Through a Faulty Lens

I once met a woman at a conference who seemed very nice. It was a big conference and comprised many of the leading lights in literacy and education. She told me she provided dyslexia tutoring and also that she was an Irlen practitioner. I expressed surprise that she would be present at an event that was clearly run by and for those who appreciated high standards of evidence.

She became a little exasperated and told me there was plenty of evidence for Irlen Syndrome and so I asked her to send it to me.

A large envelope arrived yesterday from her. It was a letter and 22 pages of ‘evidence’. I’m writing about it because it is a classic example of failure in logic, wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance all rolled into one. My intention is that what I write here will help others debate well with people who promote snake oil.

I will tell the author of the letter about this blog piece and will give her right of reply. I’m not sure I can get her to change her mind about Irlen, in fact I’m anticipating a substantial backfire effect, but there’s always hope.

She begins:

When I mentioned [to you] that we were Irlen Screeners you replied ‘I hope you don’t tell too many people that’. The truth of it is…no I don’t…

Stop right there. “No I don’t”. Why? Because deep down you know it’s shameful. When you meet highly regarded people in the field, you know they don’t support your view for a very good reason. So you don’t mention it.

She continues:
…but when I see students sitting in front of me with all the physical symptoms of visual stress…
This is not an actual thing. Visual stress is not a thing. It is a made up, arbitrary diagnosis.

…I most certainly tell them Irlen lenses might be a non-invasive solution to their problem.

That sounds unethical. I have since found out that you perform  Irlen “tests” on students without their parents’ permission and in their parents’ absence during dyslexia intervention. This isn’t okay.

Secondly, the use of “non-invasive” is sneaky. It immediately suggests to a naïve person that other interventions are invasive. It’s also a lie. Spending lots of time, money and hope on an unproven intervention is pretty invasive, if you ask me.

I also tell them to do their own research and let them know I’m here if they decide to do a screening.

And there it is: the pseudoscientific mantra of the poorly informed and willfully ignorant “do your own research”. It’s a soft-sell phrase designed to give people a false sense of control. Anti vaxxers use it all the time: “I did my own research and now I’m convinced that vaccinations cause autism.”

No. You didn’t do your own research. You didn’t go into a lab. You didn’t do a systematic review of the literature. You didn’t suspend your own bias.

When you position yourself as an expert and you offer hope to those who struggle, they will believe just about anything you say. You’d better be talking about things that help them. Coloured lenses are not that.

She continues:

If I could sit you down, with an open mind…

Thank you for the suggestion that I’m somehow closed-minded. Could it in fact be that I’m just well-informed? This is, after all, a field I’ve worked in for my entire career. It’s a subject I’ve written numerous books about. It’s a discipline I’ve studied for decades. Could it be that in fact I have a very open mind and that I’m constantly searching for things that will benefit my students and have decided to reject these products because I have logical and ethical grounds on which to do so? Where is your open mind? When you walk amongst people who you obviously regard highly, but who condemn this kind of thing, does it not cause you to question your position?

If I could sit you down, with an open mind, and tell you all the things I’ve seen and how coloured overlays or lenses have helped I’m sure you wouldn’t be so closed to it.

Please take your anecdotes and burn them. They do not equal data.

Then comes some bewildering self-foot-shooting:

Here’s the thing I don’t like about Irlen…it’s expensive. It’s a pyramid scheme-type of product and that’s the unfortunate part about it.

You want me to open my mind to a pyramid scheme. Can you actually hear yourself?

But set that aside… she pleads.

No, I don’t think that’s actually a detail worth setting aside.

…and I don’t care what you call it (Irlens, Scotopic Sensitivity, Visual Stress), colour helps (some…not all).

I don’t care what you call snake oil either. I care if you make a living selling it though. Then another admission:

It’s not an immediate fix for learning difficulties. It’s not going to make someone who can’t read able to read. It’s not going to ‘cure’ anyone.

Correct. It’s not. I’m in the business of fixing the effects of learning difficulties and helping those who can’t read learn to read. I also don’t look for ‘cures’. Why, then, are you bringing this nonsense to me?

…BUT it will calm the physical system so that one can attend to learning.

Calm the physical system. That’s not a term Stanislas Dehaene, Alison Clarke, Pamela Snow, David Kilpatrick or anyone else you’re posting selfies with uses. Are they closed minded too?

She elaborates:

You have to understand (and here’s what I think many academics don’t get) Irlen is a ‘method’ not a syndrome.

Okay, so much to unpack here. The implication is that ‘academics’ are somehow removed from the real world and their theories are merely theories. Has it occurred to you that they too have contact with students? Many of them have a teaching background. They reject certain things on a very strong basis. They get it more than most. Do you say this to their face? I’ll take a wild guess and say you probably don’t.

Also, the ‘method not a syndrome’ quote is baffling. It’s called a syndrome by the inventors of it. Are you saying you disagree with the people who made it all up? That’s an even weaker position.

Out trots another cliché:

You also made the comment that ‘there’s no research’. I wish I had a dollar for every time that’s been repeated. The fact is – there’s plenty of it. But you know as well as I do that in any type of research for every ‘pro’ article you will find an ‘anti’ article to match it.

Please don’t assume what I know. We are talking about established scientific fact, not papers written by whoever. The overwhelming consensus in the field is that coloured lenses and overlays have no place in the treatment of reading disorders. There is no convincing evidence to say otherwise. When there is, I’m all ears, because believe me, I’ll do whatever it takes to help my students. It just so happens that it’s not this.

Another assumption follows:

The research says…that one out of five students that sit in front of you and your colleagues will have a sensitivity to light [whatever the hell that means]. Would it be asking too much for you to contact the Irlen Regional Director near you and arrange a sit down? Imagine if you could be convinced.

Yes. Yes it would be too much. That’s like a Flat Earther asking me if it would be too much to sit down and try and be convinced by the regional director of the Flat Earth Society. It would be a colossal waste of time and energy.

Appeal to authority fallacy is the next step:

In his seminars, world renown [sic] Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood always mentions the likelihood of ASD and Irlens being comorbid conditions.

I don’t care what Tony Attwood says. He is capable of being wrong. Also, the term Asperger’s is controversial due to facts revealed about Hans Asperger’s work in a paper last year. You would be more convincing if you came up to date with that. Actually, you wouldn’t. Not to me anyway.

Oh…one other thought…Irlen screeners, diagnosticians and medical directors must have relevant qualifications in the educational…fields.

So? It’s not actually that hard to get a degree in education. I know lots of people with degrees in education that don’t know the first thing about learning difficulties. In fact, it’s one of my biggest peeves.

There then follow 22 pages of ‘visual stress/scotopic sensitivity/irlen articles’, in an effort to appear rigorous, thorough, convincing and overwhelming all at once. What it lacks in quality is made up for in quantity. It’s not evidence though.

Let’s have a little look, shall we?

  • I see an ‘unpublished Doctor of Philosophy Thesis’ in there. Hmm. That’s not very good.
  • What else? Oh, a ‘paper presented to the 6th Irlen International Conference’ in 2000. Nope.
  • A Korean pilot study is hardly evidence.
  • “Anatomy and physiology of a color system in the primate visual cortex”? Seriously? You think slipping that in makes you look well-read?
  • References by plainly wrong, disproven and poorly regarded Ken Goodman and Marie Clay are in there too.
  • Ugh! John Stein’s magnocellular hypothesis. No thanks!

Most of the articles in this list have been withdrawn, disproven, successfully disputed or are worthless for a variety of other reasons. Here is a systematic review, published this year.

I asked you to send me evidence. You sent me propaganda and examples of lazy thinking. I know pretty much beyond a doubt you won’t agree with me or change your mind about this. You’re just going to get angry and declare me your enemy. So be it. But if I can use your example to help one family avoid this pitfall, it’s worth it.

If, however, you do somehow wish to lead a professional life that’s aligned with the science of reading and learning, I’m sure you’ll be welcomed into that community with open arms and forgiven for your past stance. We all live and learn.

Finally, since you seem to be impressed by figures of authority in this field, I’ll leave you with a thought from the section Crank Interventions in the excellent book Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders by Caroline Bowen and Pamela Snow (the Pamela Snow you took a selfie with and commented that you were humbled to be in her presence).

