The Eyes: The Window to the Brain
This post is a condensed summary of our podcast about visual motor development. To listen to the full episode scroll to the bottom of the page or find us on all of the major streaming services.
Hello and welcome this post is all about the eyes. When I am working with a child, I look at several different areas. I look at the brain stem and the cerebellum, which are the two lowest parts of the brain, and I look at a bunch of other body systems that connect to the brain. All of these areas provide the foundation on which the rest of the brain develops and functions. One of the main body systems that I look at is the visual motor system.
This refers to have how kids can move and control their eyes. For most of us this is a system that we take for granted. We are able to control our eyes effectively with little to no effort and our eyes provide our brain with accurate information about the world around us.
For the kids that I work with this process doesn’t happen smoothly. This is one of the biggest areas that affect school performance. Visual-motor problems are almost always present in the kids I see who are struggling with reading and writing. You have to get the eyes working properly before you will see success in school.
So lets look at how the visual system develops. At birth our visual system is very immature newborns can only see a short distance from their face and they have very little control over how they move their eyes. Throughout that first year babies make huge leaps in their visual skills. They learn lots of different skills:
dilate and contrac their pupils to respond to light
focus thie visual attention
tune out irrelevant visual information
track something that is moving
focus their eyes on something nearby
focus their eyes on something in the distance
coordinate their eyes and their hands
and much more
These are all big skills that we rely on as we get older especially when we get into school.
Now keep in mind that the way we use our eyes determines how they will work. The things that babies experience during their first year after birth affect how well they can control their eyes. One of my primary focuses is on retained primitive reflexes. One of the functions of primitive reflexes is to encourage use and development of the eyes. These reflexes help to train the visual system so that babies learn how to effectively use their eyes.
Keep in mind that the brain develops in a very orderly manner, so one stage leads into the next and our brain builds on the skills we develop in previous stages.
This happens with primitive reflexes. Babies should use them for a limited period of time and as they integrate and disappear it moves our brain into the next more advanced stage of development. When this process is interrupted you see big problems with the way the eyes develop. Children get stuck with an immature visual system and can’t use their eyes effectively. In this post we are going to look at the most common problems I see with this visual development process.
So let’s look at some of the first visual skills to develop, that’s the ability to respond to light and the ability to focus our visual attention. Right after birth babies are very sensitive to light and their pupils have to learn how to contract and dilate properly. Their vision also tends to be very peripheral meaning their attention is focused on the edges of their visual field. Their vision is going to be drawn to sudden movements, contrasting colors and faces. As they get a little bigger their vision becomes more central and they can start focusing on details and they begin the basics of tuning our irrelevant information.
All of this is happening during the first few months after birth around the same time that the Moro or infant startle reflex is beginning to disappear. Older children who still have their infant Moro reflex often have visual problems related to these two skills. It is really common to see kids whose pupils don’t respond properly to light. They dilate or contract when they shouldn’t or they fail to dilate or contract when they should. A lot of times this leads to light sensitivity. Kids in this category struggle with bright lights and may complain about lights or they may be very distracted by lights.
The other common problem at this stage is with visual attention. A lot of the kids I see tend to be very visually stimulus bound, meaning they have a hard time focusing their visual attention and tuning out other things in the environment. These kids tends to be very distracted by the world around them and are constantly having to refocus their attention.
The next common visual motor problem I see is with tracking. Tracking refers to the ability to follow something in a smooth line. It can either be something moving or just a smooth line of print. By the time a child is school age they should be able to move their eyes smoothly from side to side and up and down with little to ne effort on their part.
This skill of tracking is very closely connected to the ATNR or Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex. It is one of the biggest reasons why is because it negatively affects tracking.
While this reflex is present it helps babies learn to fixate their vision and start to focus it. The integration of this reflex is what jumpstarts our ability to learn good visual tracking.
What this means for older children is that it takes a lot of effort for them to move their eyes smoothly. Usually this becomes most apparent with reading and writing. It can be really hard for these kids to follow the letters and words in a line. It can be hard for them to move from one line to the next without getting lost. They are using up a lot of brain power trying to get their eyes to work and this leave very little left over for learning and reading comprehension. If you try to add in coordinating their hand like for handwriting things get even worse.
The next major visual motor skill that I assess is convergence. This refers to our eyes ability to work together as a team to see one image. If we are looking at something close to our face, both of our eyes should turn in together so that our brain can use both our eyes to make one stable image. A lot of the kids that I work with struggle with this skill.
What you see with convergence problems is that the eyes do not turn in and work together. For some kids they always favor one eye over the other. Some kids will have both eyes turn in and then they really struggle to hold that position. Their eyes jump quite a bit and they have to keep refocusing them. Other kids just start straight ahead and think that they are looking where they are supposed to. This really throws off the information that our brain is getting from our eyes.
Our brain does a pretty decent job of filling in information for us but it isn’t perfect. When they eyes don’t converge properly our brain has to fill in the missing pieces. As you can imagine this really affects reading and writing. It also affects hand eye coordination and depth perception.
Problems with visual motor skills like these also lead to problems with visual perception. There are two very common visual perception problems that I see when they eyes don’t move correctly. The first is visual discrimination. This refers to our ability to detect small similarities and differences in different shapes and directions. Obviously this is very important for reading because letters are all just small differences in shape and direction. If our eyes aren’t tracking and converging properly is can mess with our ability to perceive these small differences. You can really see it in similar letters like b’s, d’s and p’s.
The next area that I commonly see problems in is visual motor integration. This just refers to our ability to coordinate our hand and our eyes. Usually in reference to writing or drawing. It is very common to see kids with tracking and convergence problems struggle with visual motor integration.
A lot of times when they are drawing their lines don’t connect cleanly. They may switch the direction of lines or curves. Their writing may slant in a funny direction or get bigger or smaller at different points. All of these things affect school performance.
If kids don’t have the physical tools they need when they start school they are going to struggle. By the time we are in school our body and brain should be working really well together to give us the information we need to learn. We should be able to do things like focus our attention and move our eyes without it require much if any effort on our part.
My goal is always to get the body and brain working the way they should. The automatic parts should do their job without any effort. Now an important thing to keep in mind is that if a child has retained reflexes and visual motor problems we always work on the reflexes first. Most of the time if you work on reflexes first the visual skills will come in on their own. This is how the brain and body naturally develop.
That being said occasionally kids will need help with both reflexes and visual motor skills. In those cases we take care of the reflexes first and then we can add in extra vision work to really strengthen the brain/eye connection. Now I am an expert in primitive reflexes I am not an expert in vision. The stuff that I know about visual development is all reflex related, so if kids need more than that I have some amazing Doctors and vision therapists that I work with who know a lot more about the eyes than I do.
If any of this sounds like your child then please visit my website at www.earlyrootstherapy.com to learn more. I have a screening questionnaire on there and I offer free phone consults to review the questionnaire and see if this type of therapy would be helpful for your child. As always thank you so much for reading, I hope you learned something helpful!