Visual Processing Disorder (VPD) covers a variety of vision issues that have nothing to do with being near or farsighted. Does your child think that a square and a triangle look the same? Does she bump into things, because she doesn’t understand where objects are in relation to her body? Does she have trouble understanding that numbers and letters come in a certain order? All of these issues can be signs of a visual processing disorder. In VPD, the brain has trouble processing signals that come from the eyes.
A child with VPD may pass her vision test with flying colors because her eyes are fine. The problem is the way her brain deals with visual information. VPD is not something a person outgrows, but there are ways to cope with the challenges of having a visual processing disorder.
We think of our vision as something to do with the eyes, but it is much more than that. It is the brain that is responsible for using the information from our eyes to create images and impressions. But sometimes the brain doesn’t understand visual information as it should.
The eyes may send you the message that in front of you on a piece of paper is the shape of a triangle. But the brain may only see the image as a shape and not be able to tell you which kind of shape it is. The eyes may see a house a short way down the road, but the brain says that the house is far away. When the brain doesn’t see visual information as it should, it means that brain function is weak in these areas. And that is called visual processing disorder.
Visual processing disorders aren’t considered learning disabilities, but as you might suspect, they are common in children with learning issues. Just as dyslexia or dyscalculia have to do with a difference or weakness in brain function, so do visual processing disorders. When the brain is weak in one area, it is often weak in more than one area. This is why someone with VPD will often have other learning disorders. When someone has two disorders or disabilities at the same time, the conditions are said to be comorbid.
VPD can affect the way a child learns. But a visual processing disorder can also affect everyday tasks like putting away the forks and knives into their correct slots in the silverware drawer, or sinking a ball into a basketball hoop. Visual processing disorders can even affect the way a child feels about himself. To his classmates, a child with VPD may be the kid who can never get that ball into the hoop. And so the child may withdraw into himself, to avoid the frustration and pain that come with being different.
Visual processing disorder is complicated. There are eight different types of visual processing disorders but many people have more than one kind of VPD. Since visual processing issues don’t show up in a simple vision test, it could be your child will go through school without anyone picking up on the fact that he has a visual processing problem.
Eight Types of Visual Processing Disorders
Here are the eight types of visual processing disorders (remember that a child may have any combination of these forms of VPD):
- Visual discrimination: The child may not see the difference between similar shapes. He may mix up b and d and may not see the difference between a circle or an oval, for instance.
- Visual figure-ground discrimination: The child can’t pick out a person or a shape when seen against the background on a page. He may not be able to find specific information on a web page.
- Visual sequencing: The child doesn’t know that B and C always follow A, or that 4 follows 3. When he reads, he may skip lines because he doesn’t understand the idea of “next” as in “the next line.” Sometimes children with visual sequencing problems reverse letters or words.
- Visual-motor processing: The child has trouble using the feedback he gets from his eyes to coordinate the way other parts of his body move, for instance, the hands or the feet. He may knock into things or find it difficult to turn the pages in a book.
- Long/short-term visual memory: Show the child a picture, take it away, and ask him what he saw. The child with visual memory problems won’t remember. This type of VPD also makes it hard to remember the letters and numbers he has been taught in class and the books he has read. Visual memory issues can get in the way of using calculators and keyboards.
- Visual-spatial: The child has trouble understanding where things are within space. This affects his understanding of how close or far items are to them or to each other. The same may be true of objects he sees in a picture. Visual spatial issues can make it hard for a child to judge how much time has gone by, and it can make it difficult for him to read a map, too.
- Visual closure: A child may not understand that a smiley face is a face, because it is missing ears and hair. A truck without wheels may not be recognized as a truck. If the teacher gives a worksheet where students have to fill in missing letters or words, a child with visual closure issues may not be able to do the work.
- Letter and symbol reversal: Most kids reverse letters when they first begin to write. But if he’s still mixing up b and d and p after the age of 7, it may be due to a visual processing disorder. This sort of disorder can make reading, writing, and math work difficult.
VPD: How Common is it?
No one really knows how common visual processing issues are, especially since a lot of the time, these disorders go undetected. But we do know that the signs of VPD often show up in kids with learning disorders, for instance in children with dyslexia. Dyslexia is the most common learning disorder in America, where it is thought that as many as one in every five children has dyslexia. That translates to lots of kids who also have VPD.
What Causes VPD?
Again, no one really knows the cause of visual processing disorder. But if you think of the brain as a sort of circuit board where the wires can get tangled or kinked and even disconnected, you’ll have a pretty good picture of how VPD works. The eyes send a signal to the brain, but the signal crosses with a different one, or there’s a kink in the wiring that keeps the signal from going through to the right part of the brain. Or perhaps, the wire is narrower in parts. The brain’s synapses, responsible for mapping out information and sending messages, are very much like wires. The eye sees what it sees, but the brain fails to understand the information sent to it by the eyes.
Is it VPD?
Here are some signs that a child may have a visual processing disorder:
- Turns away from large amounts of visual information, such as the sight of a busy picture
- Fidgets during videos or PowerPoint presentations
- Does a sloppy job with visual tasks, for instance, sweeping the floor
- Doesn’t like to see movies or watch television
- Can’t deal with copying from the blackboard
- Mixes up shapes, letters, numbers, and words
- Always bumping into things, is clumsy
- Can’t stay inside the lines when writing or drawing
- Finds it hard to spell words he knows that have unusual spelling patterns, for instance he can never quite remember that “quite” is not “quiet”
- Can’t remember even his own phone number
- Doesn’t understand what he reads when he reads silently, to himself
- Cannot remember common facts read silently, for instance, that H2O is water
- When reading, he reads the same sentence over and over again, or skips too far down the page for the “next” line
- Says his eyes hurt, rubs them often
- His reading comprehension and writing skills are poor, but his verbal and oral comprehension skills are average or even strong
- His math skills are weak because he leaves out steps, overlooks function signs, or mixes up similar types of math problems
- Often fails to note changes to displays and signs, or new notices posted to bulletin boards
What’s A Parent to Do?
If you suspect your child has one or more visual processing disorders, there are many things you can do to help. Keep in mind that helping your child learn to cope will take patience and lots of work. Here are some of the things you can do at home that may be helpful:
- Read up on visual processing disorder. Knowledge is your best tool for helping your child with VPD.
- Watch your child as she does different tasks and take notes on what you see. Does she do tasks differently than most children? Writing down what you observe will help everyone in your child’s life understand her particular challenges and tell them how to respond.
- Always be clear when writing out schedules or instructions. Break up instructions into numbered steps. Write things out in large letters and use colors, too. When assigning household chores, you might use a different color for each sibling. If “sweep the steps” is written in purple, for instance, that means it’s Tommy’s task
- Use your child’s free time for activities improve visual processing, but turn things into a game. Do a puzzle together. Read. Play catch.
- Offer lots of praise for real achievements. If your child worked hard on studying for his spelling test and improved his grade, let him know you’re pleased. He needs your support and recognition to keep on going, because it’s such a struggle! Let him know you know that.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published Nov 14, 2017, and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.