Treating a reading disability with Vision Therapy
In January of my son’s second grade year, God spoke to me in three unmistakable messages–one from my mom, one from a “random” flyer sent home from school, and one from a note on my table. All pointed me to a local doctor who specializes in Vision Therapy. I had never heard of it, and at first I was skeptical. We were already covered up with homework, and with two other kids, I didn’t have time to take on something else. But I know God, and when He wants me to do something, He will send three messages. So I went to that first meeting and then signed up for their free screening.
The first free screening turned up some anomalies in my son’s vision, so they sent us to the eye doctor to see if he needed glasses. He did not. Back at VT for the extended, three-hour testing, we found (and I finally got to see) more anomalies. Like the fact that my son couldn’t follow a ball with his eyes while answering simple questions like how to spell his name. His eyes would literally start shaking so violently, I could see it from across the room.
The problems causing the reading disability
After each test, he would sit back and rub his eyes as they turned red and watered. I had seen him do that thousands of times. I always thought it was just him. Never would I have guessed it was because his eyes were struggling so hard to work. Other tests turned up other issues–like his near-to-far focus time issue. He could focus near, and he could focus far (think look down at your paper and then up at the board and then back down at your paper to copy something from the board). Each refocus would take progressively longer. So the first shift in focus might take 5 seconds, the second 10, the third 15, the fourth 20…
Suddenly, those words written across the tops of so many papers, “This was written on the board” And “He copied this from the board” (with a word circled that was spelled wrong) came into sharp focus for me! How long was it taking him to try to copy something one letter at a time from the board? You try it. Pick a word. Look up and count to five. Now look down and count to 10 and write the first letter. Now look up and count to 15, now look down, count to 20 and write the second letter. How much was he missing as he diligently tried to get this done?
We had a lot of no wonder moments. No wonder he kept “being distracted.” When he was reading, it would go like this: “The boy took the… Mom, guess what Mrs. Jager said today.” “We’ll talk about that later. Read.” He puts his gaze back on the book “The boy went to the barn to… Guess what Emmy did on the playground.” Talk about FRUSTRATING! But now, I understood. His eyes were literally working SO hard, they had to have a break. It was like his whole system was screaming, “OVERLOAD! OVERLOAD! Overheating, must take a break!”
In fact, that’s exactly what the “spells” in first grade had been. His system got so overloaded that it had to shut down for a few seconds or even a minute to avoid complete meltdown. The spells weren’t causing the reading trouble, the reading trouble was causing the spells. And it all went right back to his eyes which were not working the way they were supposed to be.
Picture this. You are going to get into shape. So you go to the gym and go over to the fifty pound weights. Now you haven’t worked out in forever, but these are the weights you “should” be able to lift. So you do–or at least you try. How likely are you to succeed at that? How likely are you to hurt yourself? How likely are you to want to do it again and again and again? Would you if you thought everyone was looking at you and judging you if you couldn’t lift them? Or might you find other excuses to get out of doing it so everyone wouldn’t know you couldn’t? What tactics would you employ to give yourself a “break” while you were trying to lift what you couldn’t?
That’s exactly what was happening with my son (and I’m guessing countless others). He was trying to “lift that 50 pounds” because everyone expected him to, but the truth was, his eyes simply were not strong enough to do so.
This eye-strength connection also explains why these problems tend to be genetic. My two siblings, I know only now, struggled with this same problem (and barely made it through school without full-blown dyslexia themselves). At least four of my husband’s siblings also struggled with this. So much so that I remember the stories of his mom spending hours each night reading each of them their homework. At the time, being a reader myself, I thought that was horrible. They should have read it on their own. Now I understand. They simply couldn’t, and she had no recourse or resources to do much of anything about it.
So, bottom line is, my son’s eye muscles were extremely weak. His eyes did not converge like they are supposed to. They would shake when he was trying to read something–especially something with very small print. They would “jump” back and forth across a line of type so that he didn’t read the last word, or he would skip words, or leave words out, or repeat words. Near-to-far focus was also a problem as was making accurate visual maps of things. He could not look at a picture and then turn the page and draw what he had seen. Once it was gone, it was gone.
