Some call it a diagnosis; others call it a label. No matter how you look at it, it’s undeniable that a learning disability can have a profound effect on your child’s school and home life. Common as they are nowadays, learning disabilities can be frustrating and difficult to treat or even understand. When problems just don’t seem to get any better, it is understandable for parents to wonder whether it’s really a learning disability at all, or a misdiagnosis. You’re torn because you trust that the psychologists and social workers who work with your child have considered all the possibilities. They couldn’t have gotten it wrong … or could they have?
Actually, they could have. It may not necessarily be their fault, as a number of unrelated issues have similar symptoms to learning disabilities. That’s why, before allowing your child to be given the learning disability label, it is crucial to consider other possibilities. This means getting your child examined by doctors, including a vision specialist. With one out of every five American children having uncorrected vision issues, it might very well be the case that your child actually has an eyesight problem masking itself as a learning disability.
Kids are, by nature, extremely visual in how they absorb and process information. In fact, in the first 12 years of a child’s life, 80 percent of what is learned comes through visual information processing. This close connection between seeing and learning might help to explain why eyesight problems and learning issues are so easily confused. Symptoms such as compromised academic performance and difficulty paying attention in class can be common to both visual and learning disorders. To confuse the matter even further, up to 40 percent of kids with learning disabilities also have vision-related problems. In other words, while some children seem to have a learning disability, but instead have an eyesight problem, other kids may have both issues. Either way, one would think that checkups from an eye care specialist would be standard procedure, right?
Wrong. Vision screenings, while they ought to be an integral part of the process, are surprisingly lacking. Whenever a learning disability, ADD/ADHD or dyslexia is suspected in a child, a thorough eye examination should be one of the first steps taken, but unfortunately does not always happen. It is a startling truth that in America, 20 percent of kids have eyesight issues that are uncorrected, despite being treatable. Perhaps this is because children don’t always talk about their vision problems, instead choosing to hide or ignore the problem or express the issue through misbehavior. Ignoring the issue should not be an option, though, as untreated vision problems are only likely to get worse, not better. Over time, a child can develop a condition called amblyopia, where the vision is reduced because the child’s eyes and brain aren’t properly working together. This condition can typically be prevented when regular eye exams are given, starting at a young age.
So, what is a good age to start these vision screenings? Some may think eight, 10, or maybe 12, but that’s not what the experts recommend. According to The American Optometric Association and the American Public Health Association, an examination should be given at approximately six months of age. This should not be considered odd or unusual, as the eye doctor will need to check for eye structure and muscle health, along with an examination of the baby’s tear ducts and eyelids; such an examination will not be frightening or uncomfortable for the child, and is generally easy and trouble-free. In any case, regardless of the exact age at which the child starts getting vision screenings, the message from the experts is clear: Checkups from a highly qualified eye care practitioner should occur early and often.
In addition to regular checkups, it is worthwhile for parents and teachers to be on the lookout for possible symptoms of eyesight-related issues. Some children will squint or strain to read a book or the board, but others will give up trying and use excuses or misbehavior as an attempt to avoid reading tasks. This is where symptoms may be confused with the symptoms of learning disabilities; when a vision issue causes a child not to read, self-esteem issues, disruptive behaviors and poor grades can result, thereby reinforcing the learning disability misdiagnosis. Besides squinting and straining to read, other symptoms to watch for include habitually keeping the head close to a book when reading, headaches or eyestrain, closing or covering one eye or excessively rubbing the eyes or blinking. However, sometimes it may be a combination of these symptoms, or none of them, which reinforces the idea that regular checkups from a qualified eye care specialist are the first and best line of defense against long-term vision problems in children.
The simple act of getting an eye exam can have profound and immediate effects on a child’s life. Reports have been made of young students who stopped looking at the board simply because they couldn’t see it, or who wouldn’t stop talking in class due to the frustration of not being able to see properly. Dramatic turnarounds occurred when the children’s eyesight was screened and glasses were issued; for these children, academic performance and quality of life were improved almost immediately. As parents, we don’t have to let it get to that point if we stay aware and take precautions. Early prevention of eyesight issues is generally much simpler than having to address problems later on.
Staying informed and taking action can help prevent misdiagnosis and progressive eye problems for your child. Confusing learning disabilities and vision issues is not uncommon, but does not need to happen to your kids. Bring clarity to the issue — and to your child’s vision — with a comprehensive eye exam today.