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Higher Visual Processing Difficulties - Why we all need to understand them.

CVI Scotland trustee & parent of a child with CVI, Helen, thinks we all need to start looking more closely at Higher Visual Processing Difficulties.

My son has had CVI from birth, he is now ten.

We were told he had low vision, with significant delays in learning and development, and this was how he was managed.

Then, when he was six, we learned that he has difficulties with higher visual processing as well, like those described on this website. We learned also that these might, in part, explain his delays.

For my son these include:

  • His visual attention varies. Imagine looking through a tube that can become narrow or widen out. Someone slams a door and his tube narrows. Take him to an open beach, and it opens right up. His tunnel of vision is constantly narrowing or widening, depending on his surroundings, as well as how he is feeling and what he is doing.
  • He has no idea of how far away things are. I really think his world must be full of tiny people and giants! He has no sense that people on the other side of a big room where they look small, are of normal size - to my son, they are just little. Equally, if things are close, they can seem enormous, especially if his tube of visual attention has narrowed and he only sees a small part of the picture, which doesn't make sense. Not surprisingly he's easily and often frightened.
  • When things move, he can only see them well when they're moving very slowly. That's fine, we've figured that one out, and now we know how slowly things need to be moving for him to see them clearly. But then, we also realised that things that move fast cannot be seen, yet when they slow down, they suddenly pop into view, and this is scary. This is particularly a problem when we are out and about in traffic, or if children are running around, and the busy stressful surroundings also make his tube of vision narrow.

Are the trees big and in the distance of tiny? My son will try to reach for things that are a long way in the distance, he has no sense that they are far away, and seems to think that if he can see them he can touch them.

When his tube of visual attention narrows, I imagine my son feels as if he is tumbling inside a chaotic whirlwind. Not only is his vision affected, he becomes paralysed, and he has often fallen to the floor.

Yet if you saw him now, walking around at home, you would probably not even think he had a visual impairment, but take him somewhere unknown, even in a place with minimal movement or noise or clutter, and he can become as helpless as a baby.

As I learnt more about these higher processing difficulties, and how they are affecting my son, I came to realise that they are causing his learning difficulties. His learning difficulties are not a separate condition. They are caused by his CVIs, at least in part. This new knowledge has helped us to become better and better at recognising the support he needs to learn and develop. It's not been easy, but over time, those closest to him have learnt to tune into his world, and step into his wonderful existence.

Through my work with CVI Scotland I meet many families. I now realise, that almost without exception, the children I've met, also have similar higher processing difficulties.

So I asked our experts...

They explained CVI is the leading cause of vision impairment in children in industrialised countries, and that a large proportion of children affected by CVI, have higher visual processing difficulties - sometimes with, and sometimes without other disorders of vision.

So these higher visual processes are really important to understand. Yet many professionals in the visual world still seem to limit their focus to low vision and visual impairments due to the eyes.

I know from both my experiences and those of so many families I've met, that when the higher visual processing difficulties are understood and accommodated, children can learn, it's as simple as that.

The standard teaching approaches for low vision alone might not be simply inadequate for children with CVI, they can for some, create learning difficulties. Just think about that - the wrong approach doesn't simply do nothing or make learning slower - it can actually create learning difficulties.

I know personally of many examples where the wrong approaches have also created major behavioural challenges too.

I believe that everyone - families, carers, those in education, medicine or other areas of support - who work with anyone affected by CVI, needs to understand the higher visual processes and what can go wrong with them.

It may seem bold for a parent to be writing like this, but parents, carers and those affected by CVI know this condition better than anyone else, because we live with it all day, every day and it affects those most dear to us.

Our voice matters.

Helen St Clair Tracy, Parent & Trustee, CVI Scotland

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At CVI Scotland we are devoted to helping people understand cerebral visual impairments, and together working towards developing the understanding of this complex condition.