August 31, 2015

Eye problems or learning disability

"My child is having problems learning in school. Is there something wrong with his eyes?" This is a very common question asked by parents and teachers alike when children seem to be struggling to learn at their grade level.

Learning disabilities — including reading disabilities — are most commonly diagnosed in childhood. Perhaps as many as 2.6 million children are affected.

Reading is a skill that is actually based on oral (spoken) language and the ability to decode phonemes (the sounds making up words). It's a complex process requiring perception, decoding, fluency and memory. Learning disabilities including dyslexia (a learning disorder that affects reading), arise when the brain's ability to store or process information does not function normally.

Do eye "problems" cause reading disabilities? Statistically, children with dyslexia or related learning disabilities have the same visual function and eye health as children without such conditions. Children with suspected learning disabilities in whom a vision problem is suspected by the child, parent, physician or educators should be seen by an ophthalmologist with experience in the assessment and treatment of children.

Some children may also have a treatable visual problem that contributes to their primary reading or learning issue. Refractive errors, such as astigmatism, near or far-sightedness, may make it more difficult to see the letters and words. In this situation glasses that make the images clear may help the child read if there is no underlying decoding problem. Convergence insufficiency (difficulty keeping the eyes in alignment when doing near tasks) or poor accommodation (near focus) may interfere with the act of reading, or make it more uncomfortable but will not affect the ability to decode words.

Strabismus or amblyopia may interfere with using the eyes together and are treatable ocular conditions. Treatment of these conditions may include glasses for distance or near wear. Eye exercises designed to improve convergence — a skill necessary to maintain the eyes comfortably aligned during near tasks — may also be prescribed.

Learning disabilities are complex problems that require early recognition and referral to qualified professionals for treatments to achieve the best possible outcome. Making sure that there are no additional problems related to visual health can be an important part of the evaluation.

What can parents do?

  • If you suspect your child may have a learning disability, seek out diagnostic assessments as early as possible. Talk with your child's pediatrician and teachers.

  • The first step in the assessment of a child suspected of having a learning disability is with your pediatrician to screen for any medical problems (including a screening vision test) that may be affecting your child. 

  • For any child who doesn't pass a vision screening or who is suspected of having visual problems, get a complete eye examination by an ophthalmologist specializing in eye problem for children.