First off, I have to admit that I entered the web meeting eight to nine minutes late. This will be the opposite of shocking to anyone who knows me.
I was infuriated! I’d been anticipating this thing to a pathetic degree and just finished Dr. Susan Barry’s Fixing My Gaze, a godsend of a book for parents of children with strabismus. (Click here to listen to the NPR story about Sue.) Unbelievably, I was at my computer two minutes before the start time. And only then did I realize I had to download frigging webinar software, and this computer hates me and therefore refused to install it despite several admirable attempts. So instead of thinking about it for two seconds, I called Cody, who was on a walk with Stella so that I could have peace and quiet during the webinar. (Is “webinar” really a word? If so, it shouldn’t be. I hate it.) He said, with no annoyance in his voice whatsoever, “Use the laptop in our bedroom.” So I literally sprinted into our clothes-strewn cave of a room and logged on to an ancient IBM ThinkPad. Thank God it worked, or I would’ve thrown lamps and other breakable items in frustration. Pile of clothing, at least.
Anywho. My coverage, as promised…
By the time I got to the party, hosted by the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD), Sue (I guess I’ll be cozy and call her that) was recounting some of the background laid out in her book. She had 20/20 vision in both eyes. So, in the standard vision tests they give in school, where you read a chart of letters (20 feet away) with one eye covered and then the other, her binocular vision problem went completely undetected. It’s not just because one eye was covered so as to avoid revealing the inability of her eyes to work together, but like Stella, her vision was pretty much fine from far away (say, 20 feet), and not so sharp within a few feet. Because the vision test didn’t reveal the source of her low test scores, she was labeled as a “dim bulb.” Literally. Teachers told her parents to accept the fact that their daughter had low intelligence. Sue, neurobiologist and author Sue Barry, Ph.D., was placed in a “special needs” class with an assortment of children with widely varying impairments and diagnoses. Side note: Sue’s best friend was physically impaired by polio, though she said it was quite obvious his intellect was just fine. Sue never raised her hand to answer questions because she had no confidence in herself. Thankfully, her mother never, ever doubted her high intelligence, and Sue saw and felt that.
Of course, Sue’s mother did more than merely believe in her. She took action that contributed directly to Sue’s later success. She read to and with Sue constantly. More than that, whenever young Sue expressed excitement about or interest in any topic, she would come home to find that her mother had placed a perfectly chosen book about that very subject on her bed. A little surprise, an eagerly opened treasure. Reading was fun.
Sue explained why her mother’s efforts were so powerful. If a person anticipates a reward for an activity, brain activity is generated that changes synapses. By making reading to rewarding and enjoyable, Sue’s mother helped shape her brain! Despite the fact that her binocular vision problem made reading much more difficult than for most, she became a slow but competent reader. She found joy in it, which propelled her through the visual challenges. I wish I could give Sue’s mom a huge hug, and perhaps a parade. Honestly, read Sue’s book. That woman went to bat for her daughter. Much respect.
I have to add that Sue and the moderator further discussed the topic of how to encourage reading in kids who, as Sue did as a child, find it uncomfortable and difficult. For most kids with vision problems that make reading taxing (but not impossible), total avoidance of reading and reliance on books on tape isn’t the answer. They suggested that parents and teachers simply be patient, and take it slow. Start with less challenging material until their confidence and endurance increases. Provide breaks during reading. Small efforts like taking turns reading paragraphs with your child can make a huge difference.
After recapping how her childhood was affected by her vision problem, Sue delved into the story of a boy named Eric (also shared in Sue’s book). For a long time, no one knew Eric had a vision problem. Eric’s eyes looked straight. He could see well from a distance. Bu his vision was poor when looking at things close-up, which made schoolwork frustrating and aversive. As a result, Eric was a poor-performing and distractible student who was diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD! This unfortunate mistake wasn’t corrected until they happened to visit a clinic (for kids with ADHD) that offered binocular vision tests. Only then did they realize Eric’s true problem. According to Sue, following vision therapy, Eric has gone on to become one of the top students in his college class.
The moderator helpfully asked Sue to name any key studies or resources that she could suggest to parents. She cited two:
Reading Strategies in Mild to Moderate Strabismic Ambylopia: An Eye Movement Investigation (published just this year). Key finding: These kids have longer fixations and less accurate saccades.
Randomized Clinical Trial of Treatments for Convergence Insufficiency in Children (a study by the National Eye Institute). This trial resulted in recommendation of a 12-week course of office- and home-based vision therapy.
Note: Sue also suggested that parents visit COVD.org to check out their “Research and White Papers” and reminded us that the chapter notes in her book are full of references to the wealth of research and studies cited.