In spelling this meant he had no visual image of the words. He couldn’t “see” them in his mind. That’s why, when we tried to spell in the van in the mornings, he would refused to spell the words. He couldn’t see them, and he couldn’t write them down, so he couldn’t spell them. (Dumb me thought he was being obstinate! Hello, 50-pound weight!) It was the same with the words he read. Suddenly the fact that he was trying to memorize the same words three times–once to read them, once to write them, and once to spell them as if they were three separate words made sense. So did the fact that to that point, he could read words he couldn’t spell, but he could also spell words he couldn’t read. That never made sense to me. Now it was starting to.
Overcoming the reading disability – confidence returns!
I have to say as much as his eye therapy helped him, it helped me equally. I finally understood he wasn’t being lazy. He wasn’t trying to be distracted. He wasn’t trying to test my patience. There were real, physical challenges he was experiencing, and we needed to work on them and fix them as much as possible for him to be able to do this. So, we started with the 1-pound weights with the new eye exercises and started working our way up to what he “should be able to do.”
And the results were nearly instantaneous. He went from mid-80’s in spelling to mid-to-high 90’s and even a couple of tests over 100 due to bonus words. Tests that would have been disasters in the 65-magnitude before were low 90’s. In the van, he could spell the words accurately and fast. He went from struggling through 18 easy pages of reading a night to 55-average easy pages of reading a night (in 20 minutes). He was finally starting to READ instead of stumble around.
We continued our intensive at-home reading and added in the home therapy, which are basically little exercises for the eyes that take about 10 minutes a day to accomplish. Eye therapy has just become a way of life around here. In fact, my older daughter (16), who had incredible reading challenges of her own in fourth grade, has now begun eye therapy as well.
She has one eye that doesn’t turn in like it’s supposed to. For a long time she read by moving her head, and she had horrible headaches all the time. Glasses helped once the eye doctor agreed to give her starter glasses (and before we knew about eye therapy). But the eye therapy is turning up issues we didn’t even know were problems–other than she had great difficulty doing simple things like catching a ball or transferring things from one hand to the other. Now we know… it was her eyes that were the problem all the time!
Toward the end of school with my son, we went back and started the Hooked on Phonics program again. He went through all six levels (two he had never been able to do) in about six weeks. His final six week Language Arts grade was a 95. Even more importantly, I see the confidence in reading he’s gaining. We can now sit down and read for nearly an hour with only a few distractions. He can focus on what he’s reading so that he gets the jokes and thinks the stories are funny. He’s finally enjoying them.
He’s learning to “chop” long words, and we’re tackling those last few letter combinations he’s having trouble with. Finally it’s not ALL of them!
Best of all, his wonderful little personality is back. He’s happy. He makes up stories and plays for us again. He’s creative and excited about life. His new big thing for the summer is the bunny trap he’s set up in the backyard to try to catch an unsuspecting rabbit. I thank vision therapy and God for lighting our way through this unbelievable darkness. As a parent, I can’t tell you how lonely I felt so many nights as I tried to figure out what was going on, praying that somehow we would find something that would help.
So to parents out there who are struggling with their dyslexic son or daughter, please know, there is hope. And to all of you who have this challenge in your life, know that there are answers. It’s not “just you.” You are not “stupid.” In fact, you have many, many gifts wired into you as well as this challenge. Please know that you have my respect for getting this far and not giving up. Know also that God has a plan for you, and He’s right there with you. He will lead you to your answers if you will take His hand and trust Him to show you.
The gifts we have, we are given to share. I believe that. As a parent of a son who is on the cusp of being a “former-dyslexic,” I want to pass on the gift of knowledge that we have gained about Vision Therapy. It is truly one of the best gifts I have ever received!
by Staci Stallings
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