The Eyes and Learning Disabilities
Most children with a learning disability have difficulty with reading or writing, but some children have more difficulty with mathematical calculations. The term learning disability does not apply to children who have difficulty with learning caused by visual or hearing handicaps, mental retardation, emotional disturbance or economic or cultural disadvantage.
The primary cause of a learning disability is the inability of the brain to properly process information. Intelligence may be normal, high or below normal. Infections of the brain or brain injury may result in teaming disability. Although vision is certainly involved in learning tasks, the primary difficulty with learning disabilities is not vision itself but the brain’s inability to use or properly process visual information, especially with reading or writing.
Dyslexia as a Learning Disability
A learning disability is also often called dyslexia. Dyslexia comes from Latin words meaning difficulty with learning, especially with reading. Dyslexia does not mean simply that a person writes “backwards.” The Western world (North and South America) writes from left to right and that the Middle East (Hebrews and Arabic), as well as most of the Eastern countries (like China and Japan), writes from right to left. Therefore, children in the Western world, like American children, must simply learn to write (and read) from left to right. Reversal of letters or words, without other difficulty with reading and writing, does NOT by itself mean your child has a learning disability.
Common Signs of a Learning Disability
• Difficulty or dislike of reading or writing
• Slow writing speed
• Difficulty with math
• Difficulty with language, particularly following oral directions or remembering words
Children with learning problems often develop behavior problems that are the result of frustration with the learning problems. Learning problems may also cause poor self-esteem, emotional withdrawal, depression or aggression.
How the Eyes Play a Role
Learning disabilities are caused by difficulties in the brain, not the eye itself However, it is very important for every child with difficulty with learning to have a complete eye exam by an eye professional skilled in dealing with children. A pediatric ophthalmologist has experience in dealing with all types of eye problems in children, including evaluating a need for glasses and examination for eye muscle problems like strabismus.
Some children have eyes that are out of focus and cannot see their work clearly. It is important that children with learning problems have an eye exam that includes dilating the eyes. Some children have excessive hyperopia (farsightedness) that can result in difficulty with reading. Children with significant amounts of astigmatism (eye shaped more oval like a football rather than the normal round shape like a basketball) may have difficulty reading. Furthermore, large amounts of myopia (nearsightedness) can cause significant problems with distance and even near vision.
Occasionally, children have eye muscle problems in which the eyes do not focus together as a team. As a result, he or she may actually experience diplopia (double vision). Special testing may be required to detect double vision in children. It is also important to have a thorough exam of your child’s hearing.
Parents should also be aware that many children have eyes that are only very slightly out of focus. Glasses may be prescribed in error, giving parents the mistaken impression that the child has an eye problem, when the real problem is a learning disability in the brain’s processing of information. Glasses that are prescribed in error can be expensive and divert the parent’s attention from other helpful resources in the community that can assist a child with learning disabilities.
How Are Learning Disabilities Treated?
If the vision is normal and no eye muscle problem is present, then “eye exercises” are not helpful in the treatment of learning disorders. Performing “eye exercises” or using special tinted lenses can be extremely expensive and a waste of time. Such measures involve financial resources that should be spent in helping the child to learn more effectively.
Educators who are trained in specific learning disabilities in children best treat learning disabilities. Extensive testing by these professionals can help uncover the specific type of learning disorder that is present, for all learning disabilities are different. Specific tutoring and a learning program directed toward your child’s individual learning problem is the best treatment for a learning disability.