The real culprit could turn out to be a vision problem

While they live on opposite sides of the country, Morgan Coveyduck of St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Rhiana Jorde of Clyde, Alberta, have several things in common.
Now eight and 12 respectively, both girls struggled in school from the start—at first having difficulty recognizing letters, then lagging behind their peers in reading and math. Not surprisingly, these problems led the parents and teachers of both girls to suspect they might have a learning disability.

In both cases, the real culprit would turn out to be a vision problem. But that wouldn’t be discovered until both Rhiana and Morgan and their families had endured years of worry and anxiety that likely could have been spared had the girls had a regular eye exam from a Doctor of Optometry.

Before the true culprit was unmasked, a learning disability made a logical suspect. Morgan, for one, displayed behavioural traits that hinted at ADHD such as an extreme dislike of change, and a tendency to be easily frustrated. She was also slow to warm up at social gatherings in unfamiliar places, sticking to her mother’s side far longer than other kids. “As a result, we decided to have her tested for ADHD,” says Morgan’s mother, Robin Coveyduck.

At age six, Morgan was still on the waiting list for assessment when she began experiencing panic attacks, triggered by the sensation that everything was shrinking. Her worried parents took her to an optometrist for a comprehensive eye exam, having been unaware until then that regular check-ups are recommended at six months, once between the ages of three and five and annually thereafter.

The results were, “a huge shock,” Robin recalls. “We found out she had been almost legally blind her entire life.”

Being extremely far-sighted, Morgan was unable to focus up close. Because the prescription in both of her eyes is so strong (a vision problem known a bilateral amblyopia) 20/20 vision may never be attainable for her. Before she had glasses, both of Morgan’s eyes were presenting a blurred image to the brain, which inhibited the normal development of the visual centers.

“As a child, it is important that the brain receives a clear image from both eyes in order to build a proper pathway between the eyes and the brain. If the images are blurry, the brain does not make a strong connection with the eyes, meaning that even with glasses, vision may still be poor, as in Morgan’s case,” says Sarah Hutchens, a Doctor of Optometry in St. John’s. “Had Morgan’s vision problem gone undetected even a little longer, it would have become more difficult to correct. The earlier amblyopia is detected, the easier it is to correct and the better the visual outcome. This is one of the many reasons why it is so important to bring children in for an eye exam at an early age.”

It soon became clear to Morgan’s parents why she was having such difficulty in school. Without the ability to focus up close, she couldn’t recognize or identify letters and wasn’t able to string them together into words and sentences.

“They’ve done studies with adults, where they’ve put on glasses to simulate some of these conditions, and participants said, ‘I wouldn’t read this for more than a few minutes because it’s too hard’,” says Dr. Hutchens. “And keep in mind these are people who already know how to read.”

Even the behavioural quirks that had seemed to hint at ADHD were actually due to Morgan’s poor vision. She was slow to adapt in social situations, not because she was shy, but because she was unable to see her surroundings clearly. Her bitter complaints when her mother rearranged furniture at home weren’t due to dislike of change, but because she had to memorize the position of each object in the room in order to navigate around them.

“All of these behavioural things had to do with her vision loss,” says Robin.

Like Morgan, Rhiana Jorde also had trouble learning to read. Even by grade six, she still read aloud very slowly and haltingly, often omitting or adding words and skipping lines.

Rhiana had had her sight tested and was told each time that her eyesight was 20/20, but these tests didn’t measure how well Rhiana’s eyes worked as a team. It wasn’t until Rhiana was nearly finished fifth grade that her mother happened to be watching her look off into the distance and noticed one of her eyes appeared to be wandering. Rhiana’s parents took her to see Jacinta Yeung, a Doctor of Optometry in Edmonton who conducted a comprehensive eye exam. The diagnosis: Rhiana’s eyes weren’t lining up, causing her to see double. In addition, her eyes would sometimes jump around rather than tracking objects smoothly.

“You constantly have to switch back and forth, and figure out which eye is making sense,” Dr. Yeung explains. “As you can imagine, this makes it incredibly hard for kids when they’re learning.”

Once their vision problems were diagnosed and treated, both Rhiana and Morgan began to perform better in school. Rhiana progressed from grade four math to grade six in just six months and now reads aloud fluently, while Morgan’s supposed shyness evaporated overnight.

“The first time Morgan walked up to another little girl on the playground and introduced herself I sat back on the bench and cried,” remembers Robin. Now, both Rhiana and Morgan’s parents want to raise awareness about the importance of having kids’ eyes examined before starting school.

“The thinking is that your child will know if there’s something wrong with their eyes and tell you, but if that’s how they have always seen, they won’t know any differently,” says Robin. “You should have your child’s eyes examined regularly whether you think something’s wrong or not.”

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Sidebar

“One in four children has a vision problem but there’s no easy way for parents to detect symptoms,” says Dr. Sarah Hutchens. “Since 80% of learning is visual, eye exams help kids reach their full potential in school socially and at play.” While an eye exam is the only way to know if your child has a vision problem, there are some subtle clues that your child’s eyes may not be working together properly, including:

• Headaches
• Quickly giving up on tasks that require focusing up close
• Avoiding reading and written work
• Not performing as well in school as you suspect she could
• Rubbing or covering an eye while reading
• Turning her head to one side while reading

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