Vision therapy helps kids overcome reading problems, succeed in school
When Bergen Lindahl was about 3 years old, she couldn't sit still when her mother read to her.
"She was never curious about the words. She was only curious about the pictures," mom Beth says.
Bergen squirmed, turned her head away or lay upside down to look at the book from a different angle.
"I always thought that was kind of strange, but I just thought she was a wiggly child," Beth says.
Bergen was placed in a special reading program after testing low for her age at the start of second grade.
Meanwhile, other moms at the Fargo family's church asked Beth whether she'd had her daughter's eyes tested - not for visual acuity (20/20 and so on), but for eye muscle strength and visual skill.
"When you look at something, you don't just 'see' it with your eyes; you inspect, discriminate, identify and interpret all as part of your visual system," says neuro-developmental optometrist Dr. Steven Agnes of Fargo's Family Eye Clinic.
At home, Beth decided to see whether Bergen could cross her eyes. When she asked her to follow her finger to her nose, she couldn't do it.
"Then I knew right away she must have some sort of a muscle problem," she says.Enter Dr. Agnes, whose methods can help with development, attention, academics, sports, occupational needs and medical conditions.
He provides treatment for visual difficulties related to ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, tracking and reading problems; visual analysis and vision rehabilitation for patients with special needs, developmental delays or traumatic brain injury; and treatment for stress-related visual problems including blurred vision, visual stress from reading and computer use, eye-strain headaches and vision-induced motion sickness.
"Just like speech therapy where you're training your mouth, this is eye therapy where you're training your eyes," Beth says.
Bergen did weekly vision therapy sessions at Family Eye Clinic and daily exercises at home. At school, the special education staff (whom Beth calls "angels") worked with Bergen to get her caught up.
Beth says the difference is remarkable after a year of treatment.
"She can read lines now. Before, when she saw a paragraph, all the letters would float. Her eye muscles couldn't even control where the letters were placed on the page," Beth says of her daughter, now 9.
Though it took hard work and dedication, she says vision therapy was worth it.
"We (my husband and I) are both people who love to read and care about education, so the thought of her not being able to read was really devastating to me," Beth says.
In the beginning, she worried, "What's she going to be able to do with her life? She can't even read a paragraph," but now that her daughter has the skills she needs and she knows how to cope with her vision challenges, she'll have more opportunities to succeed in school and life.
"If they do the work, they'll get better," Agnes says.
'GO SEE HIM FIRST'
Nine-year-old Tyanne Crotty of Pembina, N.D., took a similar path to vision therapy at Family Eye Clinic, a two-hour drive on a good day.
From an early age, the girl's teachers knew something wasn't right, but they didn't know what. One thought it was attention deficit disorder.
Her first-grade teacher told her mother, JoHannah, "I'm certain Tyanne has ADD; you need to have her tested for ADD."
JoHannah decided to wait until Tyanne finished vision therapy before having her tested for ADD, and when she did, not only did she not have ADD, but she didn't have a single symptom of ADD.
"She went from a kid who could not sit still in school, who could not pay attention to save her soul, because she couldn't see anything and it stressed her out, to a kid who is very successful in school," JoHannah says of her daughter, now a fourth-grader.
Agnes, who's worked in the field for over 25 years, says he's seen a number of kids who were misdiagnosed with ADD because they couldn't sit still when reading or pay attention during reading-related activities.
"We made their visual system more skilled. Well, now they can sit and read because they can focus for a while. It's easier to do because they have the skills," he says.
One of the most basic visual skills is fixation, the ability to keep your eyes still in one place long enough, and when you fixate on something, you put your attention on it, too, he explains.
"If anybody is told that their child has ADD, I wish they would go see him first," JoHannah says of Agnes.
Vision problems can affect emotional well-being as well as academic performance.
Agnes says kids with visual problems, who make up most of his practice, access the fight-or-flight stress response when they're struggling, creating motor overflow (fidgeting, tapping feet) or emotional overflow (anger, frustration).
"If you're sitting in a classroom and you access the stress response, your body goes into the same mode," he says.
Therapy can also be stressful, frustrating and tiring for children, too, because of the strain of isolating and working the eye muscles.
"Apparently the center that you're working in the brain is very close to the emotion center, so he said you might have kids that throw tantrums that have never been a tantrum-thrower in their entire life," Beth says of Agnes.
However, the exercises get easier with time and practice.
"It started out like, very stressful, but the more I got into it, to me, the funner it got," says Tyanne, also now a fourth-grader.
Agnes' business partner of 20 years, Nancy Gannarelli-Sand, created the home therapy program to address the two types of visual skills - basic (eye movements, depth perception) and perceptual (visual/motor integration, visual memory, visual sequencing).
"We have to go back and train those basic visual skills - accommodation, convergence, eye movements, depth," Agnes says. "Once that visual system becomes a skilled system, then it's easier to read."
The program is progressive, so once the child advances in one skill, she can add another.
"As the muscles got stronger, she could do the exercises better," Beth says of Bergen.
'TOTALLY DIFFERENT KID'
Before she started therapy, Bergen's self-confidence was low, her mother says. Though she has a normal IQ, she would say things like, "I'm dumb."
"She had decided, 'I'm not smart.' Now she doesn't say that anymore," Beth says of her daughter, who's almost up to normal reading level now.
JoHannah reports big changes in her daughter, too. She says though Tyanne has always been a smart girl, she no longer struggles visually, and she loves to read.
"After 15 months of eye therapy, she is a totally different kid," she says.
A turning point came halfway through therapy when Tyanne tossed up a tennis ball with one hand and caught it in the same hand. She said, "Look, Mom, there's just one!"
"It was the most profound statement a child could make," JoHannah says. "I bawled."
Because of her improved hand-eye coordination, Tyanne's doing better in activities like baton twirling and basketball.
"I'm getting excited about everything now that I can see," Tyanne says. "When you can't see, it's like everything's impossible."