Visual Processing Disorders


Visual and auditory processing are the processes of recognizing and interpreting information taken in through the senses of sight and sound. The terms, "visual processing" and "visual perception", are often used interchangeably. Although there are many types of perception, the two most common areas of difficulty involved with a learning disability are visual perception. Since so much information in the classroom and at home is presented visually and/or verbally, the child with an auditory or visual perceptual disorder can be at a disadvantage in certain situations. The following information describes visual disorders, their educational implications, some basic interventions, and what to do if there is a suspected problem.

Visual Processing Disorder

What is it?

A visual processing, or perceptual, disorder refers to a hindered ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. This is different from problems involving sight or sharpness of vision. Difficulties with visual processing affect how visual information is interpreted, or processed by the brain.

Common areas of difficulty and some educational implications:

Spatial relation

This refers to the position of objects in space. It also refers to the ability to accurately perceive objects in space with reference to other objects.

Reading and math are two subjects where accurate perception and understanding of spatial relationships are very important. Both of these subjects rely heavily on the use of symbols (letters, numbers, punctuation, math signs). Examples of how difficulty may interfere with learning are in being able to perceive words and numbers as separate units, directionality problems in reading and math, confusion of similarly shaped letters, such as b/d/p/q. The importance of being able to perceive objects in relation to other objects is often seen in math problems. To be successful, the person must be able to associate that certain digits go together to make a single number (i.e., 14), that others are single digit numbers, that the operational signs (+, x,=) are distinct from the numbers, but demonstrate a relationship between them. The only cues to such math problems are the spacing and order between the symbols. These activities presuppose an ability and understanding of spatial relationships.

Visual discrimination

This is the ability to differentiate objects based on their individual characteristics. Visual discrimination is vital in the recognition of common objects and symbols. Attributes which children use to identify different objects include: color, form, shape, pattern, size, and position. Visual discrimination also refers to the ability to recognize an object as distinct from its surrounding environment.

In terms of reading and mathematics, visual discrimination difficulties can interfere with the ability to accurately identify symbols, gain information from pictures, charts, or graphs, or be able to use visually presented material in a productive way. One example is being able to distinguish between an /nl and an Imp, where the only distinguishing feature is the number of humps in the letter. The ability to recognize distinct shapes from their background, such as objects in a picture, or letters on a chalkboard is largely a function of visual discrimination.

Visual closure

Visual closure is often considered to be a function of visual discrimination. This is the ability to identify or recognize a symbol or object when the entire object is not visible.

Difficulties in visual closure can be seen in such school activities as when the young child is asked to identify, or complete a drawing of, a human face. This difficulty can be so extreme that even a single missing facial feature (a nose, eye, mouth) could render the face unrecognizable by the child.

Object recognition (Visual Agnosia)

Many children are unable to visually recognize objects, which are familiar to them, or even objects, which they can recognize through their other senses, such as, touch or smell. One school of thought about this difficulty is that it is based upon an inability to integrate or synthesize visual stimuli into a recognizable whole. Another school of thought attributes this difficulty to a visual memory problem, whereby the person cannot retrieve the mental representation of the object being viewed or make the connection between the mental representation and the object itself.

Educationally, this can interfere with the child's ability to consistently recognize letters, numbers, symbols, words, or pictures. This can obviously frustrate the learning process, as what is learned on one day may not be there, or not be available to the child, the next. In cases of partial agnosia, what is learned on day one, "forgotten" on day two, may be remembered again without difficulty, on day three.

Whole/part relationships

Some children have a difficulty perceiving or integrating the relationship between an object and symbol in its entirety and the component parts, which make it up. Some children may only perceive the pieces, while others are only able to see the whole. The common analogy is not being able to see the forest for the trees and conversely, being able to recognize a forest but not the individual trees, which make it up.

In school, children are required to continuously transition from the whole to the parts and back again. A "whole perceiver", for example, might be very adept at recognizing complicated words, but would have difficulty naming the letters within it. On the other hand, "part perceivers" might be able to name the letters, or some of the letters within a word, but have great difficulty integrating them to make up a whole, intact word. In creating artwork or looking at pictures, the "part perceivers" often pay great attention to details, but lack the ability to see the relationship between the details. "Whole perceivers", on the other hand, might only be able to describe a piece of artwork in very general terms, or lack the ability to assimilate the pieces to make any sense of it at all. As with all abilities and disabilities, there is a wide range in the functioning of different children.

Interaction with other areas of development

A common area of difficulty is visual motor integration. This is the ability to use visual cues (sight) to guide the child's movements. This refers to both gross motor and fine motor tasks. Often children with difficulty in this area have a tough time orienting themselves in space, especially in relation to other people and objects. These are the children who are often called "clumsy" because they bump into things, place things on the edges of tables or counters where they fall off, "miss" their seats when they sit down, etc. This can interfere with virtually all areas of the child's life: social, academic, athletic, pragmatic. Difficulty with fine motor integration affects a child's writing, organization on paper, and ability to transition between a worksheet or keyboard and other necessary information, which is in a book, on a number line, graph, chart, or computer screen.


First, a few words about interventions in general. Interventions need to be aimed at the specific needs of the child. No two children share the same set of strengths or areas of weaknesses. An effective intervention is one that utilizes a child's strengths in order to build on the specific areas in need of development. As such, interventions need to be viewed as a dynamic and ever-changing process.

The following examples provide some ideas regarding a specific disability. It is only a beginning, which is meant to encourage further thinking and development of specific interventions and intervention strategies.

The following represent a number of common interventions and accommodations used with children in their regular classroom:

For readings

Enlarged print for books, papers, worksheets or other materials which the child is expected to use can often make tasks much more manageable. Some books and other materials are commercially available; other materials will need to be enlarged using a photocopier or computer, when possible.

There are a number of ways to help a child keep focused and not become overwhelmed when using painted information. For many children, a "window" made from cutting a rectangle in an index card helps keep the relevant numbers, words, sentences, etc. in clear focus while blocking out much of the peripheral material which can become distracting. As the child's tracking improves, the prompt can be reduced. For example, after a period of time, one might replace the "window" with a ruler or other straightedge, thus increasing the task demands while still providing additional structure. This can then be reduced to, perhaps, having the child point to the word s/he is reading with only a finger.

For writing

Adding more structure to the paper a child is using can often help him/her use the paper more effectively. This can be done in a number of ways. For example, lines can be made darker and more distinct. Paper with raised lines to provide kinesthetic feedback is available. Worksheets can be simplified in their structure and the amount of material, which is contained per worksheet, can be controlled. Using paper, which is divided, into large and distinct sections can often help with math problems.

Teaching Style

Being aware and monitoring progress of the child's skills and abilities will help dictate what accommodations in classroom structure and/or materials are appropriate and feasible. In addition, the teacher can help by ensuring the child is never relying solely on an area of weakness, unless that is the specific purpose of the activity. For example, if the teacher is referring to writing on a chalkboard or chart paper, s/he can read aloud what is being read or written, providing an additional means for obtaining the information.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities
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