Training the eyes to focus on work

By Louise Wrege, H-P Correspondent
Reprinted by Permission.

How can a child have 20/20 eyesight and yet still have a vision problem?

If a child is having problems concentrating in school, is medication the only solution?

These are some questions Dr. Dan Fortenbacher is asked by parents almost every day at St. Joseph Vision Therapy in St. Joseph, Michigan, a comprehensive diagnostic and therapy services center.

When Cindy Maloney of Coloma first brought her son, Eddie Maloney, to St. Joseph Vision Therapy in November, she said she was very skeptical.

She said Eddie, who is in third grade, was having trouble concentrating at school.

“He wasn’t acting up in class but he wasn’t concentrating the way he should have,” she said.

His teachers had noticed he wouldn’t stay focused on his school work and Maloney said it took her son a long time to do his homework because he just couldn’t stay on task.

She said Eddie’s pediatrician recommended Ritalin, but suggested that she take Eddie to St. Joseph Vision Therapy first.

“We really didn’t want to put Eddie on drugs so we decided to give it a try,” she said.

But Eddie had 20/20 vision and had always passed the school eye exams with no problems.

“I really questioned what this was all about,” she said.

After a few tests, Fortenbacher discovered that Eddie had problems keeping close objects or writing in focus, which made his eyes tire easily. Cindy Maloney said that because her son’s eyes were tired, Eddie would constantly look up from his work and it would appear that he had poor concentration.

After three months of treatment at St. Joseph Vision Therapy, she said Eddie gets his homework done much faster and his teacher says he is no longer having a concentration problem at school.

“Everything is easier for him now than before eye therapy,” she said, adding that she is happy a solution was found that did not involve medication.

Fortenbacher said there are many children like Eddie who have problems concentrating because they never learned to use their eyes properly.

Babies are not born knowing how to use their eyes – they have to learn how to focus. And if for some reason, some children do not learn how to use their eyes properly, he said, they can be taught how, which is what vision therapy is all about.

“We work with patients that have a number of vision problems that deal with more than just being able to see,” he said.

“We test other areas of vision to see how a person takes in information and processes it.”

During his 20 years in the vision therapy field, Fortenbacher said he has seen an explosion in the number of children being labeled ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

In an effort to educate parents, Fortenbacher holds a monthly workshop called “When ADD Doesn’t Add Up.”

During a recent meeting, parents discussed the problems their children were having in school, which included problems with attention, headaches and letter reversals. Some parents said their children are very active or have lost their desire to learn because school just seems too hard.

Fortenbacher said sometimes, medication such as Ritalin is needed to help children with attention problems but many times, there is another problem that it not being addressed, such as eyesight or hearing. Sometimes, children exhibit undesirable behaviors because they are having a reaction with certain foods.

Between 1990 and 1996, there has been a 500 percent increase in the use of Ritalin.

“Are we overprescribing medicines because we see a behavioral trait?” he asked the parents. “Labels can be a disabling thing because it can slot someone in a direction or category where we’re making a lot of assumptions.”

He said many children don’t need glasses, but still have a vision problem.

“If it’s a lot of work for you to stay on task, you will have less interest,” he said.

“Kids don’t say they see double. They have behavioral problems instead.”

Some children have problems focusing.

“We can measure a child’s ability to focus,” he said. “Focusing problems are significant and they can occur in children.”

Another problem he sees is children not moving their eyes properly.

“When reading, you need to move your eyes across the page,” he said. “What if you don’t do that very well? You lose your place and get discouraged and give up.”

Some children do not process information properly once they receive it.

“These children need to be taught how to make sense of what they see,” he said.

“In vision therapy, we can change a visual system’s response to a task. All the senses have to tie together for us to be fully functioning in our society.”

That’s not to say that vision therapy can solve all problems, he said.

“There’s no panacea here,” he said. “We’re talking about helping children build a function of vision we take for granted.”

“There are other reasons for attentional drift,” he added. “Some (children) need Ritalin. Some have auditory problems. Some have food allergies.”

The St. Joseph Vision Therapy Center offers free screenings to anyone who is concerned that they may have a vision problem.