It can be heartbreaking to see an otherwise bright child start believing he is stupid. What should a parent think when an otherwise happy and confident child makes comments like "I'm stupid" while doing his homework? Especially when his teachers say he is doing well in school.
Jack was one of those children. He would stand up at the table when he was doing his homework. "I would tell him that he had to sit down in the chair. I thought that was really strange," his mother shares. "At first I thought he just didn't want to do his homework and was trying to get out of it. He was not complaining about doing the homework he just kept standing up while looking at his paper. Lots of kids at that age are squirrely at homework time."
But, every once in awhile, when he was doing his homework, he began to say, "I'm stupid." This was a big red flag for Jack's mother, who is also a pediatrician. Dr. Debra Walhof shares, "As a pediatrician I work with children enough to know that when a child feels or says 'I'm stupid' they know they are different from the other kids in the class." But why would he say that? His teachers loved him, he had no social or behavioral issues and his class work according to his teachers was great. He was also a very happy and confident kid.
Now the challenge became figuring out what was wrong. Dr. Walhof did what most moms do when their child has a problem… she took Jack to his pediatrician. The pediatrician said that while Jack's distance vision was good, he recommended that Jack get a full vision exam to rule out a vision problem.
The result of the eye exam was surprising. It turns out that Jack was farsighted (meaning he had trouble seeing up close) and glasses were prescribed to help Jack see when he was reading. The optometrist also said that he needed vision therapy for his focusing skills. Jack immediately completed that program.
However, when Jack was in 2nd grade, Dr. Walhof felt that although his work was still fine in school her gut was telling her that something about his learning was different. His teacher told her not to worry, but she was not convinced. Next, Dr. Walhof insisted on getting specialized testing for Jack and the results showed that Jack was Dyslexic. Because he was such a smart kid, he was able to figure out ways to accommodate around his learning disability which is why his teacher thought everything was fine.
At this point Dr. Walhof began a journey that is common for many parents of children with learning disabilities. The journey involves learning about your child's unique learning differences, educating yourself on the various therapeutic modalities as well as learning how to advocate for your child in a complex educational system.
She hired a dyslexic tutor to work with Jack. Dr. Walhof also joined a nine person parent advocacy committee for the National Center of Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. In addition, Dr. Walhof gathered as much electronic support for Jack as possible, with books on tape, phonetic spell checking and transcribing programs.
But three years later, Jack was still struggling with reading. The dyslexic tutor told Dr. Walhof this was the best he was going to get. While many parents would have given up at this point, Dr. Walhof didn't stop searching. During this time their family moved from California to Oregon, so she took Jack to another developmental optometrist who said Jack could benefit from more vision therapy that would focus on some different areas, such as tracking, that would relate more specifically to his reading.
After completing this second optometric vision therapy program, Dr. Walhof saw definite improvement. "Jack was less tired when reading, his eyes were tracking better and he stopped complaining that his eyes hurt. He also felt more confident in his reading," according to Dr. Walhof. "Optometric vision therapy set the foundation for his eyes to be able to read properly."
Dr. Walhof also found that Jack needed to unlearn what his dyslexic tutor had taught him about how to decode through the language-based method. The language-based method is the predominant method in schools and works for many but not all kids. Dr. Walhof found another method that was more visually-based and after one lesson, the world opened up for Jack. "Understanding that there are many paradigms and that each kid is unique in his learning style and being open to various modalities is key in fulfilling the educational needs of each child. The vision therapy gave Jack the foundational tools he needed to read and the visual-based learning method significantly improved Jack's ability to read."
Dr. Walhof, who has been a pediatrician for 25 years, attributes much of her ability to think outside the box to the Associate Fellowship program she went through in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona which was conducted by Dr. Andrew Weil. "His program emphasizes an approach that each patient is unique, that all approaches need to be patient-centered and that no single modality holds all the answers for all the patients."
When asked what advice she would like to give to parents, Dr. Walhof shares, "If you have a child with a learning issue, you cannot rely solely on your child's school. You need to evaluate things yourself. I made a number of mistakes which all parents make, such as deferring to experts even though in my heart I knew they were wrong. If you have a strong feeling something isn't right for your child, it probably isn't and you need to continue searching for a solution. In addition, I learned most of the important information from other parents who were further into this journey with their child."
"It is important to remember that normal sight may not necessarily be synonymous with normal vision…" Dr. Walhof continues, "That being said, if there is a vision problem, it could be preventing the best tutoring and learning methods from working. Now that certainly doesn't mean every dyslexic child needs vision therapy; however in my opinion, skills such as focusing, tracking and others are essential foundational tools for reading. In general, if your child has trouble with reading or learning to read, getting a vision evaluation to assess these skills from a qualified Developmental Optometrist would be a smart move."
Vision is the process of seeing, processing, and acting on the world. Learning is highly affected by deficits in all areas of vision; whether in the acquisition (sight), understanding, or resulting actions. Most "eye" doctors, optometrists and ophthalmologists do not test vision – they test our sight (visual acuity). In order to make sure that your child is being tested for things that can affect learning dramatically, seek out a provider that specializes in visual processing and visual efficiency testing and treatment. Things to get evaluated if your child struggles with any learning difference:
Focusing near to far – speed and ability
Stereopsis – depth perception
Tracking – fixation skills, pursuit and saccadic skills
Visual memory and recall
Visual motor integration – eye-hand coordination
Laterality and directionality