Visual Processing Issues, Vision Problems, and Reading
One of the senses involved in sensory processing disorder is the visual sense. When it comes to your child's vision and any visual problems they might have, you probably are aware of nearsightedness and farsightedness as well as astigmatism. Nearsightedness is difficulty seeing into the distance; farsightedness is difficulty seeing things up close (something people often develop as they age). Astigmatism is when the visual picture is distorted. I have all three because of how my eyeballs are shaped. What I don't have is visual processing disorder and its symptoms, which can include any or even all of these challenges:
* Difficulty reading when a surface has glare (think of a whiteboard, chalkboard, or pages of a book with sunshine that's streaming through the window hitting it)
* Difficulty reading when the contrast is too high or too low (think of reading white type on a black background vs. black type on a white background vs. orange type on a brown background like some of the personal computer displays from the 1980s)
* Difficulty refocusing when going from reading what's written on the chalkboard several yards in front of you to reading what is right in front of you (a book or handout on your desk, for example)
* Difficulty tracking, focusing on reading one chunk of text and the next chunk without having to drag a finger along the page to keep your place
* Difficulty discriminating between two similar looking items (for example, the letter d and the letter b)
Visual processing challenges can also cause:
* Difficulty with handwriting, including writing to fit within a designated space
* Difficulty completing crowded worksheets with very little writing space
You might see your child standing at an angle or positioning her head at an angle to read, blinking, rubbing her eyes, and complaining about having to read. Is the problem that she has astigmatism and is trying to compensate? Does she have difficulty with eye teaming? The best way to find out is to have a visual evaluation from a developmental optometrist. They will not only check for the usual vision problems (nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism) but for visual processing differences. (My co-author, Lindsey Biel, recently spoke about this and other sensory processing differences on Dana Latter's Sensory Change podcast. Lindsey says up to 50 percent of the kids she evaluates for SPD have visual processing differences.)
If your child insists on reading with the lights off or with a phone or computer screen set to very large type or very small type, or will only read using a preferred font (such as Arial instead of Times New Roman), become curious so you can learn more. Ask her why she prefers that sort of visual experience. Do the letters on the page "stop wiggling and throbbing"? Is it easier for her to concentrate? Talk with her about adjusting the lighting of the screen, or the contrast between the type and the background. Talk with her about different lighting in the room. Fluorescent lighting tends to be really hard for kids with visual processing differences to tolerate. Cozy Shades can be used to cover fluorescent lights that are the only means to illuminate a room when any sunlight through the windows doesn't provide enough light. You can also replace the fluorescent tubes with LED tubes.
What you might discover is that while your kiddo has no problem reading the sign halfway down the grocery aisle (something I stopped being able to do when I developed nearsightedness) or reading a menu at a restaurant, she has trouble reading at length. By talking with your child about what could make reading easier for her and scheduling a developmental optometrist appointment, you might discover she would benefit from therapy that addresses her visual processing. She might also want to us an eReader such as a Kindle Paperwhite to read more comfortably. She might need to be evaluated by a reading expert.
No matter what is contributing to your child with sensory issues having trouble reading (or handwriting), it's important to be supportive and sensitive to their embarrassment when talking with them about their challenges. I'll never forget the boy whose mom asked me to talk with him about his handwriting: He regularly reversed letters, wrote slowly, and was so ashamed to be far behind his peers when it came to handwriting that he was refusing all written assignments unless he could keyboard them. I coaxed him into copying a couple of words from a page of text and saw his anxiety and embarrassment come to the surface. Gently, I encouraged him to help me get to the bottom of what was happening so I could make things easier for him at school.
I asked, "Do you see the letters in your head the way they're supposed to be, before you go to write them?"
"Yes," he said firmly.
"What happens between the time you see them in your head and you start writing them?"
"They flip around in three-dimensional space and sometimes they land wrong, so I end up writing them backward. It's just like when I was little and sometimes, I'd get scared because the ground was on top and the sky was at my feet. My mom would tell me to close my eyes and then she'd put her hands on my shoulders and I'd just breathe. Then, I'd open my eyes and the ground and sky would be back where they're supposed to be."
The school-based professional who had evaluated him had reported, "He doesn't have any problem with handwriting besides being noncompliant and uncooperative."
Do you see why I believe it's vitally important to be patient, curious, and supportive while gathering information from kids with sensory issues?
Keep this in mind: Sensory processing, including visual processing, happens within the brain where signals from the senses have to be sorted out. Your child might not have nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism, but might have visual processing issues that get in her way and have no idea what's going on. She might have a reading disability due to differences in brain wiring. She might have a lot of shame. An evaluation and talking with your child can help you get answers that can help you address any issues she's having. See COVD.org to find a developmental optometrist near you and learn more about how to become a sensory smart parent in the award-winning book Raising a Sensory Smart Child.