Why childhood eye tests can be the key to discovering special educational needs

Around a fifth of young people with sight loss also have additional special educational needs or disabilities, and a further 30% have complex needs. This is according to research by Vision 2020, an umbrella group for sight loss organisations.

The charity Blind Children UK, which is a member of Vision 2020, says that early eye tests are vital for all children, and can hold the key to spotting and addressing problems. But Blind Children UK recently surveyed parents and found that more than a quarter have never taken their child to an optician. This figure rises to 43% among those with children under the age of five.

The survey also showed that 40% of parents assume eye tests are being carried out in nurseries or schools, but a recent study by the College of Optometrists has discovered a postcode lottery and many thousands of children could be missing out on these tests.

Jayne George, director of fundraising at Blind Children UK, said: "We are in a worrying situation where children are not getting their eyes tested either in school or at an optician with their parents. There are a number of eye conditions that are common among young children – some of which can lead to sight loss if not caught early – and these can be detected in a thorough eye examination. Early detection and intervention can make the world of difference, which is why we are calling for parents to get their children’s eyes tested within the first year of school.”

The causes of vision impairment in childhood are different from the causes in adults, the most common being cerebral vision impairment (CVI), which is where there has been damage to the visual pathways in the brain, affecting the way that visual information is processed. Many children and young people have more than one sight disorder.

It is possible to detect conditions such as amblyopia, better known as “lazy eye” at a very young age. It can be a very mild problem but has the potential to become more serious if left untreated or if sight in the other eye is lost or damaged

As a young boy, Billy Wells' development was lagging behind that of a normal toddler and he struggled with co-ordination. His parents, Charlie and Tracey, raised concerns with health professionals a number of times but a problem could not be identified.

Charlie has written his story for SNJ.

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Billy Wells and family
Billy and family

For the first five years of my son Billy’s life, we didn’t realise he had a problem with his sight, but as a parent, you just know when something’s not right. When Billy was a baby and young toddler, he would drop his bottle and not be able to pick it up, but doctors said he was just being ‘a bit lazy’. He would sit just inches from the screen to watch TV, but when we raised this with health workers a problem wasn’t identified and it was suggested that he just wanted to interact with the programmes.

It was only after a family holiday to Disneyland Paris that we became sure there was a problem; out of more than 200 photos of our family, he wasn’t looking at the camera in any of them, because he didn’t know where it was.

A few days after we got back we took Billy to the optician. They tried him with different lenses and all of a sudden he started crying and said ‘dad I can see!’ I asked him why he hadn’t told me he was struggling to see before, and he said he didn’t know his eyes were supposed to work like that, at which point I started crying too.

Billy was diagnosed with lazy eye and severe long-sightedness in both eyes. Fortunately, things could be improved by glasses, but there was still so much for me and his mum to take on board and we were worried about Billy’s future.

We didn’t know where to turn to get him the help he needed so I searched the internet and found Blind Children UK. From there, National Family Support Manager Wendy Sainsbury told us about all the things she could start to put in place to help Billy and us.

I didn’t know children could have their eyes tested at an early age, and a lot parents probably don’t realise that either, but it’s so important. If they are tested when they are young, then many potential problems can be spotted and corrected, or prevented from becoming worse.

As a result of discovering his sight problems, Billy was also diagnosed with dyspraxia, a disability which affects movement and co-ordination, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a condition affecting his behaviour. But I’m really proud to say that Billy is now doing really well in school and particularly loves Maths, English and Science.

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two young adults with autism. Tania is a member of the Whole School SEND Expert Reference Group for SEND Leadership, the Ofsted SEND Inspections Stakeholders Group, and sits on the Advisory Board of the Royal Holloway, University of London Centre of Gene and Cell Therapy.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
Tania Tirraoro
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