By Stefanie Santos McLeese
Eighty percent of what children learn is through their eyes. As parents begin back-to-school shopping, it’s important to remember one of the most important assets to a child’s education is healthy vision.
Research from the American Optometric Association says, 1 in 4 children has an undetected vison problem that affects their ability to learn. The average school vision screening only tests for seeing clearly, not for functional vision, which includes things like tracking and focusing. Falling asleep while reading, headaches, poor handwriting, and clumsiness are all potential signs of a functional vision problem.
“Children will rarely complain of functional vision problems – even when seeing double – because the distorted vision is all they know, therefore, it’s their normal,” said Dr. Kelly Sanders, a Champaign-based optometrist, specializing in vision therapy. “Lazy eye, crossed eyes, double vision, and convergence insufficiency can all contribute to a misdiagnosis. These problems cannot be detected by recognizing alphabet letters and objects on a simple wall chart at the pediatrician’s office.”
In order to detect a functional vision problem, a patient must undergo a comprehensive eye exam by their optometrist, or someone who specializes in binocular vision, vision therapy and/or vision development.
Vision therapy is a form of physical therapy that teaches the eyes and brain how to work together. Corrective lenses simply compensate for vision problems, but vison therapy actually trains the visual system to correct itself. In some cases, children are misdiagnosed with a learning disability when there is actually a visual problem interfering with reading, learning and/or educational instruction.
“Mothers have hugged me and cried, thanking me for helping their child, saying, ‘we thought he had a learning disability; we thought we had to live with this,’” said Dr. Sanders. “But sometimes vison therapy can help with many problems children are having in the classroom and even at home.”
In somewhat clinical terms, the goal of vision therapy is to help people achieve clear, comfortable binocular vision, which is the ability of both eyes to work together to achieve proper focus, depth perception, and range of vision. However, identifying and treating functional vision disorders is not exactly routine practice. Currently, vision therapy is often not a covered benefit in many insurance programs.
Much like physical therapy, vision therapy takes place over the course of weeks, sometimes months or longer. Each case is unique and requires a specialized plan to fit the needs of each patient. A typical vision therapy program is progressive and generally conducted in once or twice weekly sessions of 30 minutes. Some patients need to perform “homework” to supplement the in-office exercises.
The number one thing Dr. Sanders recommends to improve binocular, functional vision is physical play that engages the entire body. “Kids need to climb on monkey bars and do somersaults to train their brain how to use all their body parts together, which of course includes the eyes,” says Dr. Sanders.
Stefanie Santos McLeese is a native Texan, an independent public relations advisor and the mother of three children (5, 4 and 2) who are her “toughest clients.” She met her Illinois-native husband playing rec league flag football in Dallas where they married and had their children before moving to Illinois in June 2015 for a wholesome, Midwest, child-rearing experience, and near retired, babysitting-in-laws who live seven minutes, door-to-door.