Occupational Therapists Are a Key to Addressing the Impact of Vision Issues in Child Development

Vision is our primary information gathering system and plays a dominant role in development for children ages 0-5 years. Children with sight learn through incidental visual experiences, using their observational skills and imitating the actions of others.

For children with visual impairment, many areas of development, learning and function are affected, particularly for those with multiple impairments.

Children with visual impairment are unable to learn in the same way as those with sight, and must compensate by using listening skills, tactile approaches and multi-sensory input in place of visual experiences. This often puts them at a disadvantage in learning and in many areas of occupation.

“Through rehabilitation and other services, children with visual impairment often achieve developmental milestones similar to children who are not visually impaired, but it is typically at a later age and depends on the severity of their condition and any other comorbidities,” says Yu-Pin Hsu, EdD, OTR/L, SCLV. “That’s why it is important to assess children’s needs and develop interventions based on their developmental level, not their chronological age.”

As an essential part of the care team, occupational therapists address development of gross and fine motor skills, spatial awareness and daily activities such as feeding, dressing, personal care and engaging in play. They work with all other members of the team including low vision optometrists and ophthalmologists, physical and speech therapists, and teachers of the visually impaired and other educators. This helps to ensure that children are able to participate fully in the classroom, promotes their independence at home.

“Infants and toddlers learn about their environment through exploration and play, and reaching for toys is one of the first developmental milestones to develop in infants,” says Robin Akselrud, OTD, OTR/L, a specialist in pediatric occupational therapy. “But for children with visual impairments who cannot see the toy, we must encourage and guide their exploration of objects and the world around through the use of strategies such as introducing toys with sound and different textures, through providing hand-over-hand assistance or hand-under-hand guidance and by providing verbal cues as needed to help them become familiar with toys and to facilitate learning through play.”

Early detection of visual impairment is critical to ensure appropriate diagnosis, and to ensure that children access treatment to avoid developmental delays that may compound if left unaddressed. For example, infants with visual impairment are often unmotivated to lift their head in order to view the world around them. This lack of movement may lead to low muscle strength in the neck and back, which are precursors to sitting and crawling, which in turn are precursors for developing the strength and rotational movement needed for walking.

To prepare occupational therapists to assess and treat the unique needs of children with visual impairment, Lighthouse Guild has developed an online continuing education program in partnership with the American Occupational Therapy Association. The one and one-half hour program, entitled ‘The Impact of Visual Issues on Child Development’ provides an overview of the visual system and describes the varied impact of visual impairment on children’s achievement of developmental milestones and their function in daily activities. Approaches are presented for assessing vision and visual skills through information gathering, observation, and basic assessment of visual function. Strategies are also provided for addressing the impact of visual impairment on early motor development, cognitive and sensory processing skills, and self-care skills.

“Because occupational therapy is dedicated to serving individuals across their lifespan, our new pediatric course, “The Impact of Visual Issues on Child Development,” is a welcome addition to our low vision series. The course is designed to help occupational therapists better understand the unique needs of children experiencing visual difficulties,” says Debbie Amini, EdD, OTR/L, FAOTA, Director of Professional Development, AOTA.

The four-part course includes:

  • Introduction to Visual Impairment in Children
  • The Impact of Visual Impairment on Development, Learning and Areas of Occupation
  • Conducting a Basic Pediatric Vision Assessment
  • Strategies to Address Visual Impairment in Occupational Therapy

“Lighthouse Guild has long recognized the importance of occupational therapy as part of the comprehensive services that children and adults with vision loss require to maximize their function and independence in daily activities,” said Annemarie OHearn, Vice President Education and Training. “This program is an expansion of our ongoing partnership with AOTA to develop continuing education opportunities for occupational therapists. It provides tools and strategies for occupational therapists to develop therapeutic interventions for children of all ages with varying types of vision loss and comorbidities.”

Learn more about this course

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