The value of seeing differently

“Anisometropia” sounds like a mythical city built out of licorice, but it’s actually a vision condition that Stella has dealt with all her life in which the eyes’ refractive powers differ. On Friday, however, we picked up her new eyeglasses in which the prescription is the same in both lenses. This is the first time that her eyes are piecing together a “3D” view of world unimpeded by the obstacle of disparate levels of magnification.

Wearing her new glasses over the past day, she is noticing that small type is fuzzy. She hates it. But just like when she first wore glasses at 18 months old, we were told to allow a two- to five-day adjustment period before worrying that the new script is wrong for her. The hope is that after the brain has a chance to adjust to new visual information, and small muscles change their habits in response to different focusing requirements, the view becomes clearer with less effort required.

During our last optical shop visit, Stella told me as we waited for service, “My vision is sharp as a hawk, mom. I don’t need new glasses!” I launched into an impassioned explanation about anisometropia and her borderline amblyopia how this moment was a big deal–getting glasses with the same magnification for both eyes, finally! I did this because facts sway Stella more than platitudes, and because I needed to kill time while we waited as Stella was a bit agitated. Nothing is simple or easy, but many things are amazing. Someone with her prescription wouldn’t be expected to have great stereoscopic vision, nor see everything so clearly. But she does. It’s just an excess of “near work” that causes issues. It’s just hard to be farsighted, comfortable looking up at the horizon, in a heads-down nearsighted world.

Stereoscopic vision depends on the ability of the brain’s visual cortex to bring together the eyes’ different views of the world, using the similarities and discrepancies to make sense of distance, depth, etc. But what if the two images are so different that they don’t share a point of reference? What if one is more blurry than the other? What if it’s not automatic and takes conscious effort to see in three dimensions?

Great-great-grandfather of the Oculus Quest, the Brewster-type stereoscope circa 1870. Source: Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan.

Every day last year, Stella came home from school with a headache. So, in every IEP meeting, I would try to remember to mention her vision: severe hyperopia, anisometropia, partially accommodative esotropia. It’s easily overlooked given how smart she is, and it’s overshadowed by the social-emotional challenges that snowballed in the context of an un-inclusive school environment designed to support neurotypical kids. Yet it’s undeniable that due to her vision alone, without regard to any other differences, Stella has had to work harder than just about any- and everyone else. She has contended with double vision at times, as well as pain and fatigue from reading off a screen or paper all day. To say I’m proud of how she perseveres is an understatement.

I noticed that after Stella listened to a book on her Kindle, she remembered every detail. At school, I was told at some point that she often doesn’t really retain key information from reading. Autism or working memory was cited. I suggested that maybe it’s because her eyes aren’t the most reliable way for her to take in information.

It’s so simple, yet so revolutionary, to suggest that people favor not only different ways of gathering information from their world but also prefer different types of information, flat out. And that this is okay. That’s the premise of neurodiversity. It makes sense that for most of humankind’s existence, neurodiversity was a given, so central to our daily life, our survival and our ability to thrive, because we lived in relatively small communities. I’d like to suggest that communities can be thought of as brains, each person with a different role or niche contributing to the functioning of the whole, just like different parts of our physical brains have different roles and niches contributing to our own overall functioning. Sure, there’s some overlap. Some people have similar skills. Some parts of the brain can pull double duty or pick up the slack when another part of the brain falters. But diversity is innate, and vital.

Today, most people are no longer enmeshed in communities, sharing the load of daily existence. By and large, there is no divvying of roles, no playing a day-to-day part in a living community “brain.” That makes life harder for most neurodivergent humans, with our spiky skill profiles. When your brain so heavily favors certain types of information and tasks over others, it’s hard to cover all the bases every day–from maintaining homes, careers, commitments, social connections and family relationships to saving receipts and making returns in time to remembering to sign up and actually signing up your kid for summer camp ten million months in advance or, I don’t know, contending with the Sisyphean task of figuring out what to make for dinner and then actually making it, step by step.

