What Are Visual Processing Difficulties?

What Are Visual Processing Difficulties

Takeaway: Visual processing difficulties have nothing to do with eyesight. Rather, they’re caused by changes in the way your child’s brain processes signals from her eyes. And these changes can make it harder for her to engage with the world. However, with a bit of guidance, she can learn to adapt to her differences, deal with her frustrations better, and become more confident by developing a ‘growth mindset.’

Did you know that ‘eyesight’ and ‘vision’ aren’t the same thing?

Our eyes take in light, convert it into electrical signals, and send these to the brain. The brain then interprets the signals so we can ‘see’ everything around us. The first part of this process (i.e., channelling the light) is called ‘eyesight,’ while the second part (i.e., interpreting the signals) is called ‘vision.’ Most of us don’t know about this second part, though, which is why we’re confused when our children have ‘vision’ problems. 20/20 eyesight means nothing if there are also visual processing difficulties.

Visual processing difficulties pop up when certain brain mechanisms don’t work as expected.

As we’ve seen, ‘vision’ occurs in the brain, not the eyes. And it involves a bunch of brain mechanisms (or wiring). For instance, one set of mechanisms have to make sense of incomplete visual shapes like, for example, your friend’s head peaking at you from around the corner. Your brain has to realise that even though half the head is hidden, it still does exist. Similarly, when your friend walks towards you, your brain has to recognise that it’s still her – even if her shape, in effect, ‘changes’ as you see her from different angles. And to track your friend as she walks, your brain also has to separate her outline from whatever’s in the background.

It’s fascinating how all this can tweak how your child experiences the world.

Researchers have devised experiments to trace vision difficulties down to particular brain pathways. For example, they followed nerve endings in the eye back to where they plug into the brain, and honed in on two brain-cell chains (think of them as wires). The first (the parvocellular pathway) processes colours and contrast, while the second (the magnocellular pathway) tracks movement. So, if their signals get crossed, it’ll lead to unusual difficulties. For instance, if the ‘colour pathway’ is overwhelmed by, say, the colours of a poster, then it might recruit the ‘movement pathway’ too. And so the words on the poster might suddenly appear to move! Fascinating, right? Your child’s visual processing difficulties can, quite literally, change the way she experiences the world around her.

So, how do you spot these visual processing issues? Well, you’ll likely notice differences in the way your child does everyday tasks.

Your child can’t tell you about her visual difficulties because she doesn’t know what’s ‘normal.’ But you’ll be able to pick up little clues along the way. For instance, she might have trouble reading and writing – perhaps mixing up letters when spelling words, confusing mirror letters like ‘b’ and ‘d,’ writing words in randomly sized fonts or spacing words inconsistently. She might also have trouble with visual puzzles like Where’s Wally? or struggle to find things on a cluttered table. And directions might confuse her – e.g., telling ‘left’ from ‘right’, or understanding what ‘under’ or ‘in front of’ mean. If colours are a problem, you might notice her struggling to match her clothes or socks. And she might also seem clumsy since vision issues make it harder to judge distance.

These sorts of difficulties overlap with the learning and attention differences we’ve discussed in the past.

In earlier posts, we’ve explored learning differences like dyslexia (reading issues), dysgraphia (handwriting issues), and dyscalculia (maths issues). All of these are influenced by visual processing difficulties, although they’re separate diagnoses. For example, the reading/writing difficulties we looked at can overlap with traits from dyslexia, and the clumsiness we described is a key sign of dyspraxia. And as with learning differences, these visual processing difficulties can make academic work so much harder, which will affect your child’s self-confidence. So, the earlier we spot these difficulties, the earlier we can step in and support her.

To help your child, you can start with a few changes.

Regular solutions to eyesight problems won’t work with vision difficulties. For instance, glasses won’t help, and neither will sitting closer to the whiteboard in class. Instead, your child can try fixes like using graph paper to help with letter spacing. Or breaking down visual problems into bitesize steps (e.g., with Where’s Wally?, she can divide the page into segments and search each of these in turn). She could also try decluttering her workspace, so there aren’t any distractions. Younger children can use sensory activities to supplement what they learn – for instance, using craft wire to form alphabet shapes they can touch rather than just see. Meanwhile, older children can audio-record class lectures (to use their auditory pathways as a backup) and recruit a proofreading buddy to check writing errors.

However, your child will ideally need more than this. She’ll need the sort of structured support that a specialist can offer.

Specialists can help your child address her visual processing difficulties systematically. They can teach her problem-solving skills to work around her differences, emotional coping skills to deal with stress and frustration, and a mindset change to make her resilient.

To learn more about your options, feel free to call or email us.

At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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