Ageing and Eyes

Vision-related learning problems: Are they holding your child back?

Child reading with their finger
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Experts say 80 percent of what a child learns in school is information that is presented visually. So good vision is essential for students of all ages to reach their full academic potential.

Vision problems can affect a child in several ways in the classroom — from seeing the whiteboard from the back of the room to reading a book on their desk.

Simply ruling out refractive errors is the first step in making sure your child is visually ready for school. But short sightedness, long sightedness, and astigmatism are not the only visual disorders that can make learning more difficult.

Less obvious vision problems related to the way the eyes function and how the brain processes visual information also can limit your child's ability to learn.

Visual difficulties that have the potential to affect academic and reading performance are called learning-related vision problems.

Vision and learning disabilities

Learning-related vision problems are not learning disabilities.

The term “learning disability” is a broader term used to describe neurological problems that affect how a person receives and processes information. Examples of specific learning disabilities include dyslexia, perceptual disorders and brain injury.

But certain vision problems can contribute to learning problems. A child struggling in school may have a specific learning disability, a learning-related vision problem, or both.

If you are concerned about your child's performance in school, you need to find out the underlying cause (or causes) of the problem. The best way to do this is through a team approach that may include the child's teachers, a school psychologist, an eye doctor who specialises in children's vision and learning-related vision problems, and perhaps other professionals.

Identifying all contributing causes of performance issues in school increases the chances that the problem can be successfully managed.

Types of learning-related vision problems

Vision is a complex process that involves not only the eyes but the brain as well.

Girl reading

If your child habitually places her head close to her book when reading, she may have a vision problem that can affect her ability to learn.

Bored student

Learning problems can lead to depression and low self-esteem. Seeing an eye doctor should be one of your first steps.

Specific learning-related vision problems can be classified as one of three types. The first two types primarily affect visual input. The third primarily affects visual processing and integration.

1. Eye health and refractive problems

These problems can affect the visual acuity in each eye as measured by an eye chart. Refractive errors include shortsightedness, long sightedness and astigmatism, but also include more subtle optical errors called higher-order aberrations.

Eye health problems can cause low vision — permanently decreased visual acuity

 that cannot be corrected by conventional spectacles, contact lenses or refractive surgery.

2. Functional vision problems 

Functional vision refers to a variety of specific functions of the eye and the neurological control of these functions, such as eye teaming (binocularity), fine eye movements (important for efficient reading), and accommodation (focusing amplitude, accuracy and flexibility).

Deficits of functional visual skills can cause blurred or double vision, eye strain and headaches that can affect learning. Convergence insufficiency is a specific type of functional vision problem that affects the ability of the two eyes to stay accurately and comfortably aligned during reading.

3. Visual-perceptual problems 

Visual perception includes understanding what you see, identifying it, judging its importance and relating it to previously stored information in the brain. This means, for example, recognising words that you have seen previously, and using the eyes and brain to form a mental picture of the words you see.

Most routine eye exams evaluate only the first of these categories of vision problems — those related to eye health and refractive errors. However, many optometrists who specialise in children's vision problems and vision therapy offer exams to evaluate functional vision problems and perceptual vision problems that may affect learning.

Colour blindness, though typically not considered a learning-related vision problem, may cause problems in school for young children if colour-matching or identifying specific colours is required in classroom activities. For this reason, all children should have an eye exam that includes a color blind test prior to starting school.

Symptoms of learning-related vision problems

Common symptoms of learning-related vision problems include:

  • Headaches or eye strain
  • Blurred vision or double vision
  • Crossed eyes or eyes that appear to move independently of each other (Read more about strabismus.)
  • Dislike or avoidance of reading and close work
  • Short attention span during visual tasks
  • Turning or tilting the head to use one eye only, or closing or covering one eye
  • Placing the head very close to the book or desk when reading or writing
  • Excessive blinking or rubbing the eyes
  • Losing place while reading, or using a finger as a guide
  • Slow reading speed or poor reading comprehension
  • Difficulty remembering what was read
  • Omitting or repeating words, or confusing similar words
  • Persistent reversal of words or letters (after second grade)
  • Difficulty remembering, identifying or reproducing shapes
  • Poor eye-hand coordination
  • Evidence of developmental immaturity

If your child shows one or more of these symptoms and is experiencing learning problems, it's possible he may have a learning-related vision problem.

To determine if such a problem exists, see an optician who specialises in children's vision and learning-related vision problems for a comprehensive evaluation.

If no vision problem is detected, it's possible your child's symptoms are caused by a non-visual dysfunction, such as dyslexia or some other specific learning disability. Consult an educational specialist for an evaluation to rule out these problems.

Treatment of learning-related vision problems

If your child is diagnosed with a learning-related vision problem, treatment generally consists of an individualised and doctor-supervised program of vision therapy.

Special spectacles also may be prescribed for either full-time wear or for specific tasks such as reading.

If your child also is receiving special services for a learning disability, ask the optician who is supervising your child's vision therapy to contact your child's teacher. In some cases, vision therapy and remedial learning activities can be combined, and a cooperative effort to address your child's learning problems often is the best approach.

Keep in mind that children with learning difficulties may experience emotional problems as well, such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

Reassure your child that learning problems and learning-related vision problems say nothing about a person's intelligence. Many children with learning difficulties have above-average IQs and simply process information differently than their peers.

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