Vision-related learning problems

Any condition that hampers vision or the processing of vision may result in problems learning. Vision disorders may interfere with reading and learning.
School child reading a book

The eye is literally an extension of the brain. It is estimated that over 60% of the brain has some duties associated with vision input. Compared to the sense of touch (8%) and hearing (3%), the eyes are the by far the dominant input devices for the brain. Because of this, any condition that hampers vision or the processing of vision may result in problems learning. These conditions are not only varied but also range from mild to severe. When diagnosed and treated early, people have a better chance of learning efficiently.

Causes & risk factors

Heredity can be a large risk factor in all types of learning and vision problems. And since the two are so intertwined, having a family history of learning or vision problems puts one at a greater risk. Therefore, we can predict that a child will be at risk even before conception. After conception, during development in the womb, the fetus can be exposed to many positive and negative influences. Negative influences include the mental/emotional state of the mother, diet, and poor lifestyle choices including tobacco, alcohol, and both legal and illegal drug use. After birth, conditions that are negative to healthy development such as neglect, abuse or a stress-filled home environment can also lead to developmental delays in many areas.


A family practitioner and/or pediatrician should be testing the child from birth through the first years of life for important learning and developmental milestones. After entering school, children may be tested for a learning problem if certain symptoms or history is concerning. These would include any developmental delays such as crawling, walking, talking, and general behavior based on norms. Vision problems that may occur could result in symptoms such as squinting to see up close or far away, closing or covering one eye, tilting of the head, rubbing the eyes, red and/or watery eyes, headaches, unusual fatigue while performing vision-related tasks such as near work (reading, writing, coloring, watching digital devices, etc.) While these symptoms are relatively easy to observe, symptoms of vision processing can be much harder to detect. Many conditions may be difficult to test at extremely young ages, but observant parents, caregivers, and teachers can observe subtle behaviors and not so subtle behaviors that would be symptoms of learning problems that may be associated with the visual system. These include reversal of letters and words beyond the age of seven, poor reading ability and comprehension, lack of interest in schoolwork, especially reading tasks, and disruptive behavior in the classroom and outside the classroom.


A comprehensive eye exam is the first step to determine if visual problems are contributing to learning problems. Simply correcting uncorrected refractive error such as near or farsighted and astigmatism can solve many problems quickly and easily. Other conditions such as the inability for the eyes to work comfortably together (binocular vision) and focus properly (accommodation) are also tested during an eye exam. Testing for amblyopia, sometimes called lazy eye will also be performed. Some doctors of optometry who specialize in vision-related learning problems may have a more extensive battery of tests that often include pencil/paper tasks, visual memory testing, and perceptual testing such as copying forms and reading efficiency testing.


After a diagnosis is made, treatment must be initiated immediately in order to prevent further consequences, primarily falling behind in school. As a child grows, he/she develops at a rate that mimics a 45-degree angle. The older one gets, the more one knows. If a child is growing in age but not development, the angle looks more like a 25- or 30-degree angle. As that child ages, those two angles diverge more and more, making it harder and harder to “catch up” with his/her classmates. The treatment may be as simple as full time or part-time spectacle (or contact lens) wear. It may also be as complex as a team of professionals providing multiple learning activities. An IEP or individual education plan may be implemented to guide the child through school so that he/she is not overwhelmed in the classroom. Physical therapists or occupational therapists, along with doctors of optometry and paraoptometric staff (vision therapists) may also be brought in for treatment and progress testing. Other extracurricular activities from dancing to soccer to gymnastics may also help improve overall coordination and visual function. Out of school learning activities such as children’s museums, library visits, and even simply being read to can also help young learners find fun ways to learn.


As with any condition, early detection and treatment is desired. This action will ensure the young learner with problems is given an opportunity to become the best he/she can be. As a parent, everything the baby observes is a learning experience. Even if a child does not yet speak, he/she loves to hear voices and see colorful pictures and objects. Explaining things you do, or reciting nursery rhymes and singing simple songs will stimulate their young brains to continually seek to know more.

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