Visual Difficulties

The child with visual difficulties, including Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome or Light Sensitivity

What are visual difficulties? Some are physiological, some are perceptual, but they both exist and can seriously impair the development of literacy skills.

 Maybe we all see things differently. We certainly perceive things differently, but maybe everyone’s sight is as different as everyone’s fingerprint! Even if this is not so, it is important for the teacher to realise that what she sees is not necessarily exactly the same as what each of her pupils see. A teenager once said to me, when he had just had corrective measures for a sight problem, “I did not realise that ceilings were square to walls! They have always been curved to me before!” A very young child who had just been prescribed glasses, told his father “the lamp-posts have tops now” and the chippings in the path were “lots of little stones now!” One wonders what these two young people saw when they looked at other things through their world of visual difficulties. Both the teenager and the young child had their vision improved with glasses and their literacy skills improved at once. Yet, to look around the classrooms in countries like Dominica, there are very few, if any children wearing glasses! Glasses are a luxury that cannot be afforded. So how do they see their world? How distorted is the writing on the chalkboard to those with visual difficulties, how distorted the print in their books? Teachers should constantly question “How well do my pupils see what I am giving them to look at?”


Light sensitivity or Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome

Some children have a physiological problem that gives them a visual difficulty, but there are some others whose sight is adversely affected, not by a physiological problem, but by a visual perceptual problem…the way their brain interprets what they see. Light Sensitivity is such a visual perceptual difficulty and can often distort their everyday world from the shape of a room, to the text in their reading book and the lines in their writing books. I knew of three children in a school  in Dominica who have struggled with a visual perceptual difficulty, which had not been diagnosed. One had already repeated two years of schooling, an intelligent boy who simply could not achieve success in reading and writing because he was so very light sensitive.(Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome or Irlen Syndrome). He was constantly blinking his runny eyes and he had frequent headaches.  There was nothing physiologically wrong with his eyes, which were frequently checked, but something awry with his visual perception.

What to do to in the school environment to compensate a child with visual difficulties  1) If possible, seek medical advice or help from an optician to see if there is a physiological problem.2) Be aware that standard screening in schools stands the child across the room to check that the child can read the letters on a chart. This does not check what the child sees when reading a text. It also depends on children knowing the names of the letters they are supposed to be “reading”.

3)  Be aware that children with any sort of visual difficulty will learn more efficiently from different positions in the classroom. Try allowing them to choose where is best for them, different places for various activities. You might be surprised at where they pick. They may dismiss sight problems in favour of sitting near a friend, so you will have to make the decision. If they work well near that ,then let them sit together. Perhaps they could both move!

4) Be particularly conscientious about good classroom practices with: 

good, clean chalkboard work that is clear and not overloaded,

few classroom distractions so that the child with visual difficulties can concentrate more easily,

well labeled charts and display areas so the child can find words he needs easily and go to them if necessary,

opportunities to group the children closer together for group activities, so that each one has a clearer view of any charts or pictures that are being shown to the class

and be a teacher who avoids standing with her back to the light, as this makes it more difficult for the learner to see the teacher.. 

4) Note any child who is rubbing his eyes a lot or blinking a lot..or propping his head more than the others. He may have a visual perceptual difficulty caused by his being light sensitive. The moving shadows of ceiling fans flickering on a wall can cause a strobing effect and, if near the chalk board, could cause the writing on it to be distorted for him. Allow him to wear a hat in class to shield his eyes and allow him to choose a seat where there is less flickering of light.The white paper in his printed reading book might be too bright and so he keeps losing his place. He might use his finger or a strip of paper to help guide his eye in an effort to compensate. Allow him to do this. He will probably prefer to read older books where pages have yellowed. His spelling could be impaired as he cannot easily acquire a clear visual image of the letters of a word, so cannot add it to his visual memory. He will over rely on phonics to spell and so he will mis-spell.His handwriting might be poor because, for him, the lines on his page oscillate. Try to find non-white paper for him to write on. Allow him to work in a shadier part of the school. At all times remember he is not being difficult, not being silly, but he just does not see in the same way as a person who is not so light sensitive.

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