What Looks Like A Learning Disability May Actually Be A Vision Problem

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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There we were, another late afternoon, and another epic homework battle. I mustered all the patience I had left and explained, for the fifth time, how to subtract triple digit numbers.

My child was slumped in their chair, eventually trying to do the math problems with their head laying on top of their arm which was resting on the table. I reminded them to sit up and please, please just tackle the work so we could go outside and play. Later that night, as I’d been doing more and more frequently, I cried in the shower, convinced that I was failing my child. I was feeling major mom guilt.

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Initially, I chalked my child’s academic struggles to the school change. There are always adjustments at the beginning of a new school year. But as the weeks and months passed, things went from bad to worse. I distinctly remember one of the higher-up staff at my child’s school firmly telling me that my child just needed to try harder. However, I had become convinced that my child’s struggles weren’t a matter of effort. Rather, this was an issue of ability.

We went through six—yes, six—evaluations between the school district and outside services. Every evaluation produced nothing but frustration and rendered no definitive results. The only thing we got out of the professional evaluations was a big bill. We also utilized a tutor and reward systems with very little progress.

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We were at our wit’s end. I felt my child slipping into an unhealthy hole of despair. Our relationship was strained, and our time was consumed with hours of agony at the dining room table. My desperation gave way to anger. Why the hell wasn’t anyone able to help?

I felt that they were slipping through the proverbial cracks. My child is kind, respectful, inclusive, smart, and creative. And unlike some parents who are terrified of their child being “labeled” by their diagnosis, I was imploring everyone I could think of to please bestow upon us the answer we’d be waiting for—an accurate diagnosis.

Our family faced 18 long months without answers when a single texting conversation changed everything.

After all the lengthy evaluations, daily communication with my child’s school, and trying numerous strategies and techniques, I told my husband I had to get out of town—immediately. We utilized our rewards points and booked a long-weekend away. I texted a friend who was familiar with the locale to ask for restaurant recommendations.

She replied with suggestions and asked why we were headed out of town so suddenly. I filled her in on everything that had been going on with our child. She told me to hang on a sec. A few minutes later she asked if our child’s vision had been evaluated? I replied that yes, my kids got eye exams yearly. But what about a specialist, she asked. Yes, my child wore glasses, but nothing out-of-the-ordinary had come up. So no, I hadn’t taken them for any additional exams.

My friend reminded me that her sister was a vision specialist, and my child’s symptoms were telltale signs of issues that are typically not picked up on in a standard eye exam. For example, an inability to tie shoes and to quickly distinguish left from right, struggling to read graphs and maps, head tilting during close-up work and poor posture when sitting. Furthermore, my child was unable to line up math problems and grasp word problems, copy work from a smartboard to a notebook, and catch or kick a ball straight-on.

Some kids appear clumsy, often bumping and crashing into walls or stumbling. Older kids may not be able to ride a bike or appropriately perform other gross motor skills. Some close one eye or squint when doing close-up work.

I promptly scheduled my child for an all-day evaluation. We were hopeful but also skeptical. I felt like this was our last-best effort. Our doctor invited us to observe parts of the exam while answering some of her questions. During one test, I immediately noticed that my child couldn’t track or focus on one point, using the two eyes simultaneously.

Vision issues can look like—pun intended—more commonly diagnosed and understood disorders and learning disabilities. Unfortunately, this leads to a serious issue—misdiagnosis and subsequent treatment of an issue the child doesn’t actually have.

Dr. Julie Steinhauer, OD, FCOVD, and owner of Vision for Life in Glen Carbon, Illinois, shares some astonishing facts. “Approximately 80% of children in every classroom have undiagnosed vision problems affecting their performance in school. 90% of kids diagnosed with ADHD are misdiagnosed and have a condition called convergence insufficiency.” She also seen a startling number of patients who were misdiagnosed with dyslexia and visual spatial disorder.

What, exactly, are these vision issues? Dr. Steinhauer explained that there is an issue with the brain controlling vision because of eye alignment, the eyes working together, focusing, or tracking. The other possibility is that there’s the struggle of visual processing of information such as visual memory or discrimination.

Dr. Steinhauer shared that there are number of possibilities as to why a child may have vision issues. These include prematurity, prenatal drug exposure, genetics, too much screen time, ear infections, sickness that includes high fever, or lack of motor activity during infant and toddler years. No matter the reason, there is a treatment option—vision therapy.

Lemnaouer Ahmed/Reshot

How does vision therapy help once the child receives the appropriate diagnoses? “Vision therapy trains the brain how to process visual (and other sensory) information more efficiently.” This not only improves the child’s academics, but also their processing and sports performance.

Given that 65% of people are visual learners and 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, undiagnosed students suffer immensely. They cannot keep up with their peers, they are labeled as lazy or inattentive, and their anxiety skyrockets.

As my child’s doctor explained to us, a child undiagnosed with vision issues is like a child on a rock-climbing excursion with peers. Every peer carries a lightweight backpack. But the child with vision issues gets a backpack with a twenty-pound weight in it and is expected to keep pace.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that if your child shows any of these symptoms that vision issues are definitely the cause, but it’s worth talking to your child’s doctor or seeing a specialist if you’re concerned. When properly diagnosed and treated by a developmental optometrist, the child’s confidence and abilities soar. They can not only keep pace, but even exceed expectations.

And isn’t that what we all want for our kids? Helping and watching them succeed, in their own way at their own pace, is what this parenting thing is all about.

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