When your child passes the vision test at her checkup but doesn’t see the difference between a triangle and a square, her eyes aren’t the problem. The issue is her visual processing skills. If your child has been diagnosed with visual processing issues, or you think she might have them, there are things you can do to help.
While kids don’t outgrow visual processing issues, there are ways to help them compensate for their challenges. Read on to find out about the common symptoms, along with supports that can help.
What are visual processing issues?
When people think of eyesight, they usually think about accuracy, as in 20/20 vision. But vision is much more than that. The brain, not the eyes, processes the visual world, including things like symbols, pictures and distances. Weaknesses in these brain functions are called visual processing disorder or visual processing issues.
While there are ways to help kids compensate for those weaknesses, visual processing issues present lifelong challenges. They are not considered a learning disability. But they’re fairly common in kids who have learning issues.
Visual processing issues don’t just affect how a child learns. They also impact his ability to do ordinary thinks like sorting socks or playing a simple game of kickball. Visual processing issues can cause problems with socializing and self-esteem, too. Some kids may become frustrated and withdrawn.
Eight Types of Visual Processing Issues
Visual processing issues are complex. That’s because there are eight different types, and people can have more than one. These issues often go undetected because they don’t show up on vision tests. Here are the different types of visual processing issues scientists have identified:
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- Visual discrimination issues: Kids with this type have difficulty seeing the difference between two similar letters, shapes or objects. So they may mix up letters, confusing d and b, or p and q.
- Visual figure-ground discrimination issues: Kids with this type may not be able to pull out a shape or character from its background. They may have trouble finding a specific piece of information on a page.
- Visual sequencing issues: Kids with these issues have difficulty telling the order of symbols, words or images. They may struggle to write answers on a separate sheet or skip lines when reading. They also may reverse or misread letters, numbers and words.
- Visual-motor processing issues: Kids with these issues have difficulty using feedback from the eyes to coordinate the movement of other parts of the body. Writing within the lines or margins can be tough. Kids also may bump into things and have trouble copying from a book.
- Long- or short-term visual memory issues: Kids with either type have difficulty recalling what they’ve seen. Because of that they may struggle with reading and spelling. They may also have trouble remembering what they’ve read and using a calculator or keyboard.
- Visual-spatial issues: Kids with these issues have difficulty telling where objects are in space. That includes how far things are from them and from each other. It also includes objects and characters described on paper or in a spoken narrative. Kids may also have a tough time reading maps and judging time.
- Visual closure issues: Kids with these issues have difficulty identifying an object when only parts are visible. They may not recognize a truck if it’s missing wheels. Or a person in a drawing that is missing a facial feature. Kids may also have great difficulty with spelling because they can’t recognize a word if a letter is missing.
- Letter and symbol reversal issues: Kids with these issues switch letters or numbers when writing. Or make letter substitutions when reading after age 7. They also have trouble with letter formation that affects reading, writing and math skills.
How common are visual processing issues?
It’s not clear how many kids have visual processing issues. But the symptoms often occur among kids with learning issues. That includes dyslexia, the most common learning issue. As many as one in five kids in the United States may have dyslexia.
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What causes visual processing issues?
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes visual processing issues. They do know that the issues occur when the brain fails to accurately receive and read the visual cues sent by the eyes.
Some research suggests that low birth weight and having been extreme preterm may play a role. It’s also possible that mild traumatic brain injury could lead to visual processing issues. But there isn’t enough research to fully support that theory.
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 Handler, Sheryl M., and Walter M. Fierson. "Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision." Pediatrics 127.3 (2011): E818–856. Pediatrics.aappublications.org. American Academy of Pediatrics, 28 Feb. 2011. Web. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/3/e818.full?sid=bd9574fb-4575-4d35-a46e-a63394e68331
 Molloy, C. S., M. Wilson-Ching, et al. "Visual Processing in Adolescents Born Extremely Low Birth Weight And/or Extremely Preterm." Pediatrics 132.3 (2013): E704-712. NCBI. Web. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23918899
 Brousseau-Lachaine, O., I. Gagnon, et al. "Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Induces Prolonged Visual Processing Deficits in Children." Brain Injury 22.9 (2008): 657-68. NCBI. Web. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18698516
 "Visual Processing Disorder." LDANL.org. Learning Disabilities Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Web. http://www.ldanl.org/lda/?q=VPD
 Olulade, Olumide A., Eileen M. Napoliello, and Guinevere F. Eden. "Abnormal Visual Motion Processing Is Not a Cause of Dyslexia." Neuron 79.1 (2013): 180-90. Cell.com. Cell Press. Web. http://www.cell.com/neuron/abstract/S0896-6273(13)00395-4
 "Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision."