Testing 15 Visual Skills May Be Key to Learning Difficulties

By Carole Hong, OD, FCOVD. First published in Parenting on the Pensinsula, August 2010 (Reprinted with Permission)

The new school year brings with it hopes, challenges, and excitement. Will this school year be different? Will the new teacher be able to motivate your child to excel at school? Will someone be able to figure out the key to getting your child to succeed in school?

When parents find out that their child is struggling in school, they attempt to help them by trying to get at the root of the problem, only to discover a complex maze with professionals disagreeing and vested interests being challenged. Many parents get overwhelmed by the conflicts and the information overload but they keep searching for answers.

According to the American Optometric Association, studies indicate that 60 percent of children identified as “problem learners” actually suffer from undetected vision problems and in some cases have been inaccurately diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Yet the majority of school-age children have never had an eye exam because they have passed vision screenings at the pediatrician or school nurse’s office. The College of Optometrists in Vision Development has set aside August as National Children’s Vision and Learning Month to help educate parents on the vital role vision plays in a child’s ability to read and learn.

According to Dr. Katherine Donovan, a psychiatrist from Charleston, S.C., “It wasn’t until my own child had problems with reading that I discovered that my medical training was missing a very valuable piece of information which turned out to be the key to helping my daughter, Lily. While I had taken Lily to many ophthalmologists and learning specialists, desperate to understand why this very bright child still could not read well, or write legibly at age 12, I always got the same answers: ‘her vision’s fine and she’s dyslexic.’”

“As a physician, I had been taught that vision therapy was controversial and could not treat learning disabilities. However, my personal experience with my daughter proved to me that vision therapy worked, when nothing else did,” Dr. Donovan shares. “While vision therapy cannot treat learning disabilities, per se, it absolutely corrected a vision problem which was blocking Lily from being able to learn. After a visit with a developmental optometrist who tested over 15 visual skills critical to reading and learning [and seeing 20/20 is just one of those visual skills], I was shocked to learn that Lily was seeing double out to three FEET—which meant that when she tried to read, the words were double. No wonder she hated to read!”

Following optometric vision therapy, “Lily now reads 300 pages a day, in her free time; she puts down ‘reading’ as her favorite hobby; and she has a 95-average at Buist Academy with NO help from me on her homework! Prior to this, I’d been spending three to four hours each night, for many years, tutoring Lily.”

Even though there is a wealth of optometric research which proves vision therapy works, as Dr. Donovan mentioned there is false information in the medical community about vision therapy. This can be confusing for parents, especially when it comes from their child’s pediatrician.

According to Dr. Joseph Manley, a physician and medical expert witness for medico-legal cases, “The conclusions (particularly the failure to recommend vision therapy for children likely to benefit from it) of the American Academy of Pediatrics report on Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia and Vision are based on exclusion of the most relevant data and inconsistent application of the Academy’s stated criteria for selecting evidence. They fail to acknowledge abundant published and anecdotal evidence supporting the use of vision therapy. This overlooked evidence includes controlled trials, observational studies, case reports, and consensus of experts—the same kinds of data that underpin the daily practice of medical professionals.”

Dr. Donovan is not alone. Martin Stone, a former New York City school teacher and attorney located in Palo Alto, ran into similar problems with his daughter Sarah. Mr. Stone shares, “Even though she was very bright she worked much too hard to read and write in both English (left to right) and Hebrew (right to left). Given my background in learning disabilities (M.Ed) I took her for several evaluations, but no one ever found anything wrong. I remained suspicious, however. Then, as I was dropping her off for her SAT’s, she asked if I had a ruler. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘The letters jump around sometimes,’ she said, ‘and a ruler makes it easier to read.’”

After speaking with their family optometrist, they were referred to Family Vision Care for a program of optometric vision therapy. Once vision therapy was completed, her father happily reported, “Her spelling is better, reading is easier, and she finds life generally more fun with less effort. And her previously excellent grades are even better! Imagine how many neurons she had been wasting!”

Optometric vision therapy treats vision problems that make reading and learning difficult. While vision therapy does not treat dyslexia, vision problems can often be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities such as dyslexia or even ADHD. Once the vision problem is treated, tutoring and other educational remedies are much more successful.

Since not all eye doctors test for learning-related vision problems, it is important for parents to ask the right questions. Call your eye doctor’s office and ask the following two questions:

1. Do you test for learning-related vision problems?

2. Do you provide an in-office vision therapy program when indicated, or will you refer me to someone who does?

If the answer is no to either one or both of these questions, visit the Web site for the College

of Optometrists in Vision Development, www.covd.org, to find a developmental optometrist near you.

Carole L. Hong, OD, FCOVD, board certified in vision development, has been practicing in San Carlos for over 15 years. She is an expert in children’s vision, vision and learning, and treatment of vision problems for those with autism spectrum disorders, other developmental disabilities, head injury, and stroke. She can be reached at (650) 593-1661 or email@familyvisioncare.org.