Dyslexia Optometry & Colour

By John Ovenden

This article looks at the use of coloured lenses in optometric practice in the treatment of the perception and reading disorders usually described as dyslexia.

The type of dyslexia that we are successfully treating with tinted spectacles or coloured overlays for use with printed material is basically an inability on the part of intelligent people of all ages to concentrate on written or printed material.

It is most noticeable when the dyslexic person reads aloud. Milder cases can read for a period before the trouble starts. It shows most with lower case print, less with capitals and numbers and rarely with reading music, however we have had cases who play the wrong note.

As an adviser, look for those who seem much brighter than their work with the reading of printed material would suggest. Variation has been noted from complete inability to read through to minor defects of visual muddle and fatigue, even where eye function appears to be perfect on a normal eye test. The percentage ratios of dyslexic to other patients we have noted are:

  Female Male
Dyslexic diagnosis
Other clients

(See also Scientific American Sept, 92 p80 for similar results.)

Where the presenting symptoms are of written spelling problems with good reading, colour does little to help. These people need tutoring with explanations of why English spelling is so erratic. They may also need physical education training.


Many in the community think of dyslexia as a dirty word. This is because old methods of dealing with the problem had almost zero success, and even with some improvement the stress and the time involved was substantial.

John Ovenden, L.O.Sc, has carried on the business established by his father in Melbourne some 50 years ago. His interest in dyslexia and its relief dates back 10 years or so when he first encountered the need to assist clients' families in coping with this complaint.

In severe cases print appears to sufferers to move on the page, both horizontally and vertically, and up from the plane of the paper - in their mind, not in their eyes. Words and letters appear to turn upside down or into mirror images. Light and dark patterns move between words in an odd way, sometimes even the zig-zag and castellation patterns associated with migraine; words jump places; glowing valleys appear in the area of attention; and coloured spots occur - moving or stationary. Some initially tend to write lefthanded, mirror-image, or upside down, and even to pronounce words in reverse. For those who misread letters, the big problem is with lower case: b, p, d, q, h, y, m, w, c, n, u; with numbers, 6, 9, 4, 7, 2, 5.

The common handwriting of "a" and "g" also give trouble. Many patients make wrong additions or elisions (suppression) of plural endings, past tenses, participles, etc and even complete readings such as "drive' from "drivelling", "burst" from "outburst" or "disturb". Some sound short words as completely inverted or reversed, eg. was-saw, sam-mas, but put-tup tub, dog-god, pog-gop, hell-yell, etc.

But the child knows that the words are wrong even as they are spoken or 'seen' in the mind, and so is embarrassed, unhappy or sometimes hyperactive and a trouble maker. The dyslexic also has a poor memory for printed material, poor handeye coordination, missing words when reading, and confusion of left and right. This latter symptom is typical of left-handers who were forced to be right-handers. Stuttering can also be associated with this latter problem as well as non-recognition of faces (prosopognosia). Others read quite well for a while without the reversals, then develop many of the symptoms of true migraine, even though their eyes are almost perfect. As explained below, use of colour in the image is one of the few things that clears this problem.

Several of our adult patients say their reading is still confined to technical books - where the short connecting words are less important, because the big words give the general meaning. One said he looked for a novelist who used longer words than others.

Another client who dropped out -of school, unable to read, gained entEy to a university 30 years later, after 6 mdnths using colour. We gained the impression that the more the above symptoms are present, the greater the degree of success with tints. Note that many patients can read quite well for 5 to 15 minutes before trouble starts, and then can choose a helpful tint to provide an immediate response.

The worst cases have never read more than a word or two, and need tutoring to catch up. Despite this weakness, many can write quite well. Similar problems amongst family members indicate that dyslexia is genetically related. The condition probably affects up to 5% of the population.


Some 30 years ago at a teachers' college lecturer Miss Tobias was advising a method similar to the one we are using. However she was ridiculed by the educational establishment of the time. She abandoned the method and went back to the old labour-intensive, time consuming but still unsuccessful methods of treating dyslexia. She even pushed the old idea of making left-handers use their right hand.

Many remedial teachers in France used coloured cellophane overlays of a few simple colours in their work. Dr. Helen Irlen, of California, who admits knowing of this French method, improved upon it enormously by using coloured spectacle lenses in a wide range of the spectrum. And she obtained good publicity for this greatly improved method. Unfortunately her way does not allow for more complex mixes, and also, held in front of the patient's eyes as 'trial' lenses, every scratch on her soft surfaced lenses produces distraction and irritation, marring a good response. She also made no provision for the type of visual errors we hove found. She needed optometric or ophthalmological advice. (This has now been forwarded to her in person by one of her first Australian patients.)

We have found that placing continuous tone coloured transparencies flat over a book, as Miss Tobias originally suggested (imperfections or scratches do not appear to concern the reader) gives an immediate response. One can sit opposite and watch for the smile. Light conditions should be average as in a classroom or office. The transparencies are those used-for theatre lighting and can be precisely defined by name, number and absorption graph. Modern photographic arts laboratories can produce these accurately to meet a particular specification. Figure 1 shows a typical pattern of available transparencies. Supplies of high accuracy, some with scratch-resistant coatings, are available from several studios.