Because the point of this “webinar” was to empower parents and educators to better support children with vision problems, the moderator (again, very helpfully) asked Sue what activities she found most enjoyable as a child. My ears perked up. This is about building confidence, and focusing on strengths rather than worrying about weaknesses! But when I heard what she said next, as she began her answer, I got a tiny bit sad. Because she explained that ball sports were difficult and not very enjoyable at all, as they involved demanding eye tracking which requires coordination of the two eyes. She just couldn’t follow the ball, puck or other fast-moving object well enough. So, while it makes no sense and we really don’t know what Stella’s vision will be like or if she’ll even be interested in sports, I got a little misty. Maybe Stella won’t be able to play basketball. Or softball or tennis. Maybe she won’t get the same joy out of the sports that sustained me through middle and high school. (Sorry for the tangent.)
BUT. Sue said that less visually demanding sports like swimming and running (and I’ve heard ice skating is also a favorite of strabismic kids) were very enjoyable to her. In fact, she may’ve had an advantage. In Fixing My Gaze, Sue gives many examples of how the brain compensates for challenges in one area by building up abilities in other areas. That’s basically my lame-ass explanation of neuroplasiticity. In cases of injury or disability, the brain adapts to help us figure out new ways of doing things. In her book, Sue describes a key realization during a vacation to Hawaii–she was far better at finding the way back to their accommodations at night, though a dark and winding path, than the rest of her family. She couldn’t rely as much on sight, and other senses were filling in the gaps (thanks, neuroplasticity!). Her mind seemed to note how her body moved and felt as it moved down the trail, and she was able to navigate easily and intuitively while her better sighted companions were lost.
Driving a car down the street was a whole different story, however. She was a terribly slow and unsure driver who actually designed her entire life around avoiding the activity. That was her prime motivation for beginning vision therapy–not a belief that she’d be able to see in 3D after 48 years of living in a flat world. After all, she’d been told that after early childhood, this type of correction was simply impossible.
Sue admitted that she often receives desperate emails from people with vision problems. They plead for help in figuring out a way to improve their vision, as past efforts have failed. Wisely, she pointed out that this desperation is a sure indicator that their current doctor is not listening and responding to their concerns. She urges people who feel unsupported and hopeless to find a new doctor right away. An easy way to find one who specializes in vision therapy is to go to COVD.org and enter your zip code in the upper right corner under “Locate a Doctor.” Only a real expert who specializes in binocular vision can help. In other words, you need a developmental optometrist, like the one we were lucky to find for Stella and through whom I found out about this interview with Sue. Hooray!
In the Q & A period at the end of the session, a listener asked if vision could regress following vision therapy. Sue paused a bit, and explained that beginning at age 48, she did vision therapy for one year. This entailed one day a week in the office of Dr. Ruggiero, and 30 minutes a day at home. While her vision has retained its dramatic improvement in the years since, she admits that she still does a small amount of vision therapy at home, just to be proactive. Sue noted that while adults can make amazing advances with help from to high levels of motivation and concentration, children are in a much more advantageous position. A child’s mind is more elastic, and her visual system still developing. For a young person, say, six months or so of vision therapy could very well do the trick, their eyes more quickly trained to work together and new mental habits more easily entrenched, quite possibly for life. With, perhaps, a tune-up here and there (in the form of vision therapy) as an adult.
It was clear to me during this meeting that Sue and her buds at the COVD are trying to get the word OUT! Not only in regards to better, earlier detection of vision problems, better support of children who have them, and awareness of the effectiveness of vision therapy, but also about the widespread belief that there is a critical early window for correction of vision problems associated with strabismus. As Sue put it, conservatively, “the ‘early window’ dogma is overstated.” Their shared hope is to educate eye doctors about vision therapy so that they will then “lay out options for their patients.” A booming AMEN to that.
In closing, I’m so glad I listened in. It helped me realize that I need and want more clarity on exactly what Stella is dealing with. I know she has accommodative esotropia, which is a type of strabismus, and has started down the path (at least) to ambylopia, hence the patching. But do anisometropia and convergence insufficiency also apply? They seem to, especially the former, but I’m not sure because no doctor has ever used those terms in regards to her. Knowing how these terms fit with Stella, or not, would help me interpret and apply what I’m learning. I’ll be bothering her eye doctor even more now. Thanks, Sue! Sorry, doc. (Not really.)
I hope my wordy recap was helpful to someone. That said, you can get all of Sue’s important findings and insights in Fixing My Gaze. As the cover attests, it’s a must-read for anyone interested in vision or our amazing, adaptable brains. Seriously, I have a new appreciation for my eyes and the contents of my cranium. Now if only I could make my keys stop disappearing….