Visual processing disorder

What is visual processing disorder?

Eight-year-old Deepa was facing issues with her vision. She didn’t respond to visual stimuli presented to her in the way a typical eight-year-old would. For example, she couldn’t find the same colored balls and sort them together from a collection of a large number of differently colored balls. She couldn’t write within the lines of her notebooks and had trouble copying out words. Even playing with friends was a challenge for Deepa, she couldn’t estimate the distance of objects so games like hopscotch or catch became challenging.This led to Deepa withdrawing more and more from her friends. Although she could grasp new concepts, she couldn’t learn through visual aids. Her parents took her to multiple ophthalmologists who informed them that she had perfect vision. Finally, a pediatrician suggested that they visit a psychologist, who confirmed that she had a visual processing disorder.

Vision refers not just to eyesight but also to the visual centers in the brain responsible for processing and making meaning of what the eye sees, including symbols, distances and pictures. Any weakness in these centers is responsible for visual processing disorders or visual processing issues. While there are ways to compensate for these weaknesses, visual processing issues present lifelong challenges. For the child it can cause problems with socializing and impact their self-esteem too; some children may become frustrated and withdrawn.

Types of visual processing disorders

Eight different kinds of visual processing disorders exist. A child can have more than one kind of disorder at a time. 

  1. Visual discrimination issues: The child has difficulty seeing the difference between two similar-looking letters, shapes or objects. They tend to get confused between such alphabets (like d and b or p and q). There may also be difficulty faced in being able to distinguish between triangle and square shapes.
     
  2. Visual figure-ground discriminating issues: A child with this kind of disorder is unable to isolate a shape or character from its background. They may be unable to discriminate between the background and the foreground or focus area and as such, may have trouble locating a specific piece of information on a page. For e.g., solving jigsaw puzzles becomes a difficult task.
     
  3. Visual sequencing issues: In this case, there is difficulty in recognizing the order of symbols, words or images. The child may struggle to write answers on a separate sheet or  will end up skipping lines while reading.
     
  4. Visual-motor processing issues: Children with this subtype of the disorder have issues coordinating the movement of those parts of the body that rely on getting a signal from the eyes. For e.g., they may find it difficult to walk around without bumping into things often.
     
  5. Long or short-term visual memory issues: This causes trouble in recalling what they have seen soon after they see it. Sometimes this might manifest as not being able to recall or even recognize objects/words they have just seen. An indication of this can be found in the child's struggles with memory games.They may not recall a set of objects shown to them immediately after it has been removed from sight.
     
  6. Visuo-spatial issues: This entails difficulty in telling where an object is in space. The child will not be able to discern – whether on paper or by speech – how far an object is from them and how far two objects are from each another. There may also be issues in reading time from an analog clock and reading maps.
     
  7. Visual closure issues: If only parts of an object are visible and a child has difficulty identifying what the object is, they may be experiencing visual closure issues. For instance, if asked to identify a drawing of a face that has incomplete features, the child may not be able to identify it. This issue may extend to problems in identification of a physical object as well, for e.g., identifying a dog if its hind legs are hidden may be difficult to do.
     
  8. Letter and symbol reversal issues: Here, similar-looking letters and numbers are confused and used interchangeably. Such issues could lead to the child being diagnosed with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia.

What are the signs of visual processing disorders?

It can be difficult to recognize the signs of visual processing issues as a parent or a teacher. But once recognized, it becomes easier to help the child with the learning issues they are facing. A child with visual processing issues may display the following behaviors and signs: 

  • Doesn’t attend to visual tasks
  • Gets distracted quickly if provided too much visual stimulus
  • Inattention or lack of interest in video presentations, video games and movies
  • Frequently bumps into things
  • Has difficulty writing within margins and lines
  • Poor reading comprehension
  • Has poor memory with regard to information that is read silently
  • Skips words or lines while reading
  • Frequent complaints of eye strain, despite normal vision
  • Unable to identify changes in signs, bulletin boards and posters
  • Has confusion with similar-looking mathematical symbols
  • Has below average reading and writing skills, despite strong oral and verbal abilities

What causes visual processing disorders?

Researchers are yet to discover the exact cause of visual processing issues. However, they know that these issues occur when the brain fails to accurately receive and read the visual cues sent by the eyes.

It has been suggested by some researchers that extremely low birth weight and having been very preterm may play a role. Mild traumatic injury to the visual centers of the brain might also lead to the disorder but there isn’t enough research yet to support this statement. 

How do you identify visual processing disorders?

When your child starts struggling in school and it appears to be a vision problem they are facing, please visit a pediatrician who will examine them. The pediatrician may then refer the child to a pediatric ophthalmologist or a neuropsychologist, depending on the need.

A pediatric ophthalmologist will perform a complete examination of the child’s eyes and vision, and also look for physical reasons for the issues. On the other hand, a neuropsychologist may perform a series of tests to see how the child’s visual issues are affecting their overall development. The tests are designed to measure intelligence, academic and language skills, memory, and attention abilities. 

Possible interventions

There is no medication or recognized cure for visual processing disorder. However, the following interventions may be helpful: 

  • Individualized Educational Program (IEP): If a child has been diagnosed and they qualify for special services, IEP may be useful. This plan guarantees specific support for the child which can include tutoring for reading and writing skills.
     
  • Response to Intervention (RTI): This is a program followed in some schools where all the children are screened to identify the ones who need extra help.
     
  • Other individual informal support systems like being allowed to write answers on the same page as that of the questions, or, a book with larger print might help the child.

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