Guest Author - Kristie Melkers
Visual processing problems can be challenging to address in the child with special needs. Some children have good visual acuity, but lack depth perception. Some have functional depth perception, but losses in parts of their visual field. There are children who have use of a complete visual field some days but not others. It is not difficult to understand how challenges like these can impact learning.
Children with autism sometimes use their peripheral vision to see and interact with the world. They may use their hands or create movement with objects in the areas lateral to their eyes. This behavior is called stimming. The children are creating their own visual input for the brain to process. Peripheral vision is easier for the brain to use. In a developing child, central vision matures after peripheral vision. It is a higher order neurologic function. It demands more from the brain, resulting in fatigue for children who have visual processing problems. In the classroom, teachers may see a child approach a book with their head slightly turned to the side. They may view computer monitors with their peripheral vision. If they use their central vision for a time, they often revert to using their peripheral vision when they begin to tire.
For children who have problems with depth perception, the world can appear to be full of cliffs and sporadic holes. A tile floor that is black and white checkerboard can look like a maze with precipitous drop-offs. Add to that walls that are also tiled with black and white checkerboard and it is not difficult to understand reluctance to enter that room. Walking surfaces that have color changes, such as black asphalt to gray concrete can cause the same problem. The child may suddenly stop before the color change and tap the surface with their foot to determine if what their brain is telling them is a drop-off is really there. Navigating stairs can be difficult as well. If they try to engage their vision to look down, what they perceive is that they are descending into a drop-off. So, many children will disengage their visual system by purposefully not looking down and will use their foot to tap each step before descending carefully.
Visual discrimination can be affected as well. A child with visual discrimination problems can have trouble picking a piece of popcorn out of a bowl of popcorn. They will have difficulty isolating an individual item in a dense grouping of identical items. If reading material is cluttered, without adequate contrast between lettering or pictures and the background, the child will have a tough time making sense of it.
School districts have vision specialists that can perform a functional visual assessment for a child who has vision problems. They will then determine with the IEP team whether consultation or direct instruction is needed to support the child in the classroom. Some children who have less severe visual processing problems may not qualify for the services of a vision teacher through the school system. There are vision therapists in many cities who can evaluate the childís visual abilities and design a program of exercises that can help integrate the nervous system to function better.
Visual processing problems can impact a studentís learning, but there are many strategies and therapies that can help. For more information, talk to your childís teacher and pediatrician to see what resources are available.