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How Visual Sensory Processing Works

The visual system is part of the body’s central nervous system. This is the sensory system that allows us to see and process visual information. This post takes a look at how visual sensory processing works.

Plus, learn to spot the signs that your child struggles with visual sensory processing, including signs and strategies for both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders.

Visual Sensory Processing – Strategies for Seekers and Avoiders

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.

This post is part of a 10 part series on the sensory systems. Each part will contain a table of contents to help you easily navigate through the entire series.

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction – The Sensory Spectrum
  2. The Tactile System
  3. The Auditory System
  4. The Visual System
  5. Proprioception
  6. Vestibular System
  7. Interoception
  8. The Olfactory System
  9. The Oral-Motor System
  10. Bilateral Coordination

The Visual Pathway

The visual pathway is the neural pathway that visual input travels to the brain.

This pathway consists of the eye, the optic nerve, optic chiasm, optic tract, lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN), optic radiation, and visual cortex.

The first cell in the visual pathway is called a photoreceptor. This cell is located in the retina.

Basically, a photoreceptor is a special sensory cell that converts light energy into a signal for the brain, called a neural impulse. That impulse travels from the retina, through the optic nerve and, along the visual pathway until it reaches the visual cortex (located in the cerebellum).

Each eye sees from a different perspective and transmits a different signal to the brain. The visual cortex converts this information into a single stable image – this is what we see.

Signs of Visual Sensory Processing Challenges

How do you tell if your child is struggling with atypical visual processing?

If your child is showing signs of visual processing issues you should first determine if it’s a visual processing issue or an issue with their vision. 

An optometrist can perform an eye exam to determine if there are any problems with your child’s vision. If vision is poor then your child’s eyes won’t send accurate information to the brain.

If vision is okay and there is a visual processing issue then the eyes are sending accurate information to the brain but at some point along the visual pathway, that information is not getting analyzed and processed properly.

Sensory Integration Problems Related to The Visual System

The Visual System - 22 Signs Your Child Has Problem Processing Visual Input - #SensoryProcessing #SPD #SensoryDiet #Autism #ADHD #SPD

The following are some of the common signs that your child is struggling with visual processing issues. If these apply to your child it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor or an occupational therapist 

Sensory Discrimination or Perception Issues

Discrimination and perception issues occur when the brain is struggling to interpret and give meaning to sensory input.

  • Struggles to copy words off a whiteboard, or from a book
  • Avoids or has difficulty with activities that require visual acuity. For example, puzzles, mazes, word searches, etc.
  • Reverses letters or words when reading or writing
  • Doesn’t notice the difference between similar letters and numbers. Such as confusing a 1 with an l. May also struggle when learning the alphabet.
  • Reading level below what is developmentally expected for their age level.

Modulation Issues

Occurs when the brain over- or under-responds to sensory input.

Over-Responsive (Visual Defensiveness/Avoidance)

  • Avoids or dislikes bright lights and sunlight
  • Covers eyes or squints
  • Seems scared of moving objects
  • Avoids direct eye contact
  • Avoids group movement activities
  • Headaches or nausea after continuous visual stimulation. For example, watching TV, using a tablet, a computer, etc.
  • Unable to estimate distances
  • Misses objects in their path, or trips/bumps into things

Under-Responsive (Visual Input Seeking)

  • Stares at bright and flickering lights
  • Moves or shakes head during reading or writing
  • Stares at moving objects. For example, fans, pinwheels, spin tops.
  • Looks at items really close up, or to the side out of the corner of their eye
  • Enjoys visually stimulating images. For example, patterns, optical illusions, bright colors, etc.

Praxis Issues

Praxis issues are related to planning and executing motor movements that the body has not done before. When it comes to the visual system, praxis problems usually involve issues with hand-eye coordination.

  • Cannot catch or kick a ball
  • Overflows cup when pouring own drink
  • Struggles to trace lines/letters
  • Struggles with fine motor activities. For example, when beading – struggles to line a string up with a bead.

Strategies for Managing Visual Sensory Processing Differences

The Visual System - 213 Visual Sensory Strategies - #SensoryProcessing #SPD #SensoryDiet #Autism #ADHD #SPD

For Over-Responsiveness:

  • Keep clutter to a minimum.
  • Do not create too many visual stimuli in your home. For example, lots of photos on the walls, lots of colors, etc.
  • Dim/cover lights
  • Work on developing sensory integration with games, such as: rolling a ball back and forth on the floor, tossing a bean bag, matching games, color sorting games
  • Give breaks from visual input when needed
  • Use guided reading strips

For Under-Responsiveness

  • Help keep sensory needs met by providing lots of opportunities for visual stimulation
  • Use LED and color-changing lights
  • Introduce your child to optical illusions
  • Decorate home with mirrors, photos that have colors and patterns, etc.
  • Use visually stimulating toys such as Kaleidoscope, View Finder, Spin Tops, Fidget Spinners, etc. 
  • Play I-Spy games, connect the dots, coloring, painting, etc.

Visual Discrimination

Being able to distinguish between different shapes is a necessary skill for learning to identify letters and numbers. The formation of each letter, or its shape, is the main distinguishing factor. 

Kids with visual discrimination challenges will distinguish between objects based on their color rather than their shape. This doesn’t work with letters or numbers.

One way to practice discriminating between objects based on their shape is with shadow matching activities.

Try these shadow matching activities with your child.

Occupational Therapy

An occupational therapist with experience in sensory-integration can address visual processing issues.

They will most likely do movement activities with your child that stimulate the vestibular system and core/shoulder strengthening activities to improve posture.

These have an effect on the visual system and can help improve visual processing.

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