Vision problems can make school a struggle

Reprinted with permission from

SEATTLE, Washington (AP) — Adam Schunke used to think he was just dumb.

Schoolwork that came easily to his friends was a monumental struggle for him. He loved making up creative stories in his head, but he hated reading and writing. His mother, Wilma Schunke, didn’t know what to do with the 15-year-old. Three years of intensive tutoring didn’t seem to help. Adam just wasn’t getting it, and she started to feel that she was the one failing.

Schunke didn’t get her hopes up when a friend recommended an optometrist who specialized in something called vision development. With glasses, which he had worn since the age of 5, Adam’s eyesight was 20-20. Surely his eyes couldn’t be the problem, Schunke thought. But she was desperate enough to try anything, so she made an appointment.

The optometrist led Adam through a series of simple tests designed to tell whether his eyes were tracking and working together properly. She held up a finger and asked Adam to follow it with his eyes. As her finger passed in front of Adam’s nose, Wilma Schunke saw her son’s eyes quiver, something she had never seen before. Clearly, something was wrong with his vision. She started to cry. “Why couldn’t someone have done this before?” she wondered. “It was such a relief. A mother’s heart hurts when your kid does not do well.”

‘I feel smarter’

Adam was diagnosed as having problems with eye movement (ocular motility) and eye teaming (binocularity). Daily vision therapy exercises — like physical therapy for eyes — and regular optometrist visits changed his life. He doubled his reading level, increased his confidence in school and dreams of becoming a zoologist or marine biologist. “I feel smarter,” said Adam, now 16 and in 10th grade. “I don’t feel so down on myself anymore.”

An estimated 10 million children in the United States suffer from problems with their vision, ranging from simple nearsightedness to more complex problems of the type that plagued Adam. Good vision, as the Schunkes learned, requires more than good eyesight. Kids who can see the blackboard perfectly may still have vision problems that make it impossible for them to read. And simple eye tests in school won’t catch many problems. In Adam’s case, when he tried to read, his eye would skip around constantly. He’d start on one line and end up reading a line several paragraphs down the page. Nothing made sense. His vision therapy consisted of a series of computer exercises that he did for about 20 minutes five days a week. One program was a picture of an arrow inside a box. Adam had to click on the location of the arrow.

At first, Wilma Schunke said, she thought the exercise looked too easy. Then she saw that Adam was clicking way outside of the box — that’s where he saw the arrow. Over time, the exercises reshaped his vision so he could locate the arrow in the box and follow words on a page.

Easy to miss

Optometrists can become board-certified in vision development after three years of practice, a course of specialized study, a written exam and an oral interview by the College of Optometrists in Vision Development. These specialists say vision development problems are often misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder. Many of the symptoms are the same, and the clues of vision problems are easy to miss. “The problems we’re talking about are more subtle, and more difficult to detect,” said Dr. Stephen Miller, executive director of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development.

Not everyone in the eye care community is convinced of the wonders of vision therapy. The American Academy of Ophthalmology, representing eye specialists with medical degrees, has issued a position paper saying, “Visual problems are rarely responsible for learning difficulties.” The academy’s doctors believe vision therapy and eye exercises can correct some eye problems, but generally won’t help kids with learning disabilities. “We feel that medically there is not good evidence that a learning disability is caused by an eye problem,” said Dr. Stuart Dankner, a pediatric ophthalmologist and a spokesman for the academy. The naysayers can’t convince parents like Wilma Schunke, who has turned into something of a vision therapy evangelist after seeing what the treatment did for her son.

“The change in him was so phenomenal,” she said. She now volunteers with a group called PAVE, Parents Active for Vision Education, and has spoken to teacher and parent groups about her son’s story.

Optometrist Dr. Nancy Torgerson treated Adam Schunke and has been working as a vision therapist for 23 years. She said both the research and the dramatic turnaround of patients like Adam convince her that it works. “That’s what I see daily, and I don’t want those kids missed and thinking they’re dumb,” Torgerson said. “I hope we can work together” with ophthalmologists, she added: “I hope we can help show them there is more to vision than eyesight.”