Mom sees crown as way to help kids: Mrs. Washington raises awareness about vision disorders in children

By Mary Swift, Journal Reporter – Feb. 1, 2005

Reprinted with permission from kingcountyjournal.com

KIRKLAND — Even before she finally knew for sure what was wrong, Kirkland’s Shama Albright sensed there was something different about her son Tyler.

He and his twin brother Bailey had crawled and walked and potty-trained almost in tandem.

But by the time the twins were 2 and a half, Albright was noticing differences in the twins’ progress. Bailey seemed fine, but Tyler struggled with fine and gross motor skills. And there were “little things,” some of them behavioral, that worried her.

He seemed unusually shy.

He was extremely sensitive to sound and light.

And he was clumsy.

“He was falling into our walls,” she says. “That poor little guy was in stitches. And he was so sensitive to sound that one time when I turned on the vacuum he got so agitated he slipped and hit his head on the floor.

“And when we’d leave the house, he’d take all his toys and line them up. I was wondering, `Do I have an obsessive-compulsive child?”

Albright talked with the boys’ pediatrician. The doctor, she says, told her not to worry.

But — with a mother’s intuition for when things are not right — she did worry.

When the twins were 3, she insisted that Tyler be assessed for occupational and speech therapy. Therapists agreed he would benefit from both.

Still, it wasn’t until Tyler turned 5 that Albright would discover his real problem.

When a nurse in the pediatrician’s office told her Tyler “hadn’t cooperated” during an eye exam, but that his eyes were fine, Albright says “a light went on” in her head. She made an appointment with a pediatric optometrist, Dr. Nancy Torgerson of Alderwood Vison Therapy.

Albright says what she learned then was that the world through Tyler’s eyes was much more challenging than she’d ever imagined.

“She said that not only was he far-sighted, he has a lot of challenges in the way he processes visual information,” Albright says.

For example, Albright says, Tyler has trouble discriminating between forms and shapes.

“If you showed him a circle and a triangle side-by-side and they were touching and asked him to draw them, he’d draw the circle and the triangle and then draw a line between them because that’s how he sees them.”

Sitting in Torgerson’s office, Albright fought back tears, relieved there was an explanation for what was going on with her son, and frustrated that it had taken nearly three years to find out.

“A short while later, we got his glasses,” she says. “We were driving home and he was saying things like, `I didn’t know trees had leaves.”

These days, Tyler is still in occupational therapy and gets regular vision therapy.

But the road ahead is long.

“He’s far from through this,” Albright says. “His reading and spelling are not up to par, but they continue to improve.”

She laughs as she talks about this boy she calls “a major Lego builder and bug collector.”

“We have more bugs in our yard than I can tell you about,” she says.

“And any time we go past roadkill I have to drive back and forth so he can look. I’m hoping it’s CSI (crime scene investigation) not taxidermy we’re talking about here,” she jokes.

But there is no joking when it comes to talking about what she has learned about undetected vision disorders and the way they can impact a life.

“They affect sports, reading, learning, self-esteem — everything,” she says.

Children with “defective visual pathways may be confused by classroom lessons. So they get bored. They get frustrated. So you get a misdiagnosis: `He has attention deficit disorder’ or `He’s a problem child.’ So you begin to set up this child at an early age for failure.”

And what she didn’t realize, and many others don’t know, she says, is that the Snellen eye test — the chart commonly used in schools and doctor’s offices — “only measures how clearly a child sees letters at 20 feet away. It doesn’t tell you whether the eyes work together to read material at 12 inches away.”

That, she says, requires a more comprehensive vision exam, one that few children younger than 5 get even though vision disorders are the leading handicapping condition in childhood.

One day last year, Albright thumbed through a magazine as she sat waiting for Tyler to finish a vision therapy appointment. That’s when she read an article about pageants for married women and how titleholders used their positions to change their communities.

“I thought, `What a great way to create awareness about undetected vision disorders,”’ she says.

With her husband’s blessing, she entered and won the Mrs. Washington USA pageant last June. Albright, who competed at the national level in August, is using her “crown as a megaphone” to speak out about her cause.

“Vision is so important to healthy development,” she says. “It affects what you’re able to do. It doesn’t just make it so you can’t read. It literally affects the person you become and what happens in your life.”

She plans to create a non-profit foundation to help continue educating the public. A Web site, www.doyouseewhatisee.com, is in the works.

And she wants to write a children’s book, she says, that will help illustrate the challenges children like Tyler face.

“What I hope to do from here, besides obviously helping my own child, is continue to raise awareness to help other children,” she says. “Tyler was given to us for a reason. We love him. We adore him. But we are challenged by him. To me, I feel in my heart that this is my mission — to help others understand what a huge healthcare crisis this is for our kids.”