Some autistic and other neurodivergent people may struggle with certain aspects of daily life, while also noting and bringing to light details and connections that others overlook. Again, we’re all simply gathering or emphasizing (slightly or dramatically) different types of information from our surroundings. This is helpful in a community “brain” scenario. If everyone sees the world differently, and connects back to the group, we get a fully dimensional view of the world with more depth, color, detail, and perspective than we could ever get on our own or among those who are likeminded. That’s how civilizations are built. That’s how innovation happens. That’s humanity at our best. This holds true in any place where people come together in pursuit of a common goal or interest–neurodiversity, racial and gender diversity, and disability inclusion are all proven to boost business performance, for example.

Within social movements, most notably civil rights and women’s suffrage, there lies another take on the importance of diverging points of view coming together to bring new ways forward into focus. Having a so-called “militant,” more aggressive force–I think of Alice Paul or Malcolm X–within a greater movement can enable progress by highlighting the hypocrisy of a mainstream that demands nonviolence and yet is underpinned by violence itself, while in comparison making the more peaceful activist groups seem credible or “reasonable” to the reluctant majority, who otherwise would outright reject them.

Due to racism, sexism, and ableism, we value the perspectives and contributions of certain people over “others.” As such our entire society is afflicted with anisometropia. We can’t see all the beauty of the world, all the wonder, all the opportunities–because our field of view is limited. Stereoscopic vision requires that we not only take in what’s right in front of us, but what is all around us. (Our periphery is, ironically, central to our vision.) I think of the misguided souls who took part in January 6th insurrection and how ugly the world must seem to them, how much of the picture and possibility of our country they’re missing.

Miraculously, Stella never dealt with full-on amblyopia, a common outcome of anisometropia wherein the brain just can’t use both eyes together. The inputs are too different to reconcile, and over time one eye is tuned out in favor of reliance on the vision of the stronger eye. She likely avoided it through years of part-time wearing of an eye patch, vision therapy, and reliance on her bifocals. A lot of work. Interestingly, paradoxically, and perhaps relatedly, Stella has off-the-charts visual-spatial intelligence–now there’s a parent brag you probably haven’t heard before.

Little Stella rocking the Quoits Vectogram during a vision therapy session, years ago.

When toddler Stella’s vision issues were discovered, long before her autism diagnosis, I was fearful and unsure about where her visual abilities would land and how her life would be impacted. I sought peace of mind in the fact that of the many unique human vantage points that inform and elevate the collective are those who are amblyopic or otherwise visually impaired. A surprising number of history’s most celebrated painters were amblyopic, likely helping to explain their talent in capturing and translating the feel of a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium. I did not expect Stella to be some sort of artistic genius or “savant,” but knew she could find her place and hone her strengths. Not just in spite of challenges but partly because of them and the unique view of the world they inform. I believe that now more than ever.

I’m eager to see Stella’s headaches subside and her comfort increase as she adjusts to her new glasses. We’ve come a long, long way from her early bespectacled years. I’ll never forget the day, after continually taking off her frames, she yelled, “I’m too big for this!” and snapped them in two. Message received, I never let her outgrow another pair of glasses. Pants and shoes? That’s another story altogether.

I’m excited to see how Stella’s self-driven life will continue to unfold in light of all she’s overcome and with the unique perspective she brings to every moment. Social expectations don’t guide her. Stella’s path is all her own, in a way that more conventional thinkers and neurotypical minds can’t really fathom. While it can be hard to navigate outside many of the guiderails of expectation, this form of freedom can also be a gift. I hope it will eventually feel that way for her.

Zooming out further, I’m stubbornly and cautiously optimistic that everyone’s lives, including hers and all those who are neurodivergent or disabled or otherwise different, can continue to grow richer and expand into their full potential. As we come to appreciate different points of view as not only valuable but essential, we can move beyond merely “seeing” and instead make sense of and discoveries within the world, appreciate deeper meaning, solve big problems, and realize greater purpose.

I now realize that my vision has improved along with Stella’s over the years. Nothing is simple or easy, but many things are amazing. You just have to be open to different ways of seeing.

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