Did you see that: A Closer Look at Vision Processing (part 1)

Vision is a sensory that goes far beyond the concepts of how well one can see. The information from the world around us is utilized and processed by our brain, not eyes. We all knew that, right? Of course! It was a well-taught fact when we learned about the five senses in grammar school.

Logic would lead us to the next question: how does our brain use the information it is receiving every second, of every waking moment, of every single day? Well, we use vision in everyday life for things such as visual motor skills and visual planning, visual memory, fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.

WOW! Our eyes and brain do this all on their own, without us having to do a thing (other than look at the world around us). Sounds like another thing we “just do”, like breathing. We don’t think about how we see; our body just does it.

What are visual processing issues?

Understood.org breaks it down beautifully for us. I’ve summarized it here…with tidbits from my Ninja’s experiences with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and visual processing issues.

There are a total of eight possible visual processing issues. No one is limited to just one, in fact, my Ninja has a few. Because this is a huge chunk of valuable information I’ve decided to cover the first four now and the remainder in a follow-up post. They are as follows:

  • Visual Discrimination Issues: This means that a child will mix up letters or shapes, and the orientation of objects, i.e., “d” for “b”, left from right, and top from bottom. So a child might write a letter “d” in place of the letter “p”.

While Visual Discrimination appears to be dyslexia it is in fact not. Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability, that cannot be reversed. While Visual Discrimination can be greatly improved with vision therapy based exercises to help strengthen eye control and movement as well as visual processing.

  • Visual Figure-Ground Discrimination Issues: Kids with this specific issue will have difficulty finding shapes or items on a page of information or maybe a specific toy from a large pile, as well as being able to pull a shape or character from its background.  The “Where’s Waldo” books might cause more frustration than joy, and Waldo will probably remain lost.

Thankfully, this is not a big stumbling block for my Ninja. He will at times struggle, but that happens more often when he is tired. It’s also one of his sensory triggers that we have learned to avoid or work through.

  • Visual Sequencing Issues: Children with this type of issue will have a difficult time seeing the order of symbols, words or images. They may skip lines when reading or writing and struggle to copy information from one source to another. They may also reverse or misread letters, numbers, and words.
  • Visual-Motor Processing Issues: Children with this issue will struggle with writing, and their ability to coordinate the movement of other parts of their body. They may be clumsy and have difficulty copying text.

Before my Ninja received physical and occupational therapy he was very clumsy. As an infant, he crawled or walked right into walls and furniture. Sometimes, he would bump his head or hand on the object again before moving to the side to avoid his stationary roadblock. Can you even begin to imagine what a crowded room would do to him visually? It caused frequent toddler meltdowns.

Conclusion

Even though I’ve only covered four visual processing topics, we already get a clearer picture of how essential it is for our eyes and brain to work in tandem. The struggle for children with SPD and or any Visual Processing Disorder (VPD) is a compounded daily struggle.

I would like to encourage you,  the next time you notice a parent struggling with a child, not to jump to conclusions. Please, keep in mind they might be facing challenges such as SPD or VPD.  No matter how good a parent might be, children can express themselves in ways which present as “acting out”. It could be a coping mechanism; with parent and child doing the best they can.

I don’t have perfect children—all kids have bad moments. Either way, having perspective, and knowledge is a powerful set of glasses to help us all be a little more patient and kind to those around us.

photo credit: frank mckenna

Finding Joy in our Sensory Journey

The other morning I had brunch with a new friend whose child, like mine, has some Sensory Processing Disorders. We were chatting about the school our kids attended and I shared with her some of the struggles we had with my son’s second-grade teacher and the school’s principal. It was the time in our process of attempting to “diagnose” a cause for the behavioral struggles, and find ways to support him. He would get up and leave the classroom without permission, avoid bring home his work folder, and obstinately refuse to do certain class assignments. He would essentially just shut down.

These behaviors resulted in trips to see the principal and losing recess privileges. There were many pre-conclusions about what was wrong with my son. Most of those circled around behavior correction, compliance, and comparing him to a “normal student” with an expectation that he should be able to behave more like his peers.

It wasn’t pleasant and left a very bitter taste. I remember feeling that he was misunderstood, and I felt sad and alone in the fight for my child’s success. Unkind words were said by both teacher and administrator. I experienced a huge low.

As I relived some of those moments with my friend, I was shocked to realize how much my son and I have grown and overcome together the past couple years. While the sting of days past is still felt, I also have peace for them as well.

The struggle to understand, sleepless nights, frustrated tears, exhausting worry, anger and my resentment at unkindness, have shaped a hope I wouldn’t have imagined possible. Oh, believe me, I can for sure muster up some of those old friendly feelings, but I also feel so much accomplishment and freedom from it. Maybe I’ve learned to let go a bit, to shrug off the annoyed looks or words; we get them often from people who just don’t know or care to be patient. But for me, I have chosen to seek joy in our successes.

We have difficult days ahead, but more and more often they are 100% filled with fantastic bliss. That feeling is priceless, I hope you can build on that, and cherish it. When those bad days come-because they will most certainly come-take a moment to remember the victories you and your child have won. That’s what will make all the difference in how you face new challenges. 

photo credit: © Terri Moore 2017

What is Sensory Processing?

The human body is amazing! From the moment we are born it automatically kicks into a full functioning multifaceted working machine. It’s astounding how everything comes together and just works! Well for some of us anyway. 

Sensory Processing:

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses.

Now that we have a textbook definition of what sensory processing is let’s play a game. Question: How many senses make up our sensory processing?

Did you think 5?

I’m sorry but the answer is 7! 7! and if just one isn’t working correctly…well if you’re exploring what Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) means, then you’ll start to have an idea of the impact.

Internal and external environment is processed through the following

  1. Vision (ocular)*
  2. Hearing (auditory)*
  3. Taste (gustatory)
  4. Smell (olfactory)
  5. Touch (tactile)*
  6. Movement (Vestibular)*
  7. Joint and Muscle Awareness (Proprioceptive)*

The stars next to each of the senses are areas in which my child struggles; some areas more than others, but they all interrelate.

SPD can affect people in only one area or-like my child-in multiple. While no child will experience SPD the same as another, they are put into two groups, and in some cases, they can overlap. There are the Sensory Seekers and Sensory Avoiders. For example, my child does not like loud, noisy environments-avoider, where on the other hand he seeks deep pressure-like hugs or tightly fitted clothing-seeker.

What causes SPD?

The STAR Institue for Sensory Processing Disorder and their collaborators have been studying this very question. And so far their research suggests that it is inherited. So all you parents out there asking “was it something I did?” the answer is no. It is a DNA thing. Other factors are complications with a pregnancy or birth, as well as some environmental factors. (for more information check out spdstar.org it’s fantastic!)

Bottom line

It is unfortunate that children-like my own, suffering from SPD, are often times misdiagnosed – and therefore often inappropriately medicated- for ADHD. SPD can look like Autism Spectrum Disorders or even ADHD. I was told by two teachers that my child could have ASD or ADHD (good thing they aren’t doctors.) Remember, YOU- the parent! not Grandma, or Auntie or even the teacher knows your child better. If you feel like your child could have any kind of sensory delay speak with your child’s doctor. Be prepared to hear that it is “normal.” My pediatrician is an expert when it comes to diagnosing ear infections, not so much when it came to SPD-he totally missed it. We actually avoided our doctor altogether and took our child to get full evaluations from a psychologist. Whatever you decide to do, know that you are the only one that can/will advocate for you child.

photo credit: Johannes Plenio