Visual Processing Disorders

Humans take in 75 to 90% of their information visually.  Seeing is our primary learning sense and affects more than reading, writing, spelling, or math.  Almost everything we do relies on the powerful sense of sight.  Sadly, many things can go wrong with not only the eyes but how the brain processes this sense. 


By definition, a visual processing disorder is a learning disability in which the student has a difficult time processing information that is seen. 



Students with visual processing disorders process visual information incorrectly.  They might skip lines when reading or reverse letters when writing.  They line up math columns incorrectly.  They have a difficult copying information, especially from the board.  These kids are often messy, disorganized, and seem "lost" a lot of the time.


These bright children are inconsistent in finding similarities and differences in visual information and therefore cannot succeed well academically because the letters or words are not perceived in a consistent manner.  They can't tell subtle differences between shapes, letters, words, or numbers.  


Most people don't know that we "see"with our brains but take in light with our eyes.  Of course, a lot

more goes into seeing than that, but it's important to know the brain's role in seeing.  Parents often think that getting a child glasses will help a visual processing disorder, but it won't.  Of course, if the child sees better, that helps overall learning, but glasses usually just correct focusing or astigmatism.  

Glasses do nothing to help students process visual information in the brain. 

In order to correctly process visual stimulation, we must have proper binocular vision.  This is where two eyes work together to make one image.  Sometimes, students can't seem to coordinate both eyes with each other, so the images they take in might be blurred or distorted.  Since they were born with this condition, it's difficult for them to let us know something is wrong!


Eye muscle movement is another factor that contributes to visual processing disorders.  Our eye muscles must be strong and move fluidly across a page in order to read efficiently and effectively.  Each eye has six muscles holding it in place.  Like any muscle in the body, weaknesses can occur.  Also, the muscles might not allow the eyes to line up correctly, and this affects how the student processes visual information.


There are many things that can interfere with proper vision and sight!  It's important to find a program that strengthens visual processing skills so students can reach academic success.  Following is a list and explanation of visual processing skills that we address at Harp.  



This is the ability for the student to move his eyes fluidly across a page.  We have students practice moving their eyes across the page from left to right through various activities.  Many poor readers are weak at orienting their eyes on a page.

Eye/hand coordination:

This is the ability of the visual system to coordinate the information received visually through the eyes and communicate it with the hands.  When the eyes direct attention to the hands, then the task can be executed.

Many times, a block or misinformation occurs so that eye/hand coordination is weak.  This is usually first noted in a lack of skill in drawing or writing.  Students with poor eye/hand coordination struggle adversely with writing and performing fine motor skills activities. 

Visual Closure:

This is the ability to visualize a complete whole when given incomplete information or a partial picture of something.  When students are weak at this skill, then they find it difficult to glance at a letter, number, or word and fill in possible missing components so that meaning can correctly be placed with the visual cue.

Visual closure abilities help a student read and comprehend quickly.  The eyes don’t have to individually process every letter or word when visual closure skills are strong.  This skill is particularly helpful for understanding inferences and predicting outcomes while reading.

Visual Discrimination:

This allows the student to see the differences between objects that are similar and those that are different.  For academics, this skill involves the ability to perceive letters, numbers, and words as and note these differences as well as applying it to meaning.

Students who have problems with visual discrimination do not focus on the individual letters of a word and/or note likenesses and differences (more importantly) between words as wholes.  They might see a “b” as a “d”.  Visual discrimination problems are common with students who have dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia.

Visual Memory:

This is the ability to hold pictures or images in the mind.  In order to read, write, perform accurate math calculations, and spell words properly, students need to hold symbols in their visual memory.  These symbols may be letters, combinations of letters (words), combinations of words (sentences), combinations of sentences (paragraphs), numbers, number combinations, formulas, math facts, spelling words, and variations of different meanings that accompany these symbols. 


Whew! It is amazing that any of us can read, write, spell, or remember how to add, subtract, multiply or divide.  But, we do, and when visual memory is weak, it becomes more difficult.