These transparencies should preferably be stored in the dark. Many of the tints from these suppliers seem nearly identical but even the small differences are important to the patient.
The scratch resistant coating absorbs 96% of UVA and 100% of UVB. Laboratories can get the identification swatches and buy all the dyes and equipment. In making spectacles, some yellows and a few dull tints can be matched in an excellent scratch resistant Permaguard, Sola for example, but a lot of the brighter colours must be tinted onto ordinary perspex lenses, then hard-coated with lensguard or similar

In a few cases we have found that a tin modification after several months gave the patient further assistance.

Case Records

To 19 we have seen 3,120 genuine cases in our rooms, plus many who were not true cases but were interested in trying - such as cone dystrophies, undeveloped maculas, epileptics, migraines, faulty squint surgery, and naturally slow readers of low IQ. Of the "not true cases" with different signs and symptoms, some do feel better with the color therapy.

For the main group it is best if there has been a positive response to testing by educational psychologists. (These practitioners can be found in the Yellow Pages under Educational Consultants or Psychologists).

Our firm does a very detailed optometric examination and supplies tinted scratch resistant prescription spectacles. In 1993 the average price for these was around $200 including frames and lenses. Refunds of around two thirds of the purchase price are allowed should the client consider the results are negative within six months.

Note that in using colour treatment, many cases show notable improvement in stereoscopic vision and hence coordination, thus improving their sporting abilities as a bonus.

Reviewing our records we gained the following impressions. The proportion of left-hand, left-eye or mixed dominance is well over three times the quoted community figures. I wonder whether there are more left-handers in the community than current tests reveal. Most of these people in our experience seem to be of above average intelligence. Slow and difficult reading as a result of low intelligence has different signs and symptoms, and colour does little for them.

We have seen the usual proportion of colour-defective males, about 8½%, with similar results to the normals, and with a similar graph of colours chosen. After all, the colour-blind still perceive colour via the brain, even if not as 'normals' do.

Case Studies

A: 9½ year old with nearly perfect eyesight and bright green lenses, read to family and class within her first week, and reported that she could jump off the verandah because she knew how for away the ground was and that the country-side was hills and valleys instead of flat like a painting.

D: Barrister, memorised everything heard, confessed to having the same problem as his daughter, whom we had cured. Perfect vision; got yellow specs and returned in a week to thank us as he could read notes handed up in court!

B: Computer Engineer, 43, never read and 20-30 severe migraines per year since teens, after two years can read anything and hasn't had a migraine since the first day.

For the value of using an overlay only for young boys for a trial, consider Master 0, age 8½, who refused to wear spectacles. His mum bought him a sheet of his chosen pale straw yellow, and in three weeks he came for glasses because he had enjoyed reading aloud to his class.

Miss H, age 12, severe case, almost perfect vision, very bright blue lenses, starts reading within 2 days, prefers to wear specs full time as the words are larger and more distinct.

L family of four, all non readers, eyesight almost perfect. I child prescribed amber lenses, the other rose, and the parents both bright yellow. Have had many excellent reports from them.

Research and References Research papers associated with brain behaviour and areas of colour processing in the brain have appeared in the medical and scientific literature. Some of these are listed in the reference list which concludes this article.

Recent research proves that V4 areas of the striate cortex, both right and left, are involved, as well as the areas of handedness, colour, art, humour and facial recognition.

A reflection

It is interesting to note that print has existed for only 4 to 5 thousand years out of humanity's millions of years, and has become an absolute necessity only for the last few decades. It is reasonably certain that we are totally stressing an area that was previously used for verbal information and sounds, sagas, family and tribal history and relationships, descriptions of geography and the like, all acquired by listening. There are bound to be some cases that do not accept this new use of the brain.

I must report that we do seem to see a very high proportion of broken families and similar emotional problems and stresses amongst our clients and some respond better to counselling in this area than to colour treatment.

The dyslexics we have assisted appreciate that it is o"one stop" solution good for many years at a low cost.

The accompanying case studies are a small selection of the types of problems assisted by the use of coloured lenses.


  • Nature Vol.340, p386.
  • New Scientist, 26.8.89 Eyecare April 90
  • New Scientist 25.11.89, p14. Insight May 90, p4.
  • Paxionos and Tork (University of NSW), New Scientist, 9.2.91 pp17,39.
  • Natural Superiority of the Left Hander, De Kay (Angus & Robertson)
  • New Scientist 16.5.92, p.14 New Scientist 30.1.93, pp.4,26 New Scientist 27.2.93, p14
  • New Scientist Supplement 5.12.92 and 10.4.93, p.32 Scientific American, Sept. 1992, pp42,80
  • Tinted Lenses in the Treatment of the Reading - Disabled, Lea & Harley, Aust. Inst. of Health Feb. 90.
  • Clinical and Exp. Optometry, MayfJune 88. Optometry and Physiol Optics, July 87. NVRF Newsletter, May 88. AOA Continuing Educ., May 89.

From LIFEWISE magazine June 1994