What Is a Visual Processing Disorder?

Many different types of challenges might be considered visual processing disorders. If your child experiences difficulties during any part of the process between the eyes taking in a visual image and the brain interpreting and understanding what it has just observed, their challenges may fall into the category of a visual processing disorder, meaning they may relate to the brain’s ability to interpret and respond to visual stimuli at an age-appropriate level.

Visual processing challenges can come in many different forms and can affect many different aspects of life, depending on a child’s specific challenges. It’s important to understand the scope and nature of a challenge in order to determine how best to try and address it.

Below we provide brief explanations of some of the main areas of visual processing. If your child struggles in their development of the skills described, it may be a good idea to look further into VPDs and to consider how a professional therapist can help.

  1. Visual Discrimination

Visual discrimination refers to the ability to scan, notice, and process each letter in a word, each word in a line, and each line in a page—without omitting any parts. Children with visual discrimination deficits will tend to skip letters, numbers, words, and/or lines when reading or computing a mathematical equation.

For example, a child should be able to read a story and go from line to line within the page, never skipping over a line without realizing it. They should also be able to work through a math problem without skipping steps or overlooking earlier parts of their work in working out the answer.

If your child seems to have difficulty in this area, further attention may be advisable in order to prevent this from affecting their academic progress in a variety of ways.

  1. Visual Memory

Visual memory refers to what your brain is able to retain and remember of a visual stimulant after your eyes are no longer physically looking at it. For example, if someone shows you a picture and then covers it up, your mind should ideally be able to still picture and visualize some of the key details, patterns, and shapes when you’re thinking about it. 

Like most forms of visual processing disorders, challenges with visual memory are typically tied to a disruption somewhere along the neurological process between your eyes observing something and your brain interpreting its meaning. Leaving a challenge in this area unaddressed can leave your child struggling in various aspects of their lives, including academic performance and interpersonal skills.

In school, this can apply to things like:

  • Remembering what different letters look like

  • Being able to identify elements of a diagram after being taught about it

In personal life, this can apply to things like:

  • Remembering and recognizing different people you and your family know

  • Remembering where to find various items at the grocery store

  1. Spatial Relations

Spatial relations refers to our ability to notice differences between similar images. It’s about being able to recognize and identify what distinguishes two shapes from one another that look generally alike.

For example, the lowercase versions of the letters “b” and “d” look similar, and essentially mirror each other’s appearances. For most adults who are accustomed to reading in English, our brains don’t even pay attention to the similarity in the two letters’ appearances because we have trained our minds to recognize the subtle difference between them that changes their entire meaning as a symbol. 

For someone struggling with visual processing, this task can be a difficult challenge. They might confuse words that feature similar sets of letters, such as “vase” and “save,” or words featuring similar-looking letters, such as “bad” and “dad.” The same applies to issues distinguishing between any other types of visual symbols or images.

This is a skill that is key in order to go about basic and common activities of daily life. If one struggles to recognize and understand spatial relations, many activities will be difficult to get through—including things like reading, navigating, and following sketches and diagrams used in different school subjects.

  1. Form Constancy

Form constancy is the ability to recognize similarities and consistencies in shapes, symbols, and images across different contexts and to understand when two different instances of a visual stimulus share a common meaning.

In other words, there are all kinds of circles out there—some are big, some are small, and some are medium. Yet, they are all the same shape—a circle. Form constancy skills allow us to understand that all three instances, despite the variations between their appearances, all share a common meaning—they are all circles.

This skill is very important and impacts many aspects of life. An important example of its impact is in reading proficiency. If a child learns to read and can clearly understand every letter of the alphabet when written in his teacher’s handwriting, he or she still needs to be able to recognize and understand those same letters when they are written by other people, or typed in print, or blown up into large bubble letter fonts on a sign or poster. . Furthermore, within the words, the brain must understand that the focus is the meaning of what the letters symbolize when placed together in a specific order, rather than on the ins and outs of the design of the font.

Even though each one of these instances of a letter will look slightly different from the others, it is crucial to be able to recognize their core meanings as the same. Challenges in doing so will limit one’s practical reading abilities, even if they are making progress with reading in a specific classroom or therapy setting.

  1. Sequential Memory

Related to visual memory, sequential memory is specifically the ability to remember a visual sequence such as the order in which letters appear in words being read. 

Ideally, your child should be able to recall the order, pattern(s), and/or sequences of how the parts of a visual stimulant appeared, after it is no longer physically visible. This is a skill that is crucial for things like reading, spelling, and general recognition abilities. 

Without the ability to maintain an awareness of how the parts of a word, shape, or image fit into the bigger picture, your child will face difficulties in comprehending and interpreting many necessary things in everyday life. Significant trouble with spelling simple words, or with reading and writing without speaking each word out loud, can be signs that your child could benefit from receiving help and guidance in this area.

Kids with challenges in this area will difficulty remembering sight words. Sight words are words that are not pronounced the obvious way based on how they are spelled, which means their spellings need to be memorized and remembered in order to be read, rather than sounded out each time like many other words. For example, the spelling of words like “rough” or “right” must be learned from memory, or a child will not know what words they are when seeing them on a page. Therefore, the ability to remember letters in specific orders is a very important skill to work on.

  1. Visual Figure Ground

Visual figure ground perception is the ability to understand what parts of a visual stimulant is important and what is not. Our eyes are constantly taking in enormous amounts of information, and there are practically infinite amounts of detail to each and every part of the world we look at. Therefore, knowing what to focus on and what to ignore is a crucially important skill in our ability to interpret and understand the world around us.

If our eyes feed our brain an image of a crumpled up note, we are technically seeing a bunch of things at once—we’re seeing the paper itself, the folds, the words, and perhaps even some lines or margins. If our goal is to read the content, our brain must understand that out of all these stimuli, only the words are relevant and, therefore, only the words should be the focus of our interpretation

This may feel so intuitive to some of us that we don’t even think about it. Yet, for some, it can be a challenge that can impact many different skills. It is important to ensure that this skill is always developing and being improved upon at age-appropriate levels.

  1. Visual Closure

In visual skills, closure is essentially the ability of your brain to “fill in the gaps” between what your eyes can see and what they can’t. For example, if you look at a common shape drawn on a piece of paper, but part of the paper is covered and obscured by a folder, your brain should be able to imagine and mentally anticipate how the rest of the shape fills out. 

One important application of this is the ability to recognize things and people in the real world, when things aren’t always laid out neatly for us to think about. In real life, objects move, interact, and exist as they happen to be at a given time—and so our minds need to be able to “go with the flow” and understand the relationship between what we can clearly see and the bigger picture, which may not be clearly physically visible.

This ability is important in day to day life, because there are all kinds of common daily living activities which depend upon this form of visual processing in order to be carried out without extra difficulty.

Looking for More Information?

This is just a general introduction to some of the elements of VPDs, but there is so much more to know and consider in order to make the right decisions for helping your child with his or her own unique needs.

Please feel free to reach out to Smart Stride OT for more information or with any questions you may have about the subject.

If you found this information useful, and would like to learn more or find out how our programs can further help your child, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. Occupational Therapy can be a game-changing tool for children struggling with auditory processing challenges. Our team of experts at Smart Stride OT are always happy to chat and to assist in any way we can.

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