Irlen appears on pages 16, 17, 178, 240-242 (it has its own sub-section in the Reading chapter and is described there as “a crafty example of disease mongering”), 288, 313, 314 and 339 of the book, and never in a positive light:

Crank interventions for children’s developmental disorders range from diets…to spectacles with coloured lenses, coloured overlays…These thrive alongside the motherlode of other pseudoscientific treatments and even ‘cures’ and ‘scientific breakthroughs’ for ADHD, ASD, ankyloglossia, apraxia, and the rest of the dictionary known conditions, as well as remedies for a number of made-up conditions: [e.g.]…Irlen…

Classically, crank interventions are marketed, spruiked and talked up to parents and professionals without a whisker of scientific evidence. Proponents often come with elaborate, authoritative-looking websites, questionnaires and online DIY assessments that hoodwink potential clients into ‘diagnosing’ their own or their children’s ‘problems’.

Am I ringing any bells for you at this point? Or do Caroline and Pam just not ‘get it’ either?

16 thoughts on “Through a Faulty Lens”

  1. Oh dear!
    This will be a very useful reference for teachers to refer parents too. I am also keeping a copy of the systematic review to refer teachers to.
    P.S. Do you know of a systematic review of behavioural optometry for reading intervention?

    1. Hi Dianna,
      Thank you for those kind words. The review is really very good, isn’t it. No, I don’t know of one for BO off the top of my head, but I’m hoping there is one!
      Lyn

  2. Shona Henderson

    WOW – what a fantastic article Lyn – SO well written! I think one of our biggest problems in education right now is this notion of ‘research’ (never mind what constitutes ‘evidence based’) – I think the the word ‘research’ is used synonymously with ‘googling’ way too much (myself included!!!!) which really, in reality, is often someone sitting passively trolling through the top 10 items that pop up in their feed (probably whilst watching their favourite Netflix show)!!!

    Further, as classroom teachers we are not qualified in every aspect of learning difficulties (we can’t possibly be) BUT it’s our job to be diligent in the classroom and look out for them and seek the appropriate help we need ALONGSIDE/WITH the parents. The burden on schools to ‘fix children’, however, is becoming more and more prevalent …. there needs to be a massive shift in culture whereby parents and educators (and specialist) work TOGETHER to help children overcome the numerous array of learning difficulties that present themselves in schools now … and of course it’s not just literacy difficulties, we have the myriad of behavioural issues, dietary disorders, mental health issues, etc, etc.

    Even though I am ashamed to admit it, the busyness of schools, the requirements to ‘cover the curriculum’, parents working full time, often dropping their children off at before school care and picking them up at after school care (but demanding that we ‘fix their children’ with little input from them other than the ‘blame game’), the fact that most public schools are now ‘main stream’ (everyone fits in …… let’s not have ‘special schools’ but at the same time ‘let’s have educators teach 27+ children in their class and expect them to differentiate and intervene with little resources to do the job properly) people like the ‘nice lady’ you met at the conference are providing band aid, quick fixes that teachers don’t often have time to properly scrutinise. The system is broken.

    Anyway, that’s my response! Thanks Lyn, Shona

    1. Thanks for that, Shona. You make some valid and important points. I do want to comment on the notion of ‘fixing’ children. What is your view of the potential impact that explicit instruction, strong, consistent behaviour policies and well-trained, well-informed teachers could have?

      For instance, if a school had teachers that understood the process of learning to read and count, who had excellent, high quality teaching tools to hand and who had a Response to Intervention approach for behaviour, literacy and numeracy, might there be less of a need to ‘fix’ children?

      The system definitely needs improving, but since teachers can’t control parents or the family circumstances of the children they teach, perhaps it would be better to focus on what they can control: i.e. their knowledge of the science of teaching and learning.

  3. Thanks for this! As a parent I’ve been tempted by the idea that overlays could be helpful. So I really appreciate this information. What about refuting the claims of those who promote the Davis method? It also seems like snake oil and parents pop up on message boards all the time claiming it cured their child.

