Written by Therapy Focus Physiotherapist, Jenine Davis.
It is very difficult to get along in a world where you can’t tell where you are, where other people are, where objects are, or even where your body ends and the outside world begins. This is the reality for many children with disability.
Vision involves the brain and the eyes, and when the two aren’t able to communicate, vision is impaired. Eighty percent of the information we receive from our environment is visual, so understanding what we see is very important.
Poor vision can also result in problems such as difficulty with movement and balance or even social skills.
Vision professionals trained under the medical model mainly look at the structural problems that occur in the eye. A vision problem within the eye will impact a child’s ability to identify objects. This is called focal vision and can be impaired by cataracts and other “hardware” problems. These problems are usually treated with glasses or with surgery.
Behavioural optometrists look at focal vision too, but they also look at how we understand what we see. This includes peripheral vision, which takes in the entire visual field. This is a lower-resolution system that operates largely on a non-conscious level, and it works correctly only if the “software” of the nervous system is working properly.
How does peripheral vision affect movement?
If the peripheral vision system is not working properly, simple activities that you take for granted like climbing stairs, watching TV, or talking with another person can become very difficult and stressful.
Objects will appear closer or farther away than they really are, causing you to be clumsy or disoriented. Other people’s body language may be hard to read, making social situations frightening. Catching a football or walking through a crowded hallway can be scary.
In response, an individual may develop seemingly strange behaviours in order to cope. These behaviours are logical responses to sensory input that they don’t understand.
Many people with autism walk on their toes, “stim” with their hands, or touch walls as they move through a room. All of these behaviours may stem from their inability to handle both themselves and space at the same time.
Because peripheral visual problems affect the “software” of the visual system, we can’t address them effectively with surgery or standard glasses.
However, they can respond well to intervention in the form of vision therapy. Vision therapy can therefore be a valuable form of therapy when treating problems with a child’s movement or behaviour patterns.
For further information on behavioural optometry and vision therapy, take a look at the Australasian College of Behavioural Optometrists.
Reference: Kaplan, Melvin, 1929. Seeing through new eyes: Changing the lives of children with autism, Asperger syndrome and other developmental disabilities through vision therapy / Melvin Kaplan; foreword by Stephen Edelson.—1st American pbk. ed.