Could You Have Irlen Syndrome And Not Know It? with Helen Irlen

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

Although Irlen Syndrome is a common condition, it’s rarely properly diagnosed. In the final episode of a series on Irlen Syndrome, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen are joined by Helen Irlen for a final in-depth discussion on the process of diagnosing and treating Irlen Syndrome.

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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warriors Way podcast. I'm Doctor Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. In our podcast we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
Dr Daniel Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years, using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit
Tana Amen: The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to
Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome back. We are here with Helen Irlen. We are talking about the Irlen Syndrome, visual processing issues and one of my favorite all time stories is a woman came to see us at Amen Clinics who had what I call the whole trinity of Amen Clinics, which is ADD, anxiety, and depression. We see a lot of that and through our intake questionnaire, we went, "Oh, she probably has Irlen."
And so we sent her over to your center in Long Beach and just by random chance, you believe in random chance, my sister was over there with one of my nephews because there are a number of people in my family that has this and I got a call. I'm in with a patient and so I ignored the call from my sister and then like a minute later, she called me again. And then when she called me again, I though, my mother had died. So I'm like, "What?" And she said, "You can't believe what just happened." I'm like, "What just happened." She said, "This woman you sent over to the Irlen Center, when she put on the glasses, the bookcase came out from the wall. The doorknob came out from the door and she saw a guy walk by who had a pot belly and she blurts out pot belly, because she had never seen it because she really wasn't fully seeing in 3D, so her depth perception was off." I'm like, "Wow."
So I called you and I then went, "Let's scan her tomorrow." And she had a very busy brain, especially where I have sort of pinpointed the Irlen Syndrome, it's the posterior insular cortex. So the insular cortex runs right between the frontal and temporal lobes, but the back part of it is involved in visual processing. But for her, her whole brain calmed down and I'm like so excited because I love success stories. But a week later she came back and she was clinically depressed, and I'm like, oh my God, and I didn't know the rest of the story, that when she was 12 years old, she was prodigy guitar player and she was really good and was giving concerts but she couldn't learn to read music because whenever she would read music, the notes would move or dance on the page. At the age of 12, she took her guitar by its throat and broke it and never played again and this is 30 years ago because now she's 42 and the reason she got depressed is she began to mourn the loss of what could have been if somebody would have known what she had.
Now that is not a Prozac moment. That's a moment to help her mourn the loss and then get to the place of gratitude for, I'm not gonna have to do this anymore, suffer with it. My children are not gonna have to suffer with it and so on. I know you hear stories like that.
Helen Irlen: It's interesting how many of our adults, when we get them the right color and things calm down and they realize what it should be like, cry. And what their crying is, it's an immediate, physical reaction. They're mourning the loss of whatever it is. The career that they could have gone into.
Just like you, I had a musician who came in and I said, "What do you do?" He said, "I tune pianos." I said, "Is that what you've always done?" He said, "No, I was really gifted and I was even asked to go out on tour with Peter, Paul, and Mary, those of you who are [crosstalk 00:04:46].
Dr Daniel Amen: Now we are.
Helen Irlen: Any way, and he said, "I had to give it up. I couldn't site, read music." And when I put his right color down or the right color combination of overlays down on a music page for him, he went, he said, "The notes aren't supposed to be moving in time to the music?" And then he realized he gave up a whole career of his life just like you said.
Tana Amen: The things go through my head now, and I have no idea if I have this, but I'm beginning to wonder. So, the thing is, for people listening, if you're a little like me, I'm one of those people who's like, extreme take responsibility type of person, hard charging, just do it, make it work and so when somethings not working perfectly, it takes me a little time because I'm like, okay just deal with it.
But then, even with ADD, which I just thought was complete nonsense until I really realized what I meant and what it is and how much it can effect your life, and then I realized my mom has ADD from hell and how much different my life could've been, and then when I even saw my own, I'm like, I have a pretty successful life but what I really realized, "Wow, that doesn't mean that I'm at my potential." Or even though maybe I did some really cool things, it didn't need to be that hard.
