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Do you or your child have an undiagnosed reading problem? One reason my daughter finally refused to go to school, aged 8 ¾, is that she has Visual Stress. When she looks at a page of text, the words are blurry and they move around on the page. Reading was a frustrating, unrewarding experience for her.

Eventually she rejected the pressure, from teachers and me, to practice reading more. We did not know she saw this way until I noticed a problem during our second reading session at home (see this post).*

Photo: Heather Laurie

Photo: Heather Laurie

My research on Visual Stress revealed different models and theories of optometry, just as there are different models and theories in medicine, sociology, etc. The more I read, the less I seemed to understand, so I stopped reading. Although I do not feel competent to discuss causes and treatments, I feel compelled to share what I do know (or think I know!), in case it will help someone reading this.

20% of the population experiences Visual Stress, and they may not know that reading isn’t like this for everyone. They may not know that it can be fixed. For 2%, the blurriness and moving words are severe enough to make reading an unpleasant, demoralising experience. This condition can be treated with vision therapy (see Wikipedia entry on vision therapy).

Adults with this condition have either adapted, or given up. For children, addressing this visual issue can dramatically affect their willingness and ability to read, and therefore their self-esteem and overall academic success. Apart from blurry and moving text, symptoms of Visual Stress or related visual issues can include the following:

  • Frequent headaches or eye strain
  • Dislike of reading
  • Poor depth perception
  • Turning of an eye in or out, up or down
  • Tendency to cover or close one eye
  • Tendency to move around when reading
  • Using a finger to keep place in text
  • Double vision
  • Poor hand-eye coordination
  • Difficulty following a moving target
  • Dizziness or motion sickness
  • Difficulty copying from one place to another
  • Difficulty keeping the place when reading
  • Difficulty changing focus from distance to near and back
  • Poor handwriting
  • Knows the information but can’t write it down
  • Difficulty judging sizes and shapes

Visual Stress can occur on its own, or in conjunction with dyslexia and other visual conditions. Opticians don’t fully understand the cause(s) of Visual Stress. Other terms I came across in my research: convergence problems, tracking problems, binocular vision problems.

In the UK, standard eye exams do not test for Visual Stress. If you suspect that you or your child is affected, tell your optician your symptoms and ask for a comprehensive exam that tests for Visual Stress.

There are various treatments for Visual Stress (see websites listed below). The ones I know about are: glasses designed to make it easier for the eyes to converge, eye exercises, and coloured overlays and coloured lenses in spectacles.

Here I share our experience as a way of showing how one parent responded to Visual Stress. I feel rather alone on this journey – I would love to know whether this journey is similar to others’ journeys.

We followed a slightly twisty path. Our local optician discovered that my child’s eyes didn’t converge, or focus, very well, and that coloured overlays dramatically increased her reading speed, accuracy and comfort (see this post). As he doesn’t currently dispense coloured overlays and coloured spectacles, he referred us to an optician in the nearest city. As it turned out, this optician was on holiday, and by the time she phoned, I had done some internet research on Visual Stress and made an appointment with an optician in the next nearest city. He did some different tests, also diagnosed Visual Stress, and prescribed glasses.

Now I had a dilemma. Glasses for children are free through the National Health Service. Coloured overlays and coloured spectacles are not. So I had two opticians, one diagnosis and two possible treatments. As money is tight at the moment, I returned to the local optician with my report from the most distant optician. He very graciously tested her with the most-distant-optician’s prescription and we agreed to try the free-to-me option of glasses. He also gave her a series of eye exercises. At the 6-week check-up, he pronounced a huge improvement. My daughter still does not enjoy reading, but she can read beautifully at her age level. This is a major accomplishment of our experiment in home education.

Standard vision tests should include screening for visual stress, especially in young school-age children.

For more information, see the websites listed below. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will help get you started.

*Why didn’t I pick this up during 4 years of miserable reading homework? Because I didn’t trust my child enough. I assumed that her resistance to reading (or any homework) was (a) natural kid behaviour, (b) the result of being too tired after the school day to engage with academic work, (c) a reflection of my opposition to homework for the 5-8 age group) and/or (d) general orneriness. My lesson: trust the child!

Useful websites: