Young boy in green polo shirt having serious learning difficulties while trying to read a textbook from school.Michael Cole, OD, Child and Family EyeCare Center

When children continue to struggle with reading and learning despite all best efforts to help them, it can be very difficult to figure out what is needed. Is it a learning disability? Attention disorder? Or is it a vision problem? As a parent, how can you tell the difference?

A lot of people mistakenly assume that if their child can see things far away that they can see fine up close. Unfortunately most of the children who have eye coordination and eye movement disorders can see fine when looking at things in the distance. In addition, most vision screenings only test for how well a child can see the letters on the eye chart from a distance of 20 feet away.

When a vision problem is at the root of a child’s learning struggles, the signs are easy to see if you know what to look for. Children don’t know how they are supposed to see, so the only way they can tell you they have a problem is through their behavior.

Therefore you need to know the various signs to watch for. For example, does your child:

  • Avoid reading?
  • Prefer to be read to?
  • Turn his or her head at an angle when reading?
  • Have more trouble comprehending what is read the longer he or she reads?
  • Read a paragraph out loud but not remember what was read?
  • Have a short attention span when reading or doing schoolwork?

While learning disability websites list a variety of accommodations that can help children with Visual Information Processing Disorders, it’s important for parents to understand that these are signs that a correctable vision problem is playing a role in their child’s learning challenges.

It is important to understand that our eyes take in visual information, then send it to the brain where it is processed. If the information sent to the brain is faulty, it can make learning very difficult. For example, eye coordination problems can make it look like the words are moving on the page, or appear double or blurry.

When children have difficulty reading and also reverse letters and numbers a lot, parents often think their child has dyslexia. Typically children who have dyslexia can pass most vision screenings because they can see the letters on the eye chart just fine. According to the College of Optometrists in Vision Development, in their paper on Vision and Dyslexia, “… a substantial number of individuals with dyslexia have other visual problems. These problems may include inadequate development of function in the visual system, associated pathways, and brain.” In addition, research has shown that more than 75 percent of reading-disabled children have visual abnormalities.

Research also shows that optometric vision therapy is effective at resolving a variety of vision disorders that interfere with reading and learning; specifically eye movement (tracking), eye teaming (eye coordination), visual motor skills, etc.

So what should a parent do when a child continues to struggle with reading? According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, “Be especially certain to have eyes and ears checked for correctable vision and hearing problems.” When you have your child’s vision checked, make sure you see a developmental optometrist to make sure all the visual skills critical to reading and learning are evaluated.

To find a developmental optometrist near you visit the website for the College of Optometrists in Vision Development.