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.

Two points of view. One big push forward.

Big girl

Big girl bed! New purple glasses! Happy Stella.

In the first chapter of John Gottman’s wonderful book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, my current daily life is illuminated: “Behavioral psychologists have observed that preschoolers typically demand that their caretakers deal with some kind of need or desire at an average rate of three times a minute.” Stella is officially two and a half, 38 inches tall and sleeping in a big girl bed. She has more demands and opinions and upset and glee now than even just six months ago. She’s in some sort of developmental transition period. At times I’m awed and at others, I’m borderline insane. This is a fun but challenging age requiring tons of patience. A tricky age indeed for vision therapy, which requires focus, patience and the tabling of those smaller demands in order to accomplish something she doesn’t fully understand. (I do think she gets it partially, though.)

Stella recently had two evaluations. One with her pediatric ophthalmologist and the other with her developmental optometrist, within about a week of each other. The conclusions by both were encouraging, overall, but quite different. Our intention was to use the results to gauge how vision therapy was going, especially since Stella’s been resisting more. We wanted to figure out whether we should take a break and come back to vision therapy in six or so months, or carry on.

The ophthalmologist determined that Stella’s amblyopic eye is 20/40 but bordering on 20/30. And that her other eye is 20/30 bordering on 20/20. They go with the lowest number, I suppose, in order to crush parents’ spirits–I mean, in order to be conservative and not overestimate visual abilities. (It does make sense.) She very cheerfully told us we could reduce patching from three to four hours to just two hours. I have not told her that we’ve been patching differently than she prescribed. Instead of patching three to four hours a day with an adhesive patch placed directly on Stella’s skin for complete occlusion, we’ve been patching two to three hours a day with Magic Tape over Stella’s glasses lens, and doing vision therapy, which they will hopefully remain ignorant of because I don’t want it to taint their assessment or treatment of me and Stella. It was reassuring to hear her, someone who said Stella may have to patch for a few years, say that patching was effective and that we could reduce it. At the end of the appointment, I asked her, “So, is there anything else we can do for Stella?” She hesitated for a split second and then said, ‘No. It doesn’t matter what they do while patched.’ And that was that.

Hold onto your hats. In our evaluation with the developmental optometrist, Stella showed 20/20 vision in both eyes. This is huge, and I haven’t really come to fully believe it yet–though I saw it with my own 20/20 eyes. It took Stella a tad longer to see the targets with her amblyopic eye, but not too much longer. She could see the chart’s 20/20 line far away and up close, with both eyes. Sometimes answering instantly, when the smiling doctor playfully sang “quickly quickly!” Why there is a discrepancy in performance between the two appointments, I’m not sure. The testing procedures and atmospheres were certainly different. Mainly, more time was taken at the optometrist, with more nuanced testing done.

Randot Stereo Test

Randot Stereo Test

While I was stunned when Stella identified the teeny tiny symbols (bird, cake, etc.) indicative of 20/20 acuity, I was just as thrilled when, during that same optometrist appointment, Stella was able to see three 3D circle images  in the top left section of the chart (the Randot Stereo Test at left). Last time, she didn’t get any of those and saw only one thing pop out at her–the 3D character in line A in the bottom portion of that left panel. Alas, she still only got one in that section. I suspect that her attention span complicates this, and the doctor did acknowledge that it’s possible Stella can see more than she is able to indicate. But perhaps not. As I’m known to say these days, after over-analyzing some Stella-related concern to the point of boring even myself, “Who the hell knows!?” I’m just grateful for the improvement.

The ophthalmologist’s 3D testing was much faster and simpler. Instead of a multi-layered chart with different lines measuring different degrees of stereoscopy, they used a single large image of a fly–the Stereo Fly test, which I learned about on Strabby (more on Sally and her blog in a minute). Stella seemed to try to pet the insect after some coaxing. They nodded approvingly. I wondered what Stella saw and thought and wished she could describe it to me.

I was crestfallen to hear, at the ophthalmologist’s office, that they saw no improvement in Stella’s vision. Yet they seemed incredibly happy with how she was doing. They noted that the acuity in Stella’s amblyopic eye is and has always been above average for her age. Her other eye’s acuity (with glasses, of course) is way above average. They said her vision was developing very nicely.

