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Does Your Child Have Dyslexia or… is it something else? The hidden diagnosis contributing to reading difficulties

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Many children present to our office with difficulties reading.  They often have received a diagnosis of dyslexia prior to visiting our office; but is it really dyslexia?  In my professional opinion it is difficult to diagnose dyslexia with certainty when a visual processing evaluation has not been performed.  

Can both a visual and language problem coexist? 

Absolutely.  It would be absurd for one to think otherwise. It is equally absurd to determine a diagnosis of dyslexia without first ruling out visual involvement.  

“But my child can see 20/20….” 

That is wonderful but 20/20 is not all there is to vision.  20/20 is merely eyesight; the ability to see print at a given distance. However, vision is much more than that.

Consider how you are reading this text.  First, your eyes locate the text and the brain must decide where to start the task.  This act of locating the place to begin reading involves peripheral vision, eye fixation and orientation of the written page.  Next, your eyes must move across the text to accomplish the reading process.  These eye movements include the above tasks as well as: fusion (combining the images of each eye into single vision in the brain), focusing (clear vision), efficiently moving the eyes across the page and lastly, visual processing (interpreting the visual symbols).  Once the visual system has interpreted the visual symbols, language can be associated with the written words. If the functional skills (tracking/fusing/focusing/fixation) and the visual information skills (perceptual/cognitive) are not intact and working efficiently, the entire process can falter.  

Young boy and pediatric optometrist having fun during conversation in colorful room with toys

How then can a person transform these visual cues into language? 

It would be nearly impossible without visual processing skills!  Have you ever tried to read with your eyes closed?  You cannot do it!  Vision is essential to the process of reading.  It is clearly the first step!  Therefore, one must rule out vision problems before a confident diagnosis in a learning disorder/dyslexia can be made.  The sequence is self-evident… eyes…brain…language.

Every region of the brain is involved in vision and comprises roughly 60-70% of the brain that is dedicated directly or indirectly, to visual skills and visual processing. One should also not forget that 13 out of 15 symptoms of dyslexia are the same as a visual-related learning disorder.

If either a functional vision disorder or a visual processing disorder is present vision therapy is the preferred treatment.  Vision therapy retrains the eyes and the brain to effectively communicate, improving the ability to perform the above actions. As speech therapy retrains the brain, tongue and mouth to speak properly, vision therapy retrains the visual system.  Once speech therapy has been completed a child will not regress into poor articulation again, the same is true with vision therapy.  New neural pathways are created to enhance visual function.  Vision therapy does not increase the strength of the eye muscles but improves the ability of the person to coordinate the entire visual system with the rest of the body…. the eyes included!  

To ignore vision as a factor when there is difficulty reading would be, to put it bluntly, turning a blind eye to a potential cause of learning difficulties.  For a child to succeed and reach their full potential a high-performing visual system must be in place. 

Information presented here should be used as a guide, not medical advice. If you would like more information or have questions, please contact Belle Vue Specialty Eye Care to make an appointment for a visual information processing evaluation.

Written by Megan Lott

Dr. Megan Sumrall Lott is a functional optometrist who practices in Hattiesburg, MS. She is a 2006 graduate of Southern College of Optometry. She began practicing optometry by providing primary eyecare at Lexington Eye Care in Lexington, MS. After providing vision therapy to her 9 month old son to correct an eye turn, Dr. Lott realized she had found her passion in functional optometry.
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