Have you ever thought about how your eyes work? Most of us are lucky enough where our eyes work without ever needing to think about them. While wearing your appropriate optical correction, if required, no matter where you look, you see. There is no conscious thought required. Using a series of visual efficiency and visual processing skills, our eyes and brain work together to take in and process everything around us. Seeing requires good visual acuity, but vision requires a complex network of integrated skills to use the information our eyes send to our brains. To appreciate this process's complexity, think about what happens when driving a car.
First, you need to see clearly to read road signs and directions, but seeing clearly is just the tip of the iceberg. You also need to use your peripheral vision to see objects on your sides while still looking ahead. Good depth perception is necessary to accurately judge the distance of other vehicles and persons away from your car and changing lanes while driving. We use eye movement skills such as fixating on objects, scanning objects in the side vision, and following objects (tracking) as they move in the visual field are essential for driving. Our eyes need to change focus from a distant object to a near one to change focus quickly and easily from the dashboard or other items in the car to the road. At the same time, the visual information needs to coordinate with information from different parts of the body. The brain uses information the eyes perceive to initiate reactions like eye-hand coordination and visual-auditory compatibility. When you first get your driver's permit, driving seems like a near-impossible task trying to pay attention to everything all at once. It makes you anxious and exhausted by the time you reach your destination. Eventually, it gets easy. On a familiar drive, you can make it to your destination and not be able to recall a single event that occurred.
It is not a surprise that eyesight is also essential in the classroom. Your child needs to see clearly what is written on the board and their desk. Each time they switch from the board to their paper, they need accurate eye tracking, eye focusing, and teaming skills to keep their place and maintain clear eyesight. They must pay attention to what is written on the board and what the teacher says while writing and summarizing notes in their notebook. Visual perceptual skills are needed to sort through this information to determine what is important enough to write down and actively connect to previous knowledge for learning to occur. The brain uses visualization skills to turn abstract written and spoken language into more easily remembered pictures. Visual-spatial skills are necessary to organize writing on lines with equal spaces, prevent letter reversals, and line up math problems. Like driving a car, all these skills and more must happen without conscious awareness to learn efficiently.
So, what happens when development does not go exactly as planned? For about 25% of children, each day in the classroom feels like their first-time driving. The simple act of seeing takes effort and decreases the brain power available to process the information being taught. Taking notes requires the desperate need to write everything on the board down without being able to process what they are writing. Writing requires actively thinking about how the letters are formed, difficulty remembering and organizing what to write, and difficulty writing on the line and spacing letters. Reading is a battle to keep their place and their attention. The brain is working on overdrive, often leaving the child frustrated, anxious, and tired.
If your child is struggling in school, exhibiting frustration, dislikes school or reading, or is otherwise not reaching their potential, a functional vision problem may be the cause. Understanding how complex our visual system is can help parents understand there may be another, less commonly known cause for their struggles. Even if they have had an eye exam and were told they have “perfect” vision or if they currently wear glasses, schedule a developmental vision evaluation. If there are deficiencies in your child’s visual efficiency and visual processing, vision therapy can change your child’s life.