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Everything You Need to Know About the Different Names for Irlen Syndrome


You’re at a dinner table with 6 friends: a psychologist, a teacher, an optometrist, a teacher, a physician, and a neurologist. You tell them, “bright lights hurt my eyes, words move on the page when I read, and fluorescent lights give me a headache. Any chance one of you knows what my problem might be?” Much to your surprise, you get several different answers. “It’s Irlen Syndrome,” one of them says. “No, no, I think you have visual stress,” says another. The neurologist on your right says confidently, “I’m pretty sure you’re describing a visual processing problem.” The answers keep coming, “Meares-Irlen Syndrome! Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)! Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome!”


Woah, hold on. How can they all have a completely different diagnosis for the symptoms you are describing? Who’s right? The answer…they’re all right. Over the last 40 years, there have been a variety of different names used to define the cluster of symptoms that all stem from a light-based processing problem.

About 40 years ago, American psychologist, Helen Irlen, identified the symptoms of a disorder that would eventually come to bear her namesake, Irlen Syndrome. In its early years, Irlen referred to the disorder as Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, based on the belief that the primary difficulties associated with the disorder occurred when the brain tried to process light within the scotopic range of the visible light spectrum. Many people misinterpreted the label to mean scotopic vision or night vision, which confused professionals and discredited the method. As a result, researchers began calling the disorder Irlen Syndrome. Early research on the topic can still be found that uses the term Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, however. Some places in the literature also refer to the disorder as Meares-Irlen Syndrome, paying respect to Olive Meares, a teacher in New Zealand who identified similar symptoms as Helen Irlen during the same time period in the early 1980’s. Unlike Irlen, Meares did not move beyond symptom description to treatment protocols or developing methods of intervention. In recent years, optometrists introduced the term, Visual Stress in an attempt to simplify and generalize the name with the hopes to garner broader acceptance and understanding of the disorder. Academic research using the term Visual Stress also acknowledges the disorder’s other labels, Irlen Syndrome, Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, and Meares-Irlen Syndrome.


When it all comes down to it though, at its core, Irlen Syndrome is a visual processing problem (i.e., a problem with how the brain processes the visual information it receives). It is also technically a sensory processing disorder, as it involves one of the primary senses. So, don’t let the names confuse you. It doesn’t really matter what it’s called. If your brain struggles to process visual information correctly and this causes symptoms of physical discomfort or visual distortions, you probably have Irlen Syndrome, Meares-Irlen Syndrome, Visual Processing Problems, Sensory Processing Disorder, Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome, or Visual Stress. Don’t worry, the good news is that the most effective intervention for your symptoms is colored filters, no matter what you decide to call it.