Vision and the Gifted Child

So much of our attention gets focused on the child who is not achieving, that we tend to lose sight of gifted children who are achieving but well below their potential.

There’s a beautiful book that was authored a few years ago by Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone, entitled: “Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing”. The epilogue of this marvelous volume discusses talent, music, and learning disabilities.

Dr. Livingstone’s research, as well as her personal experiences, led her to believe that reading fluency and artistic abilities were often inversely related. She arranged an appointment with a local neurologist who did a lot of work with dyslexics, and told him of her theory about faulty visual function. “Don’t be silly”, he responded. “Dyslexia is a language problem”. She was chagrined, but knew that he didn’t appreciate that there was more to vision than meets the eye.

Perhaps not coincidentally, in the same year that Livingstone published her book (2002), Linda Silverman is a Ph.D. who directs the Institute of the Study of Advanced Development, and the Gifted Development Center in Denver, Colorado, came out with her book entitled “Upside-Down Brilliance”. Silverman and Livingstone independently came to similar conclusions, about gifted, but academically challenged individuals.

Schools put a premium on learning information through the printed word, but children who are gifted visual-spatial learners often operate through imagery. That’s a fancy way of saying that some of the more creative artists, musicians, and ballplayers don’t do well with processing mounds of printed information. Silverman insightfully recognizes that “being a visual learner” doesn’t mean that your visual abilities are well-suited to the type of learning on which school places a premium.

Livingstone advocates a “lower your expectations” approach. In other words, not everyone is going to be a reader, so work instead on cultivating your child’s talents in other areas. Silverman, on the other hand, refuses to dumb down expectations.

Regarding vision therapy for gifted children or adults, here’s what she has to say:

“When visual processing issues are apparent, in either children or adults, we recommend an evaluation by a behavioral optometrist and six to nine months of vision therapy. We’ve seen enormous improvement in visual perception when these exercises are practiced faithfully at least 15 minutes a day.”

While not a behavioral optometrist, Dr. Seuss said it well in his classic little book, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut”:

“And when I keep them open
I can read with much more speed.
You have to be a speedy reader
‘cause there’s so, so much to read!
If you read with your eyes shut
you’re likely to find
that the place where you’re going
is far, far behind.”