Both doctors concur that the eye crossing (esotropia), so far at least, has been eliminated by the glasses. Perhaps with help from vision therapy, as I believe the eyes did cross in exam with glasses earlier on in this journey. I haven’t seen Stella’s eyes cross in such a long time as they are aligned when she wears her glasses, which is all the time, excepting bedtime, bathtime and her weekly half hour of swimming (prescription goggles may be in her future) and occasional fits of toddler rage. Stella’s eyes did not cross in either of the recent exams, even after the typical attempts to break alignment. This is huge, often overlooked by myself and Cody, and worth celebrating with lots of wine. I have so many pictures from her babyhood in which I can now immediately detect the not-so-obvious difference in her eyes’ positioning. We also have photos and videos from her ER visit at 18 months of age, during which both eyes were severely crossed (seemingly out of nowhere, though again, we realize now that they’d been slightly misaligned, frequently but thankfully just “intermittently,” her whole life). We keep the ER images as a reminder of why we’re doing all of this. It’s very difficult for me and Cody to view them, because she looked so vulnerable and clearly couldn’t see anything except foggy blurs. But they’re powerful appreciation boosters, and quickly give me perspective when I’m stressing about Stella’s refusal to go to bed without getting up ten times to talk about Papa Bear’s porridge or flamingos or other topics meant to engage me and delay the train to Snoozetown by a good three hours. (And breathe!)

The bottom line is that her eyes–their refractive power and degree of slight astigmatism and as a result, their acuity–are different. It’s refreshingly simple. The two doctors agree on this. It’s the discrepancy between the two eyes that has led Stella down the path to amblyopia.

Both doctors, seeing Stella through their respective lenses, were very positive. Through the course of both appointments, I was amazed, disappointed, encouraged and informed on several levels. I walked away from these evaluations with some real reassurance, but also some points to ponder endlessly and inanely. Stella’s degree of stereopsis (3D vision) has improved wonderfully in just two months, but further improvement is needed. I wish I’d questioned the ophthalmologist more on their take on this. Do they think Stella has normal 3D vision because she tried to pet the fly (I think we called it a bee)? Are they settling by assuming, “at least she has some 3D vision,” or do they genuinely think she has age-appropriate stereoscopy? I wondered aloud to the developmental optometrist: When Stella has moments of experiencing 3D vision, does it freak her out and lead her to suppress her amblyopic eye? Our optometrist said that yes, this can happen. Which may explain why Stella frequently says, “Mommy I need a break!” But, the doctor explained, if I’m around, serving as Stella’s anchor and emotional safety net, it shouldn’t be an issue. For that reason and many others, I am so happy that I get to be with Stella during this time in her life. I get to be there to eat the pretend lunch she prepared and soothe her when her vision acts up (though I never really know for sure) and observe all the little things that indicate what she’s seeing and experiencing–which prove helpful to this process but might otherwise go unnoticed. I see how her peripheral vision is really good now. I see that puzzles are a breeze. I see her push her left lens closer to her eye. I hear her say things about her eyes that give me hope. I’m fortunate to have this time. Happy to take all (okay most) of it in.

Children's Eye Chart

These are the symbols Stella identifies.

These exams were more than just “let’s see how she’s doing” meetings. This latest evaluation, particularly with the developmental optometrist, was a crossroads. I was nervous. I feared Stella would feel my heart pounding as she sat on my lap in the big black exam throne. We came to this point of decision-making because it’s not only been increasingly tough to get cooperation from Stella for vision therapy at home, but also in the office at times. Some exercises are much more well received than others both at home and in the office. Some appointments are simply better than others and I still believe that she gets a lot out of all of them. At home, it can take over an hour to get 20 minutes of therapy done. (I find that time hard to fit in comfortably–but I suspect other, more normal and organizationally proficient moms might do a better job of this so I really don’t want to deter other families who have a child of two and a half who might greatly benefit from vision therapy.) We’ve been told to do the exercises earlier in the day, when Stella is less tired and there is more natural light, because we tended to shove them in at the end of the day. After a glass of wine, I’m a much more effective and relaxed vision therapist. But I am slowly getting better at overcoming my dread of possible screaming and infinite dawdling and learning to break therapy up into small chunks. A quick matching game (with the patch) before lunch. Sticking skewers intro straws while patched and eating dessert. That sort of thing. Did I mention that I’m not very organized? If The Container Store had a blacklist, I’d be on it. Though I do have a big green plastic box in which I dump all of our vision therapy games and tools, which is a true Martha Stewart moment by my standards.

In the end, due to her gains in 3D vision and acuity as witnessed in the optometrist’s office, and even the ophthalmologist’s thumbs up assessment of Stella’s visual status, we’ve decided to continue vision therapy for another few weeks, at least. With an emphasis on use of the yoked prism goggles, which merit an entire post (coming soon), and more physical exercises that engage the vestibular system and body as they relate to and inform vision, from what I gather, helping Stella’s brain devise a more accurate map of space and her place in it. Stella enjoys those activities more, anyway. Bouncing, rolling, running? She’s in! Donning red/green glasses and slowly scanning the kitchen floor for matches, MFBF style? She’s so done with that particular game. She used to get 15 matches in one shot, now I’m lucky to get five reluctant matches worth of cooperation and sometimes she refuses completely and we both end up in tears. So I have to roll with it and be more flexible than ever. Putting those cards on the wall over the couch and letting her bounce around while searching does help make it more novel and fun. But I’m not sure that exercise is worth it anymore. Stella’s vision therapist agrees and is going to move us along to some new MFBF exercises to build upon this work and mix things up. We really like her–she’s had letters thrown at her, cards torn out of her hands, and shrill, blood-curdling screams shatter her eardrums, yet she keeps a cool head at all times. Me? Not so much. I sweat during those appointments to the degree where I stash deodorant in the diaper bag.

So we are at the beginning of a big vision therapy push. Can I help Stella get to the next level? I sure hope so. We’re going to do our best. We’re seeing progress and it would kill me to break now especially with the promise of yoked prism goggles just starting to be a staple in her vision therapy buffet. If a break is needed after that, fine. But if so, we’ll be back at vision therapy as soon as Stella is ready. Do kids become more cooperative at three? Good lord I hope so because caring for a two and a half year old is like playing with fire. I’ll tell you what, though. I appreciate Stella’s strong will (the screaming? less so) and don’t blame her one bit for resisting patching and exercises, the purpose of which she doesn’t comprehend. Between that and patching, we ask a lot of her. She does amazingly well for her age, and knows her numbers, shapes, and letters better than many kids twice as old, which has helped make a lot of exercises possible. As they say where I’m from, she’s wicked smaht. Don’t even get me stahted!

It’s been twenty seconds since I’ve heard, “Mommy? MOMMY!?” So another Stella need will arise now and I must go. But first a shout-out to our comrade Strabby, who recently had a huge vision therapy breakthrough using a lot of the same therapeutic tools that Stella employs. It is so fascinating to hear her account of her first glimpses of “3D-ish” vision–I bet that’s what Stella was experiencing when she said, “I can see with both eyes!” Strabby gives me a better idea of what Stella might be seeing and going through, which helps keep me motivated. Thank you and congratulations, Strabby Sally. Keep it up. Lead the way to 3D-ville, baby! We’re right behind you!

Free webinar by Susan Barry: How the system lets down children with vision problems

Here we go again. Like tube feeding, vision is an area in which children aren’t getting the care and solutions they need and deserve. Stella just started patching, because her brain was starting to favor her right (strong) eye. And it’s already become clear (fun with puns!) that without extra effort and research on my part, her outcome, even though we are patching as directed, would be far less than optimal. Thankfully, I have the time and ability and insurance coverage to make it all happen. But I keep wondering, what about the many parents of children with vision and feeding tubes and other health issues who don’t?

Luckily for us anyway, three recent and perfectly timed events have made me feel that I’m on the right track in terms of how to approach Stella’s treatment…

1.) We recently chose a new eye doctor for Stella (our third opinion became our number one choice!) who emphasizes vision therapy in treating eye issues like Stella’s (conditions like strabismus, accommodative esotropia, ambylopia, etc. etc.). She was vastly superior to the others in terms of her attentiveness to Stella as a human being, her ability to do vision therapy with the very young (our second opinion did vision therapy, but said Stella wouldn’t be eligible for years), and her support and tips on how to patch successfully. Seattle Children’s Hospital? They just handed me some adhesive patches to stick on Stella’s almost-two-year-old eyes, with almost no explanation or and certainly no acknowledgement of how big a deal it was, noting only that patching is “not that bad.” Bullshit.