    1. Thanks Jen. It’s certainly a tempting thought: “Imagine if a simple thing like a coloured overlay could significantly improve your child’s reading.” But I’m afraid imagining is the only thing you’d be doing.
      Yes, Davis is another scourge, I’m afraid. Are you a member of the Dyslexia Support Australia Facebook page? There would be many refutations of Davis there. You might also want to check out Code Read Dyslexia Network’s page for excellent, evidence based resources: https://codereadnetwork.org
      All the best,
      Lyn

  4. I enjoyed the article and just wanted to let you know that I have Irlen Syndrome. I use bifocals to read and see on a daily basis. When I was diagnosed by a diagnostician, i wore the dark green filters which were made up of 5 different colors. Every year my optometrist told me my sight improved slightly. The third year, he took quite a bit longer examining my eyes. He couldn’t believe that my left eye had gone from .50 to .25. and my right eye had gone from .75 to .25 Mind you, he had been seeing me for over 15 years and I had never improved that much. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that was diagnosed when I was because I thought I was going blind. I now have new lenses with only two colors and eventually I will have no colors on my lenses. I’m sure that you are very knowledgeable in your field and I respect that but know that there are some of us that live through this nightmare( because that’s what it felt like to me before getting diagnosed) and are now able understand others in this situation. I am a dyslexia teacher and therapist and work with my students in what they need. Oddly enough I have students come from out of town with colored overlays because that’s what they were given and they say it helps. If it’s in their paperwork then I must abide by that. Thank you for your work in this field.

    1. Thanks Paddy. Which part of the article did you enjoy? It seems to contradict your anecdote somewhat.

      Also, did your optometrist report his findings to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Optometry? Can I speak to him? The reason I ask is that perhaps he witnessed a breakthrough that the other optometrists of the world ought to know about. If you could provide me with his contact details I’d be keen to discuss your case.

      In the meantime, the RANZCO position statement on Irlen reads as follows:

      “1. The use of Irlen lenses in the treatment of reading difficulties is controversial
      2. There is no scientific evidence that Irlen syndrome exists or that treatment of
      reading difficulties with Irlen lenses work
      3. Irlen syndrome is not recognised by the medical community or the World Health
      Organisation (WHO)
      4. There is no documented evidence that Irlen lenses are harmful, but may divert time
      and resources away from proven strategies which help with reading e.g. explicit
      phonic instruction
      5. RANZCO does not support the use of Irlen lenses.”

      This statement is echoed by similar groups in the US and the UK. Judging by your spelling of the word ‘colour’, you are from the US or Canada. I’d still be happy to talk to your optometrist there.

      Here’s another article in the British Medical Journal referencing other optometry bodies refuting Irlen:

      https://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g4872/rr/761729

      Maybe you could contact them and tell them about your unusual case. I’d be interested to hear their response.

      Kind regards

      Lyn

  5. Hi Lyn,
    I follow you on Twitter and enjoy this debate transcription and the way you steered her (with aplomb!) towards a little more critical thinking.
    As a tutor, researcher, and advocate for families, I see the mythology PERSIST that dyslexia has something to do with the eyes!
    Parents hear school professionals say to get their vision checked, and even special education teachers (as we call them here in the U.S.) suggest colored lenses. I have seen several Dyslexia websites (all from the UK) where the home page invites the user to choose a colored overlay. What do you think of that? Also, not to veer off topic, but there are longtime discussions in IDA about Vision Therapy, and the esteemed organization continues to refute it. However, many parents say it helped their kid finally read. I have only seen VT drain bank accounts and help kids with sports.

    1. Hi Kendra,

      Thanks for your response. Yes, it’s one of those zombies that will not die!

      As for vision therapy, sounds like the sunk cost fallacy if parents are declaring it’s helping children finally read. The word ‘finally’ implies there’s been other instruction prior to the snake oil, do they not wonder if reading improvements could be a result of that?

      Kind regards,

      Beyonce

  6. If Irlen Syndrome doesn’t exist, then what is wrong with me? I have light sensitivity, get frequent headaches, have difficulty reading off a screen (I comprehend SO poorly off a screen), and visual distortions on the page. What is the alternative? I’ve been using coloured lenses and paper for years now and have begun using text to speech software to access digital texts. I’m smart and high achieving in every other way – I just cannot do the eye-strain I get when reading (I have 20/20 vision and healthy eyes according to the optometrist).

    1. Thanks for getting in touch, but I am a linguist, not a medical practitioner. I cannot answer why you have those symptoms, that’s not my job. My job is to steer desperate parents away from quack ‘interventions’ that don’t go to the heart of what causes reading failure in children. I specialise in education, not physiology. Your physical symptoms need to be addressed by a physician.

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