Edmonton Autism Society
Helen Irlen, MA, LMFT, states in her abstract for the ASA conference: “The use of colour to alleviate perceptual distortions on the printed page and in the environment began as a federal research project in 1981. Since that time, 30,000 individuals worldwide are using Irlen Coloured Filters; and many report moderate to significant improvement in reading ability, depth perception, and light sensitivity.” She goes on to explain: “The emphasis of the research for the past ten years has been on the use of the technology with the dyslexic and reading disabled population where the primary distortions are on the printed page.” Ms. Irlen points out that: “We are in the initial stages of researching the possibilities of extending this technology to the field of Autism. I am sure that not every Autistic individual will benefit from this method, so we have developed a questionnaire which will be able to provide us with the information of who can and who cannot be helped.”
The Irlen Method involved the use of precision tinted glasses, with individually chosen prisms and colour. They have been shown to aid in coping with sensitivity to light (e.g., fluorescent lights, sunlight) and sensory perceptual overload. Donna Williams was the first individual with Autism to make Helen aware of these benefits. The glasses can take away environmental overload for some Autistics and aid in their functioning in the world.
Many different problems can produce the same symptoms, whether the individual suffers from Dyslexia or Autism or just headaches and reading problems. Ms. Irlen found that of those who tried the Irlen Method, 1/3 no longer had a reading problem, 1/3 reported their reading problems had decreased, and 1/3 detected no change. Helen pointed out that appropriate screening can identify those who could benefit the most.
The original research began with adults at a university who were experiencing reading problems. They experienced such problems as: spinning words; white on the page “taking over” the print; and letters disappearing. Further investigation revealed other common difficulties, such as problems judging distances (esp. with cars), going downstairs, and catching balls in games. Because these individuals could not control these perceptual distortions, they suffered from fear, stress, and fatigue. It interfered with their thinking, hearing, speaking, and social interaction. There were gaps in their perception. It sometimes became painful and impossible to function.
In order to cope, these individuals had developed coping mechanisms. These included: touching inanimate objects (to “ground” oneself), rhythmic behaviour (to calm the system), squinting, not looking, and blinking (to stop the overload). They often had to ask others to repeat what they had just said in order to fill in the gaps in their tracking of the conversation. This, of course, interfered with their ability to engage in spontaneous conversation.
All of these characteristics are commonly found in individuals with Autism. For the Autistic, colours in the environment can be painful or can disappear. White is reported to be the worst colour to perceive (people seated on white chairs can appear to float). Many behaviours could be the result of hypo- and hypersensitivity and perceptual distortions. Sensory overload can have small to enormous effect on the person. Noises often get mixed up, and the person is unable to focus on the most important sounds. The precision tinted glasses have been found to improve the ability to focus and attend to sounds.
Children can be screened as young as 4-5 years of age. Non-verbal behaviour can be used as answers in the screening process (such as eye scrunching and abnormal tracking). Helen Irlen even suggested that perhaps auditory training results might last longer when combined with Irlen glasses.
“Seventy percent of the information an individual receives comes in through the eyes and must be correctly interpreted by the brain. Any problem in the way that the brain processes information can cause difficulties in the general ability to function.”
“The type of sensory-perceptual deficits associated with Autism are unique. These environmental distortions are varied, unpredictable, and constantly changing. For example, part of the environment may disappear or people may be seen in pieces. As a result, those with Autism may experience: alienation, poor concentration, poor social skills, low self-esteem, system overload, poor body awareness, sensory compensation, and faulty information.”
“The Irlen Method uses a patented treatment utilizing coloured filters worn as glasses to reduce or eliminate perception difficulties. The colour appears to change the rate at which information is processed by the brain and allows the brain to: see properly, see consistently, see whole instead of parts, correctly sort and match up information from the different senses, and process information. A better sense of control is felt by the individual when the sensory information is consistent, predictable, and totally correct.”