What is the visual system, and how might difficulties with visual processing contribute to my child’s areas of difficulty?

Our visual system enables us to see and to make sense of what we are seeing. From the architecture of the eye to the neural connections within the brain, the visual system is wonderfully complex! As a result there are several types of professionals concerned with understanding and helping with different elements of vision and visual processing:

  • Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who have completed additional specialist training in the diagnosis and management of disorders of the eye and visual system
  • Optometrists examine the eyes and prescribe and fit glasses or contact lenses to remediate impairments of visual acuity
  • Orthoptists are allied health professionals trained to diagnose and manage disorders of eye movements and associated vision problems, as well as to perform investigative testing of eye diseases

When it comes to children’s vision, where do occupational therapists fit in?

Occupational therapists are allied health professionals whose role is to support children’s development so they can participate in all of life’s daily activities. Part of the therapist’s role is understanding a child’s skills, including their ability to process and respond to the sensory inputs they receive. Visual information is a sensory input and an occupational therapist will consider how visual processing impacts on a child’s participation in daily activities. Questions a therapist may consider include:

  • Does a child attend more to visual inputs, becoming easily distracted or overwhelmed by them?
  • Does a child miss or misinterpret visual information?
  • Is eye contact a challenge that impacts upon relating to others and picking up on social cues?
  • Do difficulties with body awareness or movement impact upon visual tracking and visual referencing?
  • Could visual perceptual difficulties be impacting on learning to read, or finding belongings?

Observations, assessments and interviews are used by occupational therapists to understand how a child is responding to and processing visual inputs, and to form a plan of how best to help a child with any visual processing challenges.

What if my child seems to miss visual input?

If your child seems to miss visual input it may be that they are not using their eyes to scan the environment well, or that they are having difficulty moving and adjusting their eyes to follow or focus on visual inputs. However it may relate more to attention skills – children with more impulsivity or busy thoughts can act fast and miss visual cues in the process, while children who are hyper-focused on specific activities seem to tune out other inputs.

Some children have difficulty with sensory modulation, struggling to work out what stimuli to attend to and challenged with filtering out important from unimportant inputs. This can make it hard to focus on a particular input and as a result a child may appear distracted, disoriented or overwhelmed.

There are strategies that can help children who may have been missing visual input. These include using cues to draw attention to important visual information, reducing extra visual clutter in an environment and gaining a child’s attention before providing an instruction or a visual direction.

What if my child seems sensitive to visual input?

Some children are more sensitive to visual input in which case a little input feels like a lot. Bright light can be overwhelming, as can busy visual environments.

There are steps you can take to help ease the experience of a child with greater visual sensitivity. These include accommodations such as giving them sunglasses, using dimmer switch lighting, providing a hat with a brim for them to wear in busy places to block out some of the visual stimuli and keeping the home environment or classroom uncluttered.

My child really struggles to make eye contact with others. Is this a problem?

Eye contact is valued in our society. Most of us are taught that it is respectful to look someone in their eyes when we say hello, and that it shows a person that we are listening to them.

For some children making eye contact is innately harder than it is for others. There are theories as to why this should be, though it remains an area of ongoing study.

Making eye contact is a difficulty for many children on the Autism Spectrum. One theory surrounding this is that children on the spectrum experience greater sensitivity to sensory information and therefore processing all the incoming information (also called ‘multisensory processing’) is more difficult for them. For a child on the spectrum, being able to listen to and process what’s being said is much more challenging when the auditory input has to compete with the visual input of looking at and interpreting the speaker’s face. Not making eye contact can actually support a child’s ability to listen and converse.

There are strategies that can be taught to a child on the spectrum which can help them manage this difficulty. They can learn to ‘check in’ visually with the person speaking, just for brief moments, or they can tell the speaker that they are listening but find it easier to concentrate if they listen without looking. Other children may need more explicit social teaching about eye contact and its contribution to non-verbal communication, as well as to the thoughts and feelings of others.

My child bumps into things all the time! Is this caused by a visual processing problem?

Children with difficulties with the vestibular system (the body’s movement sense which deals with postural control and body awareness) often have more difficulty navigating the space around them, which can look like a visual difficulty. While it is a form of visual spatial processing, the therapy for it involves developing a child’s physical ability to isolate and rotate through their core, for example holding their body steady while rotating their head, neck and eyes to scan the environment.

Children with more sensitive vestibular systems often try to avoid moving their head out of upright and centre, which then limits the use of their visual system. Exercises to develop the vestibular system including postural control and postural ocular skills can be used to improve a child’s range of movement..

Could visual perceptual difficulties impact on learning to read or finding belongings?

Visual perceptual difficulties may impact upon skills like learning to read or finding objects. This is because visual perception is made up of a number of abilities including visual discrimination, visual memory, figure ground discrimination, visual sequential memory, visual closure, visual spatial relations and form constancy. These abilities support daily activities such as reading, being able to find objects in busy environments or backgrounds, remembering the sequence of letters in words when reading or copying from the board, doing puzzles, recognising objects when partially hidden from view or organising work on a page.

A skilled occupational therapist can assess and assist with a child’s visual perceptual skills, which can help make daily activities like reading and finding objects a lot easier.

Final Points

Visual perceptual skills are so important. The visual system supports us and allows us to participate in, learn about and enjoy life. If your child seems to be having difficulty with vision or visual processing there is support available to help understand and develop their visual skills. Seeing an optometrist to establish if there are any problems with visual acuity or ‘seeing’ can be a great first action. Occupational therapists can provide further support by investigating your child’s use of their visual processing. Here at Grow On Children’s Occupational Therapy we can test visual processing to identify strengths or difficulties, as well as introduce activities and strategies to support your child’s visual perceptual skills.

Next Steps

If you think problems with your child’s visual system may be impacting them and you would like to find out more about what can be done to help you can book a Startup Session below or call us on (07) 5578 2000 or to meet with one of our Occupational Therapists!