to focus, attend, and comprehend. Because Irlen Syndrome creates problems with reading and attention, it’s no wonder it is often mistaken for dyslexia and ADHD.

The sensory modulation difficulties associated with Irlen Syndrome also affect at least 30% of the children on the autism spectrum3. Children with sensory modulation disorder may have issues with lights, patterns, and other visual stimuli. They live in a fragmented distorted world, seeing only bits and pieces at a time, instead of the whole. They may see faces as distorted or scary. For individuals on the autistic spectrum, all of these perceptual issues can be related to Irlen Syndrome.

A Problem With The Brain, Not The Eyes

The core issue with Irlen Syndrome is a hypersensitivity to visual information. Visual information is processed and interpreted by the brain. For those with Irlen symptoms, the brain cannot accurately or comfortably make sense of the information, and this creates an environment or print like an optical illusion. As a result, the child experiences a variety of issues from blurry or moving print to physical symptoms like eye strain, fatigue, and headaches. Students may struggle to read, avoid reading, or report that reading “hurts;” and the discrepancy in their reading ability and their performance may lead them to be wrongly labeled as dyslexic. For others, inattention, fidgetiness, and inability to focus under certain lighting conditions or during visually-intensive activities can be mislabeled as ADHD. Distortions on the printed page or in the environment can make it difficult for students to stay focused and pay attention or make it difficult to comprehend what they’re reading. Children whose inability to stay focused seems isolated to academic tasks (i.e., who have no problem attending during fun activities) may actually have Irlen Syndrome.

The Irlen Brain

Inherited or Acquired: Pay Attention to the Symptoms

Most children inherited this problem from one or both parents who inherited the condition from their parents. So, Irlen can be passed on from generation to generation. Others can acquire Irlen from a head injury, concussion, whiplash, or it can accompany autoimmune conditions. Whatever the cause, the symptoms can significantly affect performance and achievement.

How Do You Know If It’s Irlen Syndrome?

  • Light Sensitivity: sensitivity to bright or fluorescent lights, prefers to read in dim lighting, wears sunglasses outside in bright sunlight, bothered by glare, and even headlights at night
  • Print Distortions: words on the page lack clarity and stability or are uncomfortable to look at, words may be blurry, shaky, move, dance, float, swirl, fade, or individuals may be bothered by the glare of the white background
  • Physical Symptoms: reading, visual activity, or fluorescent lights cause eyes to hurt, burn, or feel itchy, scratchy, tired or sleepy. Your child may rubs his eyes, move closer to the page, become fidgety or restless, look away from the page, or complain of headaches, stomachaches or other physical symptoms.

A Non-Invasive, Research-Based Solution

Irlen Syndrome is best addressed through the use of colored overlays and precision-tinted Irlen® Spectral Filters (worn as glasses). Over 30 years ago, Helen Irlen discovered that individualized colors were able to filter out the offensive wavelengths of light creating stress on the brain. This allows brain function to normalize and distortions and discomfort to disappear. The solution is non-invasive, and the changes in brain function and performance are immediate. To date, more than 200 scientific studies document the success of this method for addressing symptoms associated with Irlen Syndrome.

For More Information about Irlen Syndrome, to take a self-test, and to learn how color can help, visit irlen.com.

Sandra Tosta, PhD, holds a Bachelor of Science in Human Development from Cornell University and a PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative primary research in both corporate and academic settings. As a senior researcher at the Hypothesis Group for nearly a decade, she focused on research related to children and education. She has authored a variety of papers on Irlen Syndrome and related topics and contributed a chapter on parenting in a multimedia society in Marc Bornstein’s Handbook of Parenting: Volume 5. She currently serves as head of research for the Perceptual Development Corporation at the Irlen Institute International Headquarters.

Helen L. Irlen, MA, LMFT is an internationally recognized educator, researcher, therapist, scholar, and expert in the area of visual-perceptual problems. She is a graduate of Cornell University and has been in the field of education for the past 40 years. Her background includes 15 years as a School Psychologist, 30 years as a Child and Family Therapist, Educational Therapist, founder and Director of the Adult Learning Disabilities Program and Assistant Professor of Adult Learning Disabilities at California State University/Long Beach, instructor in psychology at Cornell University, and research assistant at Cornell. She is the author of Reading By The Colors and The Irlen Revolution. Her work has been reported in textbooks on learning disabilities in Australia and England, and the Irlen Method has received international exposure through National Geographic, newspaper articles, magazine articles, and television documentaries.

There are over 140 affiliated Irlen Centres worldwide, and over 7,000 educators have been trained in the Irlen Method.


  1. Loew, S. J., & Watson, K. (2013). The prevalence of symptoms of scotopic sensitivity/Meares-Irlen syndrome in subjects diagnosed with ADHD: Does misdiagnosis play a significant role?. Hrvatska revija za rehabilitacijska istraživanja, 49 (Supplement), 64-72.
  2. Robinson, G.L., Hopkins, B., & Davies, T. (1995). The incidence of Scotopic sensitivity syndrome in secondary school populations: a preliminary survey. The Bulletin for Learning Disabilities, 5, 36-56.
  3. Irlen, H. (2012). A sensory intervention for visual processing deficits using precision colored filters. Autism Science Digest: The Journal of AutismOne, 04, 94-102.

2 Responses to Misdiagnosis of Dyslexia and ADHD Leaves Kids Struggling: How to Know When Irlen Syndrome is the True Cause of Academic Struggle

    • rwirtz

      May 13, 2015 at 7:33 am

      What an important topic. So glad to hear from you. I used cover overlays (and colored glasses) for many years with certain kids and it made a huge difference. I read Helen Irlen’s Reading By the Colors and it was a life changer. I still have more I am learning. Labeling kids may be helpful in some cases, but I always believed many labels were incorrect and damaging kids.

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