Helen Irlen: Yeah, it's how much extra. I have girls especially, who will put in that extra energy and effort. They'll stay up 'till two, three in the morning in high school to get the reading done, to finish their homework, and then they get to college and by the first semester, they feel like they're a year behind because now they can't just stay up until two and three in the morning and work weekends. It's not enough for them. And then they get misdiagnosed; anxiety and depression and put on medication.
Dr Daniel Amen: Medication can actually make it worse.
Helen Irlen: Exactly.
Tana Amen: And one last question.
Dr Daniel Amen: Then multiple medications because it's not working.
Helen Irlen: That's not working, so let's do more. Right?
Tana Amen: So one last practical question for people, Helen. Is when they come in to get screened and you're finding these colors for them, do they need to come in with their own prescription ready, or do you actually test for a prescription as well.
Helen Irlen: No. That we leave to the vision specialist. We're not vision specialist. They need to see their optometrist and ophthalmologist and they've had to take care of their vision first, remember. 'Cause the brain, that's why you have an occipital low, right and the visual cortex. That's 'cause it has to read and process the visual information.
Tana Amen: So you just put the color over?
Helen Irlen: We add it to the prescription if they wear a prescription.
Tana Amen: Okay. That's what I needed to know.
Helen Irlen: Absolutely.
Dr Daniel Amen: So what else do people need to know? So, they're self tests. If you're irritable, if you have reading problems, depth perception.
Tana Amen: You get tired.
Dr Daniel Amen: You have problems with night driving.
Helen Irlen: Night driving we hadn't mentioned. Absolutely.
Dr Daniel Amen: The lights bother you.
Helen Irlen: If fluorescent lights bother you.
Dr Daniel Amen: One of my doctors has this and whenever, like we're gonna go have lunch together afterwards and the road's going to be dark, and I'm like, "Put on your glasses."
Tana Amen: It drives me crazy when I go to my sisters house and it's completely dark. I need light. I'm the opposite. Oh my god, I can't see anything.
Helen Irlen: But you have two profiles. The majority of the population needs and works under dimmer lighting and prefers dimmer lighting but we have a smaller group that prefers these brighter lights. If you don't have the problem, it doesn't matter whether it is dim light or bright light.
Tana Amen: I don't like fluorescent, but I do need light.
Helen Irlen: Yeah, and fluorescent is a big issue. And where do you go today that you aren't under fluorescent lighting? And you think about all the triggers, and all the environmental triggers that trigger this, that's the classroom environment. You're reading on black on white. You're under fluorescent lighting. You have to do it for longer and longer periods of time to be successful and they don't know to complain because everyone else around them looks like they're being successful. It just effects so many areas of their lives that you talk about.
Tana Amen: Can you get contacts?
Helen Irlen: Yes. You're processing all of this, I can tell. And we only tend to [inaudible 00:09:13] a portion so it doesn't change the color of your eyes.
Tana Amen: Oh, interesting.
Helen Irlen: So a lot of professionals choose to wear the contacts.
Tana Amen: I actually don't like them, but I know a lot of people who would want to.
Helen Irlen: To wear contact lenses.
Dr Daniel Amen: Especially children because a lot of kids, they don't want to wear glasses. They don't want to be different. How do you help them.
Helen Irlen: It's harder with children. Part of it for me is the fact when there's a big difference between being successful and unsuccessful. If you wear them, you explain it, so we like the children or the parent or someone to go in and explain it to the class. Everyone looks at it and goes, "Okay. I understand. I get it." And then they don't get teased anymore.
I had one football player I saw on campus and he must have been wearing orange lenses that were even brighter than these lenses and I said, "How do you deal with it?" He goes, "Nobody fools with me." So we have to teach the kids that this is really important. Sometimes I'll play with it and say, "Fine, use it at home. Use it to work when you're doing your homework and when you're taking tests, if you don't want to feel different." Sometimes I put it back on the parent. I had one child I saw three times. Without his Irlen filters, he read at a third grade level. With his Irlen filters, he read where he was. At a seventh grade level.
Tana Amen: Oh, interesting.
Helen Irlen: That you can't play around with.
Dr Daniel Amen: It's a medical issue.
Helen Irlen: So mom brought him back in and he wasn't wearing them and I said, fine. And he's kind of a chunky kid and I knew he liked to eat. I said, "Well you know what, I've seen you twice now for the same reason. You refuse to wear your own filters. We've proved both times to you how significant it is. How would you like to come live with me 'cause at my house, if you don't wear your Irlen filters, you don't get to eat dinner." And never saw him again.
Dr Daniel Amen: All right. Thank you so much for being with us. Go to learn a lot more about Helen's work. Do you have the Irlen Syndrome? What you can do about it. They have contact centers all over the world.
Tana Amen: If you're enjoying the Brain Warrior's Way podcast, please don't forget to subscribe so you'll always know when there's a new episode and while you're at it, feel free to give us a review or five star rating as that helps others find the podcast.
Dr Daniel Amen: For more information, give us a call at 855-978-1363.