2.) I’m currently reading a ray of hope in paperback form, Fixing My Gaze by neuroscientist Susan Barry. She couldn’t see in 3D until her late 40’s (she had strabismus from early on, like Stella). The ability to see in three dimensions affects life in a myriad of ways, including the abilities to read, drive and play most sports. The book is as much about neuroplasticity as it is about vision, and I have found most of it fascinating (some of it a bit dense and technical and hard to follow). It has opened my eyes (the puns are too easy to resist here, sorry) in so many ways.

3.) Yesterday, I received an email from Stella’s new eye doctor telling me (and all her patients) about a free webinar being given by Barry, author of Fixing My Gaze, on Thursday. I was thrilled! The email, besides letting me in on a great opportunity to learn from a true knowledge leader in the field, confirmed that we’d found one of the rare doctors who can help Stella achieve her own personal best in terms of vision.

The meeting’s name pretty much says it all: “School Crossings: A Neurobiologist’s View of How Our System Fails Children With Vision Problems.” I was so thrilled to find out about this, and again, to get assurance that we’d found a wonderful doctor for Stella. One of the rare few who are truly informed about vision therapy, the kind that helped Barry see the world in full, volumous beauty.

I have only a basic understanding at this point, though it’s growing all the time. But most opthalmologists (including the one we saw at Seattle Children’s) and optometrists seem to heavily rely on patching (often alone) to address situations where the brain is favoring one eye, as is beginning to happen with Stella. When the vision imbalance is left untreated, blindness in the weak eye is likely. However, patching is not a real solution or adequate treatment for many, as upon completion of occlusion, the brain slowly reverts to favoring the same eye. Both eyes are strong after months or years of patching, or have equalized (sometimes the strong eye deteriorates due its suppression) but the brain has not learned to use the eyes together. Vision therapy is needed to get the formerly weak  (“lazy” or ambylopic) eye to coordinate with the  strong eye and create a complete, stereopic view of the world. Proper therapy often results in a long-term cure, enabling 3D vision and other vast improvements. So many children are having to settle for significant, even quality-of-life-reducing vision impairment when in fact, they could see major improvement or perhaps complete resolution of their issues.

Many doctors still believe that there is a small window in early childhood during which eye problems must be addressed, lest be rendered irreversible. Barry’s research and personal experience shatter this falsehood. For the benefit of children like Stella, Barry is shouting her discoveries from the mountaintop, and I am extremely grateful. On the other hand, as we recently embarked on the patching journey, which I was not expecting at all–I was truly blindsided (ugh, another pun?), the book has scared me and made me cry. It’s made me realize the full scope of how Stella’s vision and life experience could be impacted if she is not properly supported. Seriously, I’ve been listening to Celine Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is” and bawling, about once a day. And I’m not a Celine Dion type of person. I’m a Neko Case fanatic. But, “it’s an uphill climb and I’m feeling sorry, but I know it will come to you, yeah” kind of hits the nail on the proverbial, three-dimensional head. I’m working hard and it feels like, once again, there’s a lot on the line and if I don’t stay vigilant and question everything every doctor tells me, Stella will suffer.

Anywho, I’ve signed up for the webinar and encourage other parents of children facing visual challenges to do the same! Virtual “seating” is limited. I will blog about the talk here, in case you miss it. The details, from the original email announcement from the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD):

School Crossings: A Neurobiologist’s View of How Our System Fails Children With Vision Problems
 
Hear Dr. Susan Barry answer questions about difficult school experiences that resulted from her vision problems; how, for example, she was mislabeled as a low aptitude student and assigned to a special problems class, and what her mother did to help her child succeed. And more….. including what you can do to help your child succeed!

TO REGISTER FOR THE MEETING:  Go to www.joinawebinar.com, fill in the meeting ID number 547-423-251 and your email address, click on “CONTINUE,” then fill out the brief form that comes up next and at the bottom of that screen be sure to click on “REGISTER.” 
If you have ANY difficulty registering or any problems during the webinar, contact TECH support for gotowebinar.com at 800-263-6317.

Click here to read the full press release, including more information about Susan Barry (aka “Stereo Sue”).