If you’ve just learned that your child is visually impaired, you are probably trying to sort out how serious the problem is, where to get help, and what this means for your child’s future. In many cases, visual impairments can be corrected.
If your child’s visual impairment is serious, give yourself time to adjust. Learn more about your child’s condition and treatment options. You will be your child’s best advocate in the years to come.
Types and Causes of Vision Problems in Children
One in 20 preschoolers and 1 in 4 school-age children have vision problems, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
There are many types of visual impairments, and they can range in degree from mild to severe. These are common vision problems:
- Nearsightedness (myopia) is a problem with focusing that makes distant objects appear blurry. Glasses or contacts can usually improve it.
- High Myopia is a severe form of nearsightedness that can lead to other health problems including retinal detachment, glaucoma, and cataracts.It can be treated with medication drops, glasses, contacts or cataract lens replacement surgery.
- Farsightedness (hyperopia) is a problem with focusing that makes close objects appear blurry. Glasses or contacts can usually improve it.
- Astigmatism occurs when there is a flaw in the curvature of the eye’s cornea, causing problems with focusing. Glasses can usually improve it.
- Strabismus occurs when the eyes are out of alignment. If detected early, temporarily patching the normal eye may resolve the problem by forcing the brain to use the affected eye. Surgery is sometimes needed.
- Amblyopia, also know as “lazy eye," occurs when vision in one eye is reduced. This happens because the brain and eye are not working together. Patching or special eye drops may help treat it.
- Ptosis, or drooping of the upper eyelid, usually requires surgery if it affects vision or can be corrected in adulthood for cosmetic reasons.
Damage to the eye or a problem with the eye’s shape or structure can cause other types of visual impairments. Some have nothing to do with the eye itself, but are the result of a problem in the way the brain processes information. Conditions that lead to vision problems in children include:
- Cortical visual impairment (CVI). This is a result of a problem in the area of the brain that controls vision. Not enough oxygen to the brain, brain injury, or infections such as encephalitis and meningitis can cause CVI. It can lead to temporary or permanent vision impairment and blindness.
- Retinopathy of prematurity(ROP). This occurs most often in premature and low-birthweight babies. It is the result of abnormal blood vessels or scarring in the eye’s retina. The problem often resolves by itself. If more severe, ROP can result in permanent vision impairment or blindness.
- Albinism. This genetic condition affects the pigment of the skin, and often causes eye problems.
- Genetically transmitted visual impairments. Infantile cataracts (a cloudy lens) and congenital glaucoma (a disorder that damages the optic nerve) often run in families. They can cause vision impairment.
Diagnosing Vision Problems in Children
Everyone needs regular eye exams. This is particularly important if your child has risk factors or a family history of eye problems. Children need their vision checked at infancy, 6 months, between 3 and 3 1/2 years, and upon entering school, around the age of 5.
You should see your primary healthcare provider for any of these symptoms of vision problems. They can refer you to an eye doctor if needed:
- Redness or swelling in the eye
- Lots of tearing or blinking
- Poor eye alignment
- Frequent rubbing of one or both eyes
- Frequent closing or covering of one eye
- Extreme sensitivity to light
- Trouble tracking an object in range of vision
- Tilting the head when trying to focus
- Eyes that appear asymmetric or that show white reflection in photos
These are other possible symptoms of vision problems you may notice in an older child:
- Trouble seeing the blackboard at school (check with your child or child’s teacher)
- Sitting very close to the television
- Leaning close to books while reading or doing homework
- Headaches or nausea
Education for Visually Impaired Children
Visually impaired children can have learning problems that range from mild to severe. Their educational needs and options will depend on the nature of their disability.
Under the American Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), visually impaired children are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education." But this doesn’t mean that you should simply send visually impaired children off to school and hope for the best. You will need to ensure that your child gets the support they need to learn and flourish. Here are some suggestions:
- Your pediatrician should arrange for your family to be involved in an early intervention program to assess needs further, which might include modification of the environment, physical therapy, or occupational therapy.
- Talk to teachers and administrators at your child’s school. Make sure that they understand your child’s special issues and that accommodations are being made in the classroom. Additionally a special team may be assigned to develop an IEP and ensure your child’s needs are being met.
- Get a second opinion from a learning specialist if you aren’t comfortable with your child’s learning environment.
- Check in with your child and your child’s teachers often to make sure that they are thriving at school and that appropriate support is in place to meet your child’s needs.
If your child’s visual impairment is severe, they may need help from other specialists to develop life skills. Specialists in low-vision rehabilitation and mobility are trained to help visually impaired children adapt to their environment and develop independence.
Today, there are also many low-vision devices and adaptive technologies that will help your child communicate, learn, and lead an independent life. Rehabilitation specialists can help find the resources that will be most helpful, given your child’s condition.
Support for Parents of Visually Impaired Children
If your child’s visual impairment is severe, you’ll need extra support. In your effort to get help for your child, though, don’t forget yourself. Take steps to reach out and find the support you need, so you’ll have the resources to help your child:
- Educate yourself. Learn all you can about your child’s disability and the options for treatment and education. Look at other articles on this web site, and seek out relevant information from government and nonprofit organizations that offer resources for families of visually impaired children.
- Build a support system. Seek out other parents of visually impaired children. They will be a wonderful source of information and support. Ask your doctor or learning specialist for referrals to parents’ support groups in your area.
- Take care of yourself. To avoid stress and burnout, be sure to make time for yourself, and for the friendships and activities you enjoy.
- Take care of your relationships. Having a child with a disability can put pressure on your marriage and your entire family. Nurture your relationship by having frequent dates and private time together. Don’t forget your other children, too. Schedule regular one-on-one time, and keep up with their interests and activities.