By Tanner Makris
According to the American Foundation for Vision Awareness (AFVA), up to 25 percent of all school-age children have vision problems significant enough to impair academic performance. Examples of some problems include convergence insufficiency (eye misalignment when focusing near), eye-tracking and eye-focusing. With learning vision problems sharing 15 of 17 symptoms associated with ADD and ADHD, correctable learning vision problems are hard to diagnose. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), studies indicate that 60 percent of children identified as “problem learners” actually suffer from undetected vision problems, and in some cases have been inaccurately diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Misdiagnosed children can face harmful consequences for taking medication for disorders that they don’t actually have.
Kim Stickdorn’s ten-year-old daughter Chloe was one child who was misdiagnosed.
Chloe had poor reading comprehension, complained of headaches, would lose her place when reading, took a long time to complete homework, avoided reading, skipped or re-read lines, and had a short attention span. Despite working with a tutor, Chloe continued to struggle. She was labeled ADHD, and was on a variety of different medications including Adderrall, Concerta and Vivanse, none of which helped. No one really understood that Chloe was actually suffering from an eye movement disorder called convergence insufficiency until it was discovered that she was seeing words “moving” on the page while reading.
After a comprehensive vision examination, an optometrist identified the vision problem, and she started optometric vision therapy. Since doing vision therapy, Stickdorn said Chloe no longer needs medication, is more involved in class, has improved grades and is more outgoing.
“If we could help one child that is on ADHD meds to get off these terrible drugs, it would be great,” Stickdorn said. “How many kids are misdiagnosed and put on these meds?”
Considering that 20/20 vision is only one of 17 visual skills necessary for academic success, patients should understand the importance of a comprehensive eye exam by a developmental optometrist. Developmental optometrists receive specialized training to be able to identify and treat vision problems that interfere with a child’s academic success.
When Dr. Monika Spokas started Clarendon Vision, she said she wanted to change lives. The development of vision problems is personal for Dr. Spokas. Growing up, she had a vision problem that made activities like reading more difficult. All the way into post-graduate school, Dr. Spokas said she suffered from headaches, and found herself studying and working more than any of her peers. With each trip to the doctor, she found that her vision was deteriorating every six months. Only in optometry school did Dr. Spokas realize that she had a vision problem that was unfortunately undiagnosed.
“I want to make sure that no child has to go through what I did,” Dr. Spokas said. “Difficulties with learning oftentimes affect one’s self-esteem and even behavior. It is usually very hard on the child, as well as the entire family.”
Dr. Spokas was trained at the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD) in Aurora, Ohio. At the COVD, optometrists are trained in the field of vision development and correctable vision problems. The COVD has certified hundreds of optometrists in these fields.
Dr. Spokas has been practicing optometry here for over a decade, specializing in the treatment of learning-related vision problems. She works with children and adults whose vision problems interfere with their ability to read, learn, comprehend and even pay attention.
“There really is no way to tell if the vision problem is the source of issues until they are tested,” Dr. Spokas said.
But she said there are observable signs. These include taking hours to do only a small amount of homework, slow reading, losing their reading places, headaches, short attention spans and getting frustrated with themselves. In addition to the observable signs, there are other steps in diagnosing a learning vision problem.
“It is important for parents to understand that children rarely complain when they have a vision problem that interferes with academic success,” said Dr. Ida Chung, president of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD). “Children show you with their behavior. Therefore, it is vital that parents know the signs of a vision problem.
“Most importantly, don’t assume that because your child can see clearly in the distance that all is well when they are reading or trying to read.”
Unfortunately, a routine eye exam cannot identify learning vision problems.
“The majority of vision screenings and even eye exams are not designed to test for vision problems that interfere with academic success,” Dr. Chung said. “It takes specialized testing to identify the majority of vision problems that interfere with reading and learning.
“It is important to see the right eye-care professional.”
Dr. Spokas said she has children read paragraphs while they wear “special goggles” with infrared sensors that track and record their eye movements.
“This way we are able to determine if they have tracking issues that affect [the] child’s ability to read and comprehend,” she said.
Treatment is available for these vision problems that can complicate reading and learning. Oftentimes, experts said the symptoms will begin to dissipate from therapy within about six to eight weeks.
“If your child is not performing up to his potential or you know there is something not quite right with your child when it comes to learning,” Dr. Spokas said, “you really need to find out if vision is a contributing factor.”