Westminster mother Anna Lipka had always sensed something was interfering with her daughter Adrianna’s academic performance. Yet, none of the professionals who tested Adrianna could find anything out of the ordinary.
“I knew she was very smart — she talked at 16 months and could memorize all the books I read to her,” Lipka said. But when she started school, it was clear to both Lipka and Adrianna’s teacher that the child was having trouble focusing and keeping up with early-reading skills and handwriting lessons.
“Adrianna was a very social, happy child, and one day when I picked her up from pre-K, she came out crying. ‘Mommy,’ she told me, ‘they kept showing me these papers [flashcards] and I couldn’t see them.”
An eye examination showed that Adrianna had 20/20 vision, and enrollment in a remedial reading program didn’t prove helpful. By the time Adrianna was in the third grade, Lipka was deeply concerned. Desperate for answers, she called a friend who was a special educator.
“She started asking me some questions about Adrianna and then said, ‘I think she might have Irlen Syndrome,’” Lipka recalled.
According to local occupational therapist and special educator Sho-shana Shamberg, difficulty with reading or opting to read in dim light, poor handwriting, difficulty copying from the blackboard, attentional problems, clumsiness, headaches and even nausea are some of the symptoms that may be caused or exacerbated by a syndrome known as scotopic sensitivity or Irlen Syndrome.
Identified in 1981 by Helen Irlen, an educational psychologist, the syndrome is believed to be a problem with the way the brain perceives visual stimuli and responds to light rather than an optical defect.
Shamberg and other proponents of the Irlen Method say people with Irlen Syndrome may find that words look blurry, may have difficulty tracking, may experience double vision and sensitivity to light (especially fluorescent light) and may bump into things or have trouble catching a ball. They believe that many children and adults who suffer from these symptoms and are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, sensory-processing disorders and autism may be helped by colored acetate overlays placed over pages of text as well as by eyeglasses or contacts with colored lenses called spectral filters (Irlen Method), which were developed by Irlen. The lenses come in 120 colors, which are available in thousands of hues. Shamberg said that of 400 clients she has tested in the past six years, she has rarely seen anyone respond to the same color combination.
Shamberg first saw the Irlen Method at work 10 years ago when she sat in on an Irlen Syndrome screening exam.
“My friend’s son had been experiencing terrible headaches at school, so she had him screened for Irlen Syndrome,” said Shamberg. “As I watched the testing, I saw him become more alert and less pained.”
Later, her friend reported that the frequency and intensity of her son’s headaches had decreased by 80 percent, and he was performing well in school. After training to become an Irlen screener, Shamberg saw even more dramatic results.
Heather Dorst of Columbia brought her son, Eli, to be assessed by Shamberg when he was 14 years old. Eli had been having trouble processing information at school, and no one had been able to detect the cause of his difficulties. While he was being tested for Irlen Syndrome, Dorst realized that she shared many of her son’s visual processing problems. This wasn’t surprising to Shamberg who said that Irlen Syndrome frequently runs in families. In her practice, she has seen three generations of sufferers.
After both Dorst and her son were tested, each began wearing Irlen glasses.
“The first thing I noticed was that before I wore the glasses I had not been seeing things three-dimensionally,” said Dorst. “They also made reading easier, and my eye strain diminished.”
Dorst said her son uses the glasses at school.
“When he doesn’t have them he gets bad headaches and has difficulty focusing. I wish we had started this earlier,” she said.
Mike and Karen Topolosky and their daughter, Ashley, are also big fans of the Irlen Method.
“It was like night and day,” said Karen Topolosky. “All of her life, Ashley (now 19 and in college) could barely read. She also had poor depth perception. Everything appeared flat, but everyone who tested her said that nothing was wrong. [The glasses are] phenomenal. We call them her magic glasses.”
When Adrianna Lipka was screened for Irlen Syndrome the results were similar.
“I remember the first time she tried them on,” said her mother. “All the trees used to droop to one side and her perceptions of near and far were off. She was always very klutzy and even read in the closet because she liked the darkness. All of these kids with Irlen Syndrome think they’re dumb, and it’s ruined their lives. I wish more people knew about it.”
Shamberg said that around 50 percent of children and adults with reading, learning or attention problems have Irlen Syndrome. While Shamberg doesn’t claim that the Irlen Method is the solution for all, she believes it is for some. And even among those who have issues that cannot be entirely solved by Irlen lenses or overlays, Shamberg said that these tools can make it easier for managing underlying or related problems.
But not everyone believes in the efficacy of the Irlen Method. Although Shamberg points to at least 54 studies that show the benefits of Irlen, some physicians, neuropsychologists and professional organizations have said there is no clear scientific evidence that Irlen Syndrome exists as a separate entity from other recognized ophthalmological diagnoses or that the Irlen Method works.
“The bottom line is that proponents have never demonstrated the scientific validity of their claims,” said Dr. Steven Novella, assistant professor of neurology at Yale University and executive editor of the journal “Science-Based Medicine.”
Novella argued that Irlen Syndrome is not distinct from other recognized ophthalmologic disorders. When asked about the research that the Irlen Method community cites, Novella insisted that the data they present has been “cherry-picked” to support their claims.
Dr. Anna Maria Wilms Floet, a behavioral developmental pediatrician at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, conferred.
“It sounds too good to be true and just doesn’t add up,” she said, citing a joint technical report by the American Pediatric Academy, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Academy of Pediatric Ophthalmologists and the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.
“Scientific evidence does not support the claims that visual training, muscle exercises, ocular pursuit-and-tracking exercises, behavioral/perceptual vision therapy, ‘training’ glasses, prisms and colored lenses and filters are effective direct or indirect treatments for learning disabilities,” the study said. “There is no valid evidence that children who participate in vision therapy are more responsive to educational instruction than children who do not participate.”
With regard to the many people who claim their Irlen glasses have been life changing, Novella said that throughout history, people have always believed in treatments not supported by real science.
“That’s the nature of human psychology. It’s the placebo effect,” said Novella.
Dr. Joseph A. Annibali, a psychiatrist at the Amen Clinic in Reston, Va., disputed the placebo theory in this case. Annibali’s daughter, Liz, has been wearing and benefiting from the lenses to control “severe and disabling” headaches for about 10 years. He noted that placebo responses usually don’t endure over time.
“At first, I was skeptical,” he admitted. “But when your kid hurts, you’re willing to try anything.”
The Annibalis had already taken Liz to other specialists, including pediatric ophthalmologists and neurologists, but she found no relief.
“The moment she got her Irlen filters, her headaches went away,” said Annibali. “It’s difficult not to become a convert.”
Wilms Floet understands that parents like the Annibalis are desperate to find help for their children, but she maintains that Irlen isn’t the answer.
“Working in the field of developmental disabilities as I do, is like the Wild West. Parents are looking for anything that might help their children. We need to educate the public and make them critical consumers,” she said.
Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter
From the Organization for Autism Research, Life Journey Through Autism: A Parent’s Guide to Research, researchautism.org/resources/parents%20guide.pdf
From the Association in Science for Autism Research, asatonline.org/treatment/evaluate.htm
From the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, nccam.nih.gov
For more information about the Irlen Method visit irlen.com. To consult with Shoshana Shamberg, OTR, MS FAOTA, visit her website at irlenvlcmd.com.