The rule of thumb for visual memory is that a child should hold one symbol or image in his/her mind for each year of life, tapping out at seven symbols.  Think about it.  We have seven digits in a telephone number and seven digits in our driver’s licenses.  Most multi-syllable words don’t contain too many more letters than seven.

At Harp, we focus on six symbols, which seems to be enough for a student to carry on well in school and life.




Kids with visual memory issues don’t seem to have any “glue” in their brains to hold these symbols in place.  Thankfully, this is a skill that can be built up, like training for a marathon.  When you first start, you aren’t usually able to run long distances, but by consistent, targeted practice, muscles build up that make it possible to run for long distances.  The same can be said for visual memory.  It can be built up over a period of time so that the student can hold these images in the mind. 


It is not a sign of intelligence, but a skill, although some people may argue that it is indeed intelligence based.  For instance, you must have good visual memory skills to perform academics, so if you take a test with low visual memory skills, then it appears that you are not intelligence.  The problem is that the test requires visual memory to be strong. 

As a side note, with modern technology, it is visual memory seems to be getting weaker and weaker with our students.  They don’t have to wait long for images to form in their brains due to high speed internet.  They don’t have to remember phone numbers at all due to smart phones where all you have to do is press a button.  I could site many more examples, but you get the idea.

Students with visual processing problems often suffer with directionality issues.  This is the ability to understand and use directions such as left, right, over, under, beside, above.  In essence, these kids don’t understand the directions of objects in relation to their bodies. 


These kids will have problems understanding oral directions as well, since they can’t seem to find a place to “categorize” them in.  Written tasks will often reveal reversals in letters and words.  When doing a worksheet, a student with directionality issues will often find it difficult to know to start at the top left hand part of the page and move from left to right.  This student will often appear to be clumsy as well.

A student with dyslexia will almost always have directionality problems.  The good news?  Once again, this isn’t a sign of intelligence.  It is a skill that can be practiced and increased until the student understands where directions are in regard to not only his/her body but in regard to reading, writing, math, and spelling.

Eye Muscles:

Each eyeball is held in place by six muscles.  These muscles, of course, control the movement of the eye.  Each eye works in its own way, but it also must work in conjunction with the other eye.  If these eye muscles are weak in any way, then it is difficult for the student to move the eyes fluidly across a page.  Like any muscle, with regular, targeted exercises, the eye muscles can be strengthened.  The exercises are easy to do, and when the muscles are strong, the eyes can move properly.



Sometimes when eye muscles are not working properly, suppression can occur.  This is when the brain will intermittently shut down an eye so the student is in essence “blind” for short periods of time.  Of course, this will affect the student’s ability to read, write, and perform other academic skills.  The stronger eye will take over and the weaker eye will continue to become weaker, popping in and out of the student’s field of vision.


This is the ability to focus the eyes from far to near in an easy, fluid manner.  Too often, poor students have a difficult time transitioning from the board, to their paper or book, and then back to the board.  Because this is so difficult, then the student is always a step behind, making it difficult to keep up with peers or understand the lecture or presentation.  Accommodation can also affect the student’s ability to even copy from a book to a paper.  If your child or student hates copying or has a difficult time with it, then accommodation is probably the culprit. 

Visual Perceptual Skills:

This is the brain’s interpretation of what one sees.  It is paramount that the brain and visual system connect in a manner that is easy to perceive visual stimulus.  Students with poor perceptual skills view visual information in a distorted, incorrect manner.  Or the information might be tilted, angled, upside down, wiggling, or a host of other manners.  In fact, since we can’t get inside of their brains or eyes, they might be viewing the world in constant motion. 


Can you imagine how difficult it would be to read and focus if this was how you viewed the world.  People often ask, “Why didn’t he tell me?”  The answer is that he has always viewed the world this way, so he doesn’t know it can be any different.

Visual Figure Ground:

This is a property of perception where there is a tendency to see parts of a visual field as solid, well-defined objects standing out against a less distinct background.  Students who are weak in this area don’t differentiate between the objects that stick out and the background.  This affects their ability to read, write, spell, and perform mathematics exercises because it is difficult for them to judge where letters and numbers start and finish, how to weed out unimportant visual stimuli, and how to make sense of the jumble that appears to them in a variety of different avenues.



Visual Motor Integration:

This is one of our most basic foundational skills, one that is the “foundation of the learning house” that we are building.  It is difficult to reach higher level, executive functioning skills when this skill, and other basic skills are weak.

Years ago, teachers spent a lot of time teaching students handwriting skills, which in turn, strengthened their visual motor integration skills.  Today, teachers rarely have time to teach handwriting in such a way, as they are hard pressed to teach so many academic skills.

Visual motor integration consists of coordinating visual perceptual skills together with gross motor movement and fine motor movement as well as the ability to integrate visual input with motor output.  With that said, an easier definition is the ability of the brain, the hands, and the body to communicate effectively.  Students with visual motor integration problems have a difficult time writing.  Art work is usually sloppy and these students have a difficult time staying within lines on paper. 


Their writing bunches together or flows off of the lines unevenly and they have a difficult time judging where curves and lines should connect or separate.  Copying and any other pencil and paper tasks are extremely difficult for students with this problem.

It is possible to go back and make this skill strong, which in turn will affect higher level skills.

Visual Sequential Memory:

This is the ability to remember forms or characters in correct order.  This skill is particularly important for spelling.  Letter omissions, additions, or transpositions within words are common for children who struggle with this skill.  In addition, it is obvious that this skill is also important for reading and writing, as the line-up of the letters will greatly affect fluency and comprehension.  If a student is misreading words, then it will slow the student down immensely, as he will have to keep backtracking and filling in missed or incorrectly read information.

Eye Movement:

Parents often ask if their children need an eye exam.  Well, of course, that is a good thing to do, but we need to keep in mind that although eye doctors can deal with a multitude of eye issues that focusing alone isn’t the cure all for visual processing issues.  

Saccades are rapid movements of the eyes that quickly and abruptly change the point of fixation. They range from the small movements made while reading to the much larger movements such as looking across a room or out into the distance.  Saccades can occur voluntarily, but happen reflexively whenever the eyes are open. 

It is obvious to see how eye movements, whether close up or far away, affect not only learning and academics (think of watching a teacher instructing on a board or overhead as well as close up work such as worksheets or reading a book).

Spatial Awareness:

Spatial awareness is an organized awareness of the objects in the space around us, and also an awareness of our body’s position in space.  Without this awareness, we would not be able to pick food up from our plates and put in our mouths.  We would have trouble reading, because we could not see the letters in their correct relation to each other and to the page. 

Spatial awareness requires that we have a model of the three dimensional space around us, and t requires that we can integrate information from all of our senses.

Studies have suggested a link between a well-developed sense of spatial awareness and artistic creativity, as well as success in math.  It can also be important in organize and classify abstract mental concepts is related to the ability t organize and classify objects in space.  Visual thinkers, in particular, will tend to use their visual imagination to organize abstract thought.

Because spatial awareness requires integrating the information from the different senses into the three-dimensional model of the world provided by the vestibular system, activities which refine the vestibular system and develop sensory integration can refine all aspects of brain processing.

Binocular Teaming:

Binocular teaming is the ability of both eyes to work together to provide accurate information to the brain.  Binocularity and stereopsis (the working together of the two eyes in providing different views to the brain which are integrated into one image) are important visual processing skills are responsible for providing depth perception.  These visual perception skills are necessary in order to perform a variety of visual tasks such as tracking, fixation, convergence, and visual motor integration.  These tasks are important for reading, writing, spelling, performing math functions, and succeeding in the classroom or workplace.


This is how the eye maintains a visual gaze on a single location. Inadequate fixation skills must be addressed early in a treatment program before other higher level visual skills are attempted because it is a foundational skill upon which the others are built upon.  In order to evaluate a student’s fixation, hold a small target, such a tongue depressor with a dot on it about fifteen inches from the student’s eyes and ask the student to keep his eyes on the target without looking away.  Observe if he is able to maintain a steady gaze without pulling his eyes away.   Another way to measure this is to patch one of the student’s eyes and repeat the process as described above.  Watch to see if the eye is jumpy or jerky.  Patch the other eye and repeat the process.